I don’t know how I came across this book but as soon as I noticed it, I downloaded the audio version on Hoopla and started listening. I then checked out a hard copy of the book from the library. It’s changed my understanding of my work and situation within the context of our current culture.
You should read it.
It’s about Art and Money. It’s beautifully organized and written, thorough and relentless. Reading it, for me, was largely torture in an oddly comforting sort of way because I met so many variations on my personal experience. Torture with plenty of enlightening glints.
It’s also about how Big Tech, the internet, and the relatively new Creative Economy have driven revenue for artists across disciplines to almost zero while dramatically increasing costs. It’s also about how the perceived value of artists and their creative work has changed. Yes, it's always been difficult to earn a living as an artist but now, it's become ridiculous.
As I moved through the book, I wondered what possible conclusion, suggestion, or solution might be offered for the complex set of problems unveiled. Go socialist? Certainly, Deresiewicz’s conclusion is that an entire reworking of the current economic structure is in order. That’s painfully obvious. He also seriously recommends some sort of regulation of the major tech platforms which reminds me of William McDonough’s statement that “regulation is a signal of design failure.” But there was never a design in place by Big Tech, only the intention and pursuit of profit.
Determining the problems and possible ways to address the increasingly dire socio-economic status faced by artists was not the only purpose of the book. In fact, I was both surprised by and sincerely grateful for Deresiewicz’s parting message that is directed squarely at artists. But I won’t spoil it for you. It’s worth reading everything that leads up to that almost final point whether or not you’re an artist.
I did find it remarkable that, after five years working on this book, and interviews with about 150 artists, the best definition of an artist that Deresiewicz seems to have arrived at is that an artist is basically, Born This Way.
That's fair but I like Beth Pickens' definition. She’s a coach for artists and here’s what she said:
“My working definition in my professional practice is that artists are people who are profoundly, deeply compelled to be in their creative practice—everything that that is. Nameable and unnameable. Within disciplines we understand and beyond them. And, for an artist, what makes an artist different than me and the rest of the world is that, if an artist stops making their creative work, if they check out of that for too long, their life quality really deteriorates. That, for an artist, a creative practice is a primary, central way that they take care of themselves and understand the world and process their life. Whereas, like I said, for me, and people who truly are not artists, creative exploration is great for everybody. That’s a beneficial thing for everyone. I benefit from it. I don’t have that profound, deep need. If I stop doing a creative project, my life quality doesn’t deteriorate.”
Another thing that struck me as I listened to post-publication interviews with Deresiewicz, is what little understanding most people have about what an artist actually spends time on, how artists earn a living, and what their work consists of. After reading the book, most interviewers seemed baffled at best by artists’ lives and filled with pity for them at worst. One interviewer who I found particularly irksome, kept using the word, sad. How sad. What sad lives. I am still rolling my eyes at this remark. It reflects a certain ignorance and a seriously restricted set of values about what is important in life. Really, it reflects a lack of education and that's a cultural problem.
Referring to the growth of the creative economy, Deresiewicz says, “I think that it’s cheapened people’s understanding of what it means to be an artist, what it takes to be an artist, how hard it is to be an artist, and that in turn is one of the things that’s helped devalue our sense of what artists are owed, not just in terms of respect, but in terms of payment.”
At this point, I really want to share an example of what artists receive from music streaming platforms but I can't get the math to work out so I'll save it except to say that according to Deresiewicz's figures, one million streams on YouTube (the most popular choice of streaming music with the most alarmingly low percentage paid to artists) nets an artist approximately $700.00. I can't get the math to work out because I just received $102 for YouTube streaming. Thrilling and I'm grateful and how lovely to think of all the people who listened to my songs but, you know, in terms of cost of living? Pathetic. As in miserably inadequate. And Google is skipping all the way to the bank. I should qualify this with the fact that 15 years ago, pre-YouTube and all the rest of the social media, with way less performance activity, I put a down payment on a house with earnings from the same song.
Remember, this book was written over the five years before the pandemic hit. Once COVID 19 was in the air, Broadway went dark, museums and galleries were shuttered, orchestras and opera houses, clubs and concert halls went silent, gigs, live teaching, and art markets were cancelled along with all the book tours for all of the authors with new releases. Artists have been hit hard and the major tech platforms have exploded in terms of profit and market power.
So, I’d say that this book brings us right up to about 14 months ago. It’s good to have a clear picture of where we stood on the precipice. The people who understand themselves as artists are not going to go away. But the ways by which we keep ourselves alive probably has to change. That’s one reason I’ve been considering a Patreon page.
I have a lot more to say about this book and the issues it raises, but this isn't a book review and that's enough for one post. (I've had to cut and toss an awful lot of tangents here.) However, I really want you to read this book. It describes a crisis that affects us all.
There's that old adage that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of two characters; one for danger, the other, opportunity. The opportunities embedded in this crisis require serious creative wayfinding.
I'm going to look at it that way.
Watch an interview with Deresiewicz about the book here.
©2021 Suzanne McDermott