The Death of the Artist

William Deresiewicz’s new book, The Death of the Artist, is not a who-done-it. But it moves through a slate of factors that conspired in the alleged death, as if they were characters. And there are a lot of them.

This book came to our attention courtesy of the City Club of Cleveland, which presented the author in conversation with University of Michigan professor Rebekah Modrak, whose interest in branding, consumer culture and the commodification of creativity made her an interesting partner in the dialog. I heard their City Club conversation when it was broadcast on Cleveland’s NPR affiliate, WCPN. So props to both of them.

Modrak becomes a significant speaker toward the end of the book, at one point quoted as saying, “I’ve been on reviews where the faculty member will say, ‘What do you care about?’ and the student will just start crying.” This commentary is a tiny window on the world of motivations and expectations that beset people doing what they think is necessary to make their career in the arts (in that case, pursuing an art degree).

Is The Artist dead? Of course not. But is the idea of making a living as an artist on life support? If you know any artists at all, of course you know the answer is yes. Perhaps that sounds odd to the average Clevelander, who sees that the Arts—especially galleries—have proliferated in neighborhoods, bringing with them revitalizing energy, people and money. At least before COVID 19 struck.

Sure, Cleveland and the rest of the US have plenty of artists. But for the overwhelming majority of them, the money that supports their lives comes from something other than selling art. Some of them are on faculties of MFA and BFA programs, and they make their living not by selling art, but by teaching. They bestow upon young artists their own credentials, which many of those young artists hope will gain them entry into academic positions of their own. Considering the state of higher education, that could become a rickety platform. And regardless, it is not selling art.

Some others support their artistic careers by bartending, or construction, or driving for Uber. Almost no one can make a living that way. And those that do, as conversations in Deresiewicz’s book attest, are just scraping by.

The book’s lengthy subtitle—How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the age of Billionaires and Big Tech—might make you think it’s all about the Internet. The Internet plays a significant role, of course, especially as it pulled revenue from record and CD sales out of the music industry, and made everyone think that content—from prose to videos—is free.

Deresiewicz explores the internet as a double-edged sword, which on the one hand makes it easy for the artist to get creative content into other people’s hands, but on the other, creates that expectation–that all of it should be free. On the one hand, artists are empowered by the likes of Go Fund Me to raise money for their projects; on the other, it is the artist and their network that raise the money, and platforms like Go Fund Me take their cut, which makes the tech entrepreneur rich, and leaves the artist struggling. On the one hand, anyone can launch a Go Fund Me page; on the other, the successful ones almost always happen for artists who are already connected to people who have money to give them. On the one hand, you can do it all yourself; on the other, that becomes a second job.

Some of the same factors that ate up Arts sections of newspapers and magazines, and eventually whole publications (which ultimately led to the creation of CAN Journal) also had their impact on the artists themselves. But the internet is far from the only factor, as Deresiewicz makes clear. The artist has been dying much longer than that.

Among the factors building context in the book are the distinction that evolved over the centuries between art and craft; the evolution of art into a kind of religion, with genius high priests; The evolution of the MFA and other credentialing programs that fuel university art departments; and the expectations of the various entities–from universities and foundations, to the soul-less, capitalist monster that is the internet–that have become integral to the artist’s economy.

The book feels a bit like talking to artists about their lives, sprawling and flowing from subject to subject, and that is because the author did his research by doing exactly that. An extended family of subjects and factors find their way into the story. For example, there’s the fact that White artists in search of cheap rent often move into poor neighborhoods inhabited by Black and Brown people. And then the revitalization process that so often follows artists eventually displaces them, too. Here Deresiewicz shows a great ability to distill a lot of information into a punchy phrase:  “Our major housing program for artists in this country is the displacement of Black people,” he writes. Lines like that—even as they deliver sobering, awful information, make the book a pleasure to read.

Where does it all end? The real substance of the book comes at the end, with an exploration of Big-Picture ideas, about the evolution of the role of art in the world, and what that means for artists. And a lot of that does have to do with the impact of the internet, especially as it arrived after the post World War II culture boom, with the proliferation of galleries, museums, orchestras, dance companies, and the whole economy of interests that began supporting them—from newspaper critics to foundations, to the NEA and local public support streams. All those factors for a while made the career of the artist a stable one, even if it was somewhat institutionalized by universities and other credentialing, validating, taste-making institutions. Then along came the internet, with the raw exposure—direct and unfiltered connection from audience to artist—that it provided. Artists who once bucked the market and were shielded from it then became obliged to it.

What to do? The title of the last chapter says, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” Deresiewicz introduces Lisa Soksolne’s W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) group, with its efforts to establish pay scales for things like setting up exhibits and giving artist talks, which artists typically are expected to do for free. Indeed he touches on multiple organized efforts to help artist get paid fairly, and get paid without depending on middlemen. Ultimately, he says, artists can build their own economy, circulating money within their communities. And with that could come freedom from those forces that create obligation and stifle creativity.

If you are an artist, or if you run an arts organization, or if you are a patron who truly cares about the scene, read this book. It will be like talking to your friends.

The Death of the Artist
How creators are struggling to survive in the age of Billionaires and Big Tech
By William Deresiewicz
ISBN: 9781250125514
368 pages

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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