There was an interesting piece in the Atlantic from two years ago that was about the relationship between art and commerce throughout the ages – what it means and where it is heading. The writer, William Deresiewicz, delved into the paradigm shift between the “hard-working artisan, solitary genius, credentialed professional,” and the birth of the creative entrepreneur. I could barely wrap my head around it because it’s so difficult to understand what exactly I’m trying to create while still clinging to the old ideas that art isn’t meant to be a pursuit of massive attention as much as a divine gift from beyond to be used for its own sake.
The Only Good Artist…
If there’s one thing that my tenure as an artist, entrepreneur, creative, or “dude who makes stuff”–I don’t even know anymore–has taught me, it’s that ideas mean nothing next to finished projects. However, what the craftsman believes that the artist doesn’t is that the only real work is the work that is finished. Conversely, the artist embraces the belief that their work is never truly finished. They will simply become tired, late, or broke, and be forced to do something with their project to pay the rent before the landlord comes with the police.
After reading the article, my friend, writer, and chef, Angela C. confessed that the article made her very sad, saying:
It’s basically just a different version of the gig economy. You can’t concentrate on a form or craft because you’re too busy trying to sell yourself. And you have to do everything in order to make enough money. Uber driver/Favor deliverer/Lyft driver is the same as blog writer/graphic designer/food critic.
Ouch… That struck a nerve. Is she right? Have we spent our lives honing our crafts only to be thrust into a market-foward world in which we have to be everything to everyone to make a living at anything?
In looking back and understanding how artists paid for their art and lives in days gone by, we can glimpse entire eras of production that we may have completely eroded and been replaced without our noticing. Are you a musician? Well, you can’t wait on a label to notice you and make all your dreams come true like in our favorite movies. Are you a painter? Well, you can’t wait to be contacted by the richest man in town who wants to patron you with a place to live and offer credibility as you craft your masterwork in seclusion and glory to the province. Those paths are dead and gone, like mummification as an artisanal pursuit.
Luckily, whatever art you practice you can still be like Joyce and Van Gogh as the Atlantic article says, and do “the most prestigious thing and starve.” This “also often meant sponging, extracting gifts or ‘loans’ from family or friends that amounted to a kind of sacerdotal tax, equivalent to the tithes exacted by priests or alms relied upon by monks.” That’s largely what my life as an artist has consisted of since deciding to forgo traditional, more respectable routes of earning income.
Of course, I can say that I left corporate life behind because it stifled my creativity and stilted me as an artist. There is some truth to that, but the major reason has more to do with me being unable to stand being cooped up in a box somewhere and trading my lifeforce for the right to exist in relative comfort while making someone else rich. Is it the artist as entrepreneur or the artisan as selfish? Expressing myself artistically provides me with a form of comfort at least in a spiritual capacity. Sharing my story and dissolving the walls of reality away on stage with my sweat constitute my “pursuit of happiness.” Still, according to the government that presides over me, the market to which it is beholden, and the culture it cultivates, the most important thing I can do is the activity that generates the most money. This paradigm is virtually immutable.
In a way, we are all entrepreneurs now. We’re all contract employees, interns, independent artists, brands unto ourselves, and founts of intellectual property to be bought and sold as social media for free. As unions fade away, corporations no longer protect and feed us as we grind away for 50 years. The engineering has gotten so detailed, that we are all little more than interchangeable parts. We’ve already watched pensions dry up and Airbnb take over our neighborhoods. We’ve already taken on second jobs under contract with no benefits as taxi drivers, delivery people, and artists for hire to supplement our full time incomes. We’re all still inundated by our quest for more. As an artist in this bold new era, to gain any chance of being paid for your work, you have to be a corporation and the seed of a community all yourself. You have to marry art and business and become the Artrepreneur. This means being as good at the art of marketing as you are at your chosen artistic pursuit, and if you aren’t independently wealthy you need to be terribly charming, maniacally organized, obsessively motivated, all powered by energies from beyond the mortal plane to do art so well that you can eat and live well doing nothing else. Not only is this not an easy life, It might not even be a healthy one.
The Backfiring of the Cannon
Despite my lamenting of bygone eras and general confusion over the direction we’re heading as artists/creators in more market driven culture, I still don’t know if this is truly worse than the old systems. The “democratization of taste” is something I longed for growing up. At the time, I couldn’t understand why I had to study the “classics.” I didn’t get Shakespeare, didn’t like Dickens, and didn’t care about Orwell. I didn’t care about classical composers, was not into non-comic book style art, and cared little for learning about eras in which people who looked like me were too busy surviving the indignities of having their culture and autonomy stripped away to carve out a good living as artists or otherwise. I was bitter, upset that my education remained so focus on the thoughts, works, lives, and times of old white men, although I couldn’t articulate that at the time. Even when authors were making bold points that resonated with me like in Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, or Brave New World, there was still a macro lesson that “important” books don’t talk about you so you are not important. We just go through life with that.
With the ivory towers of old gatekeepers being toppled and broken, replaced by the open fields of the Internet, our society is granted more opportunities to create and connect in ways not previously known to the world at large. Regardless of the politics involved, it is still an amazing feat that a queer, Black film like Moonlight could win best picture at the Oscars while producers of internet-based shows like Issa Rae can get called to the majors to work with HBO. Though the culture may be fractured and broad, we can still offer so much of ourselves to a wider world despite the possibility that we may never be able to make a living from it. We’re still here doing the work and pushing it out to be seen. It’s beautiful to see works in afrofuturism (Lilith’s Brood, Yohance), women in comedy (Broad City), and blockbuster films like Spider-Man: Homecoming featuring a very carefully chosen cast of ethnically diverse teenagers. If we’re voting with our dollars, and the market is supreme, then the remaining gatekeepers have to get out of the way of our collective desire to see new people that look like us on our screens, otherwise we’ll continue to go to the internet to find stories and creators that do.
Uncommitted Artist or Master Artrepreneur
On the flipside, we can use this power to dumb ourselves down to formulas that we feel will offer the quickest and largest return on investment with the least amount of work. This is the opposite of mastery. When my 18 year old brother sent a new rap verse he’d written, I asked why he’d rhymed the same word twice on two lines. His response was “well Future made 9 million of rhyming ‘yeah’ with ‘yeah’ so who cares if I do it.” Is he wrong? If we’re being honest, perhaps mastering art was never the best use of our human capacity. Maybe the creation of a sprawling masterwork is a bastardization of what we evolved to do. What if the most human things are the easiest ones we spend the least amount of time on before moving onto something else we’re equally interested in. What if man was never meant to master anything?
In a world devoid of masters, in which anybody can and SHOULD create, we find ourself with a glut of the same type of work in which everyone hopes that financial gain won’t be far behind. It’s human nature. Do what worked in the past–at least give yourself a fighting chance at success in the future. We’re told to look at the market, make what it wants (even if you dislike it) and collect the money to pay the bills. If it works, maybe one day you’ll be able to make what you really want to make – be a “real” artist. But if it works, why would you bother doing something different? If you can mumble your way to rap success, why would you ever say anything more? Is this the plight of the artrepreneur? Is this all we are now regardless of talent level? Just fellow contractors trying to make a little money at our other day job? Is this what artists are now?