Like most artists I’ve met, I’m kind-of-secretly obsessed with how other artists make their lives work (financially, structurally). So I was pretty interested to read this article, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur, from earlier this year in the Atlantic. Despite the scare-tactic headline (“What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?”), the author, William Deresiewicz, has an interesting thesis, that the position artists have in society has changed over time, and there’s a change underway again right now in how artists think of themselves. And that all of these self-identifications relate directly to how we get paid (or don’t).
He starts far in the past, when artists were considered craftspeople, and depended for their livelihood on powerful (and fickle) patrons. Shakespeare would have considered himself an artisan, just like the Brooklyn beef jerky-makers of today. Deresiewicz: “Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition.” I’d add skill—how skillfully had the artists absorbed the lessons of his (and let’s face it, it was usually his) master.
Then, starting during the Enlightenment, you had the invention of the Capital-A-Artist. “The artisan became the genius: solitary, like a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with the unseen, his consciousness bulging into the future.” This is the Ivory Tower-dweller we know so well. I love Deresiewicz’s comparison of the Artist to priests, who were apart from the world, and also had to be supported in some way, by patrons (who were now relatively less powerful), family, or “tithes” in the form of loans and help from friends and family.
In this model, the Artist is at the top of the heap socially. He (let’s face it, it’s usually “he”) is the strange creature who dwells among us, touching all with his magic. But that dictates that the Artist should have no truck with commerce, and that he should be protected from all that by a coterie of professionals, agents, publishers, sycophants. This is what I came up thinking was the ideal, the goal. I think most of us still idealize this model, whether we intend to or not. It feels like it’s the freest way to be in the world. You get to do whatever you want artistically, and fans will rave.
But in fact, it’s disempowering, because it dictates that the only way to enter that privileged class (without starving) is to be “discovered” by someone else—a critic, a journalist, a gallerist.
That’s just not sustainable. No one wants literally to be a starving artist. Continue reading