I recently came across an article the LA Review of Books on the book The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz.
Obviously, this sounded like a book I wanted to learn more about.
According to the reviewer, Robert Diab, Deresiewicz feels that the promise of the Long Tail espoused by Chris Anderson hasn’t emerged. He suggests that the broad ability to create has resulted a “..pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” The only people Deresiewicz feels have consistently benefited are big tech companies who have an interest in having people create content and then allowing other people to pirate that content.
This runs contrary to the early optimism of figures like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who saw a bright future for less popular artists….Rather than a graph showing a sharp curve with most sales going to the top 100 or so artists, the net would lead to a graph with sales dispersed more gradually over millions of artists — leading to a long tail. But as Deresiewicz makes clear, this hasn’t happened. The net didn’t feed a long tail of content consumption; it just made the head of the curve a lot taller. In the 1980s, 80 percent of music album revenue went to the top 20 percent of content. Now it goes to the top one percent.
Deresiewicz conducted interviews with about 120 artists and found this to be the case across most disciplines. A lot of people were making very little. Others were doing moderately well, but weren’t able to really rise above a certain income cap. He also feels that artists are more vulnerable to market forces and less able to take the time to cultivate their ability. Unless Diab is misrepresenting Deresiewicz, I found myself disagreeing with some of his assumptions and conclusions.
According to Deresiewicz, the history of artists has moved from an apprentice to master system supported by patronage to the artist as a solitary genius and then to the post World War II model where “institutions — museums, theaters, orchestras, and universities — gave the creator a safe and steady perch.”
Deresiewicz feels that the concept of the artist as an entrepreneur responsible for managing all details for themselves has emerged in tandem with shift to institutions depending on temporary workers, adjunct instructors, general downsizing, and has not been beneficial.
But conditions today favor the amateur. They favor “speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability.” Artists no longer have the time nor the space to “cultivate an inner stillness or focus”; no time for the “slow build.” Creators need to cater to the market’s demand for constant and immediate engagement, for “flexibility, versatility, and extroversion.” As a result, “irony, complexity, and subtlety are out; the game is won by the brief, the bright, the loud, and the easily grasped.”
Deresiewicz shies away from putting it starkly, but the lesson is clear: a career on the older professional model — a gradual build to a moderate critical success — is only viable at this point for those who can support themselves for the long haul.
Again noting I have not read the book, the quibble I had with Deresiewicz is that throughout the range of history he mentions, it has always been the case that only those with either an independent source of wealth or family/friends network of support has been able to have an artistic career. You needed that to gain an apprenticeship during Da Vinci’s time and an internship any time in the last 25 years or more. Now granted, a much larger proportion of the population was supporting themselves as artisans during Da Vinci’s time than now, but the folks at the top of the social structure were also making money from the work of those at the bottom.
I don’t doubt his statistics about 80% of revenue today going to 1% of content and the belief that an artistic career is becoming more tenuous and less remunerative. I just don’t know that what is required to carve out freedom to mature in ones artistic practice has worsened precipitously overall. It has always been weighted against those without access to connections and comparable resources.