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Is The Artist Dead?

By Yehudit Mam, January 7, 2015

This month on The Atlantic magazine, in an article entitled “The Death Of The Artist and The Birth of The Creative Entrepreneur”, William Deresiewicz laments the demise of artists as we know them. Iconoclastic loners with a streak of genius, creating art by themselves, misunderstood or lauded by the rest of society, are gone.

Deresiewicz reminds us that the artist as individual genius did not really exist until the 19th century. Before then, artists were considered artisans who worked for patrons, were members of guilds, or were part of mentoring workshops. After World War II, with the institutionalization of art, artists became professionals, like doctors or lawyers. Now, in the age of the internet, artists have become creative entrepreneurs, who dabble in a little bit of everything and who bypass the traditional gatekeepers (art galleries, publishers, film studios, recording companies) by funding, producing and selling their own projects.

For Deresiewicz, this is cause for concern. In the past, artists formed coteries, which in time became artistic movements. Today, artists belong to social networks. He rightly points out that “a contact is not the same as a collaborator”. He fears that the democratization of production and distribution via online networks may create art, downgraded to craft, that aims to entertain and to be consumed as a commodity rather than to “provide a vessel for our inner life”.

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Most people still think of artists as unconventional outliers, rather than self-made businesspeople. However, in contrast to multi-million dollar celebrity artists like Jeff Koons (who are just as guilty of commodifying art), most working artists struggle to make a living. Why shouldn’t they take matters into their own hands now that they have the tools?

Artists have never lived in a vacuum. They have always depended on connections, gatekeepers, prizes, grants and patrons. Today, instead of begging at the doors of the palace or the art gallery, artists can use online platforms like Kickstarter, which, in the words of CEO Yancy Strickler, allow for “circumstances [that] are far better for creators and fans than what existed before: a world where creativity was limited by access, geography, and the conservatism of big entertainment corporations”.

Deresiewicz believes that with the new arrangement “artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say”. However, people on Kickstarter don’t fund projects expecting returns from commercial success. They don’t expect a slice of the pie. They do it to support the artist, or because they believe the project should exist. Their funding comes with no strings attached, which gives artists the freedom to take risks.

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Deresiewicz worries that the democratic cheerleading of social networks creates a “universal grade inflation”, and that the lack of gatekeepers may spell doom for artistic quality. I agree with some of his concerns. The business of liking is too superficial, and artists may settle for popularity instead of quality (it has been known to happen: just look at Salvador Dalí). But it is also true that real talent tends to rise to the top. Only now it won’t just be the lucky few with connections. Now, the gatekeepers may find rare talents first discovered by these open networks.

Deresiewicz writes that “Coleridge, for Wordsworth, was not a contact; he was a partner, a comrade, a second self”. Artists can now find these partners and comrades at the touch of a key. They can meet and collaborate. They can be part of a meaningful community, and improve their art, and their lot.

Many highly talented artists deserve more access, a fairer share of exposure: a larger world to play in. I am convinced that online communities that help artists to be their most powerful selves can exist. Artists can become better and more successful if they get to know each other, if they champion and collaborate with one another. These relationships can inspire collegiality, a drive for improvement, fruitful collaborations, and in time perhaps even spark new artistic movements.

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Yehudit Mam is a Co-founder of dada.nyc.

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