Networks and Resources Have Always Mattered

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.

One Creativity To Guide Them All!

H/t which linked to an article on recent study which found artistic creativity and scientific creativity emerge from a similar source. (my emphasis)

“The big change for education systems would be moving away from a rather fragmented and haphazard approach to teaching creativity, to a much more holistic and integrated approach,” Prof Cropley says.


“Until this research, we didn’t know whether creativity in STEM was the same as creativity in anything, or if there was something unique about creativity in STEM. If creativity was different in STEM – that is, it involved special attitudes or abilities – then we’d need to teach STEM students differently to develop their creativity.

“As it turns out, creativity is general in nature – it is essentially a multi-faceted competency that involves similar attitudes, disposition, skills and knowledge, all transferrable from one situation to another.

“So, whether you’re in art, maths or engineering, you’ll share an openness to new ideas, divergent thinking, and a sense of flexibility.

Reading the text of the study, the researchers note that there is more exploration necessary in this area. For one thing, the study didn’t look at the role of age and gender in creativity. They also encourage deeper exploration of micro-domains of different fields:

Future studies therefore should investigate more explicitly possible differences between domains and micro-domains driven by specific environmental or contextual factors unique to those areas of activity. In simple terms, do engineers, for example, learn to think like engineers, in contrast to scientists or mathematicians? Does this then influence how these domains see creativity in products?

The last paragraph of the study summarizes the holistic and integrated approach the education system should employ as well as providing a little insight into how different fields value creativity:

People who are open, flexible and adept at thinking divergently are best placed to be creative, and education systems at all levels should foster those qualities. Conversely, while all areas of endeavor recognize creativity in outcomes (products) as inseparable from originality and relevance/effectiveness, there are discipline specific differences in exactly how these qualities are valued. It is no surprise that engineers have a more functional (see Cropley & Cropley, 2005) view of product creativity – valuing effectiveness and feasibility in particular – whereas artists place greater emphasis on originality. Creativity in people is broadly domain general, but creativity in products is shaped by the needs, standards and cultures of the disciplines that produce those creative outcomes.

Dance Cyberman, Dance

There was a minor uproar recently in the UK over an ad campaign featuring a picture of a ballerina with text suggesting that her next job could be cyber. The implication a lot of people saw in this was that the arts aren’t a viable career path.

And I recall there was a similar ad campaign in the US in the last 4-5 years, but I can’t remember what it was. If anyone recalls, please refresh our memories. I remember President Obama made an ill-advised comment, but I feel like there was an ad as well.

The UK government decided to scrap the ad campaign after criticism from many quarters.

Charlotte Bence, from the Equity trade union, said: “Fatima doesn’t need to retrain – what Fatima needs is adequate state support as a freelance artist, support that so far she has been lacking. Freelance workers deserve better than patronising adverts telling them to go and work elsewhere.”

Earlier the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, denied encouraging workers in the struggling arts industry to retrain. He insisted he was talking generally about the need for some workers to “adapt”, and suggested there would be “fresh and new opportunities” available for people who could not do their old jobs.

According to Arts Council England, the arts and culture industry contributes more than £10bn a year to the UK economy.

The government’s messaging aimed at those working in the arts sector has been heavily criticised in recent weeks. After Sunak’s winter economy plan was released with a focus on “viable” jobs, many in the arts expressed anger at the government appearing to suggest their roles were “luxurious hobbies” that could be given up for other work.

There was a parody of the government ad that came across my Twitter feed today that perfectly reversed the original piece. It featured a Cyberman, a villain from the Dr. Who series. Instead of a dancer getting work in cyber, a cyber’s next job will be in dance.

While, that raises the spectre of robots replacing dancers, if you have ever seen a cyberman move you wouldn’t be terribly concerned at this juncture.

Meanwhile, Next Door In Austria

The title of today’s post references the fact yesterday’s post was about cultural funding in Germany. I hadn’t planned it this way, but I wanted to draw attention to the lengths various venues in Austria went to this summer in order to perform in front of live audiences.

According to a piece on Vox, the Salzburg Festival in Vienna went ahead with their centiennial anniversary festival with audiences subject to the following conditions:

Among the rules: Audience members were asked to wear masks and social distance at one meter. Seating capacities were reduced, and every second seat in every concert hall was locked so people couldn’t get around the restrictions. There were no intermissions at performances, or refreshments available.

Simply buying a ticket meant agreeing to engage in contact tracing, if it came to that: Tickets were personalized with names, and audience members had to show an ID when they entered any venue. ..

In the end, the festival attracted more than 76,000 visitors — a little more than a quarter of last year’s — from 39 countries during August. According to the festival’s final report on the event, “not a single positive case has been reported to the authorities.” And of the 3,600 coronavirus tests carried out on the 1,400 people involved in festival preparation, just one came back positive in early July.

What was more interesting to me was the process the Vienna State Opera used to determine the testing schedule for their employees. Encouraged by the success of the Salzburg Festival, they planned to reopen last month and implemented a system of color-coded lanyards to indicate which employees were most at risk for exposure to the Covid virus.

Singers and people working directly with the singers are part of the red group and are tested every week (since they can’t always wear masks or keep distance onstage). Administrators are part of the orange group and are tested every four weeks. The yellow and white groups — people who don’t have close contact with artists, such as delivery people — are only tested if there’s a known exposure. And everyone wears colored lanyards to denote their risk, while groups are instructed to stay apart.

Read the whole article because there are interviews with individual artists about how they are impacted. The tl;dnr version is – artists are risking their health for even less pay than before

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