American Culture

Art and Tech, part 4: All about the Benjamins…

In a culture whose value system is thoroughly infused with the spirit of capitalist-democratic-republicanism of one permutation or another, art, tech – let’s face it – every form of human endeavor – is measured only by its ability to generate revenue…

(For earlier essays in this series look herehere and here.)

And so we come to the last in this series of essays examining how the evolution of technology (and remember, I refer to technology in a broad sense) has affected art and artists. This last piece will examine two pieces of technology – one is an economic system (capitalism) and the other is really a myriad of technologies coming together to produce – an effect? a composite technology? (the world wide web) and their effects on art and artists over the last 20 or so years.

Adam Smith, philosopher of political economy (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The history of the uneasy relationship between the political system most commonly referred to as democracy (rarely practiced in a pure form, as, let’s assume, we all understand) and the economic system known as capitalism (also rarely practiced in a pure form, same understanding as above) has been played out nowhere perhaps as openly – and at the same time subtly – as in our America – the good old USA. Our country is one who has tried, with often wildly varying results, to reconcile the basic premises of these two important systems of thought.

The guy who catches the most heat in critiques of capitalism is the one pictured at right whose most important work, The Wealth of Nations, seems to argue for self-interest as a public good even as it warns against the human tendency to collude and engage in ugly practices such as price fixing which he sees as self-interest used against the public good. The most important – and misunderstood by the limited understanding of the average American – idea in Smith’s treatise, however, is his assertion (not that people are naturally unequal, though that certainly is very important because it conflicts with our notions of democracy) that wealth matters more than people

John Locke, philosopher of the social contract among lots of other stuff (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The philosopher most influential on the American ideas of democracy is John Locke. Locke’s main contributions to American democracy have to do with his ideas about the social contract (those “inalienable rights” Jefferson trumpets in the Declaration). Locke’s influence is strongly felt in American thinking in our concept of the importance of the individual, especially the individual’s rights to, as Jefferson termed them “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But even more important in American thought are Locke’s views on property – his ideas concerning supply and demand and the labor theory of value pervade American thought. What this suggests is that America is built less on political ideas than we think and more on economic theories than we believe. This has important implications for all Americans – but especially for artists.

These systems of thought, or “invisible technologies” as Postman might term them in Technopoly, affect our view of that other technology I mentioned – the World Wide Web, more commonly known as the Internet. It should seem obvious to everyone that, while we can all agree that there are many ways in which the Internet has changed/is changing our culture, that there are a couple of clear ways in which artists and their artwork have been – possibly forever- changed by the “democratization” the Internet has wrought – a democratization of access to – and, subsequently, valuation of – all information – including the “information” available from artists.

Artists have probably always held a “labor theory of value” view of their work. Both Adam Smith and John Locke were purveyors of this view and nowhere does their influence seem to have settled more firmly than in the psyches of artists of every stripe: painters, sculptors, composers, musicians, writers, poets all think of their work’s value in terms of their struggle (i.e., labor) to produce it. This makes sense in a way – the creation of artwork is an intensive and, let’s be honest, laborious process. It is also a process that requires particular – and, many still believe, though evidence seems to show otherwise, relatively rare skill sets. Therefore, both the amount of effort and specialized nature of the work that goes into an artist’s product should, most artists would argue, be the criterion by which that work is valued. That certainly seems, at the very least, logical even if disputable.

Through history, artists have found themselves in odd relationships with their culture. In pre-historic times their work served religious or shamanistic functions. As ancient civilizations developed, while religious uses continued, artists found their work called upon to serve political purposes for monarchs and provide entertainment/diversion for the ruling classes. In return for providing these religious/magical/political/entertainment products, artists received various levels of support ranging from room and board to occasional honoraria to regular salaries. As the system evolved, the support of artists became the province primarily of the nobility and church (think of this latter institution as more bureaucratic and political than religious and it will make more sense). This system, known as patronage, has survived in one form or another – and has provided a significant source of support for – artists.

Of course as is always the historical case, when one system – again, loosely, a technology – goes away, another usually appears to fill the void. (Think, for example, of how the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church stepped into the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman empire’s bureaucracy.) After the age of revolutions and the collapse of nobility (and, indeed, the church) as any sort of actual power in human lives, the rise of other forms of power structure whether political, industrial, or educational put into place other sources of support and maintenance for artists. Whether the “patrons” were wealthy capitalists, corporations or universities and colleges, there was still a form of patronage. Art’s role in society evolved, too, it must be noted, into a matter of business in some fields – publishing and music reproduction are two obvious forms – because of the entertainment value this provided to readers, listeners, viewers. This latter change – art as commerce – is, it is easy to understand, a result of technology’s developments that allowed for the reproduction and dissemination of art across wider and wider swaths of audience. But, as with royal or church patronage, there remained gatekeepers – those who adjudicated whose art and which artists should/would receive the imprimatur of “worth” – such as editors, gallery owners, A&R representatives. These persons made the decisions about whose art got the chance to become known widely through the technologies of reproduction and dissemination.

This is where the Internet as a technology changes the nature of the artist/audience relationship.

The “winners” of the rise of computer/Internet technologies – those who have made millions, even billions, of dollars providing the machinery (ah, that word “hardware”) and the programming (ah, “software”) that have created our Internet based (one might say dominated safely, I think, now) culture have promoted the World Wide Web as a boon to artists. The Internet would, we have been told, make communication with audiences easy by allowing artists to “connect directly” with viewers, readers, listeners.

Artists and audiences embraced this new paradigm readily and avidly. There is, as everyone know, a roaring exchange of words, music and images between creators and audiences on the World Wide Web.

Accompanying this new connectivity was technology that allowed artists to put – digitally – their work on the Internet. Online magazines and literary journals sprang up, followed soon after by digital publishers – and, of course, options for the writer-artist to “self-publish.” Technology allowed musicians to post their music online in digital formats and to release work without going through the gate-keeping process used by record companies. Visual artists have had in some ways the most complex status change: digital images do not have the same viewer impact that actual paint on canvas works do – but reprints, already popular with the general public, became easier. And technology appeared that allowed artists to manipulate and create work using the medium of pixels.

All this has unleashed creativity ever widening ripples.


While the creators of this “technology of connectivity” (the hardware and software that have fostered this outburst of creativity and sharing of art between artists and audiences) have made vast amounts of money, many artists have floundered in adapting to this technology – and have not only not made money (because even artists have to eat, pay mortgages, etc.) – many, indeed most, have lost money by creating art and sharing it publicly.

Why is this so? There are several reasons. We will limit ourselves to looking at four: artists as economists/business persons, artists as technologists, artists as legal experts, and, finally, artists as, for lack of a better term, artists. Looking at each of these may offer some insights into the current art vs. tech dilemma.

Artists are creative, imaginative, and lots of nice adjectives. As a group, however, they are not good at economics and business. This means that they give much thought to creating, not so much thought (or not as much as they should, perhaps) to managing, marketing, monetizing their art. The simplest economics lesson is the one many artists are learning in bitter ways: giving product away makes people less likely, not more likely, to pay for it. One may have noticed there there is a flourishing business in running seminars and consultancies on the business of art. Guess who is making money from these? That is correct – not artists. But artists can and must learn some basic economic and business skills.

Artists often have problematic relationships with technology. This can be overcome by will and education, whether through instruction or self-teaching. Many artists argue that this detracts from their time to “be an artist.” But in a culture that has been transformed as ours has by these technologies, refusing to accept and learn their rudiments is like insisting on riding a horse long after the automobile’s triumph. There comes a point when lack of knowledge becomes dangerous to oneself and others. Fellow artists, we have reached that point. Technology, particularly the technology of the Internet, is here for the foreseeable future. Understanding how it works will be essential to achieving what any artists wants most – to make a living from doing one’s art.

Artists usually do not have particularly legalistic minds. This is a good thing in most ways, a bad thing in a few. Such lack of understanding of how one’s work can/is being co-opted/used/stolen by others who then benefit from it aesthetically and economically is allowing oneself to be cheated and robbed. Knowing what is and isn’t “fair use” is essential. So is actively pressuring those who make laws to enhance and enforce laws respecting the work of artists. Whether valued according to the labor of the artist or according to market demand, one’s art has value – and one should be compensated according to that value.

Finally, the proliferation of visual art, music, and writing on the World Wide Web has created a tsunami of works for audiences to consider. Audiences are inundated with choices. Faced with such confusion, they have been drawn to that which is one of the following: a) familiar to them for whatever reasons whether sound or spurious; b) suggested by their friends; c) presented to them as popular or fashionable by mass media. So audiences make choices about art of any kind as they make other buying choices – based on word of mouth, advertising, and personal idiosyncrasy. Artists who cater to these audiences are successful. Artists who follow their own muses may – indeed likely will – find themselves crying in the wilderness. Art, like every other aspect of culture, especially American culture, is now about economic success more than about anything else. Whether this is for the good or ill of our culture it is too soon to say.

This is, however, where the relationship between art and technology has brought us at this moment. What this means for the future of art is unclear. But it may be that sometime in the future we may hear the term “post-art.” If so, that means that another of those voids I mentioned above has been opened.

What rough beast may slouch in to fill that void should be of concern to us all. Then again, perhaps, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” as Julian of Norwich admonishes us.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?



6 replies »

  1. The issue I’ve been perusing regarding artists and the internet is this: if the majority of artwork must be sold and marketed in this fashion artists are reliant upon people searching for and wanting to see – let alone purchase – art. At the same time seems that this reliance is fostered by fewer galleries being willing to take new artists into their stable, art festivals that are actually craft fairs, and even gallery/art council/business sponsored exhibits’ entry requirements. The entry fees go higher (yes, artists usually have to pay to have work considered for an exhibit or for participation in open exhibits) and submission guidelines vacillate between stricter and more lenient. One recent prospectus I received set the age limitation to two years versus the more customary three – even though some organizers have extended that age limit to five years.
    So we become ever more reliant on internet traffic and public the public seeking out art and artists while the hope of being able make a even a meager living through our work grows more dim.

  2. long runway, short flight. that is, i think the interesting diversion on smith and locke was less than vital to the overall argument. this is less an essay than a rumination. however, on to arms.

    the problem with valuing art based on the work put into it is obvious, it makes a painting by a very mediocre, but slow and diligent, street artist worth the same amount as a van gogh, and worth more than that by a fast worker like picasso or pollack. it makes a meticulously-researched dry and deadly dissertation on the numbering convention of civil war pack saddles worth more than brautigan.

    indeed, nothing is ever really valued by the labor that goes into it and luxury goods such as art, especially not. in the case of art, or writing for that matter, one reason for not valuing it on the basis of labor is that labor is typically a relatively small cost of production, no matter what we writers might wish to believe. the big costs are in distribution and marketing. (the biggest distribution cost is wastage, i.e., paintings that never find an audience and languish in the back room of the gallery forever. it’s sort of like produce–when you buy ten lemons, you’re also paying for two that spoiled and had to be thrown away. for better or worse, that comes out of the margin and leaves less to be shared with the artist.)

    in short, the idea that art or writing can or should or will be valued based on input is silly, and we can dispense with it right now.

    at any rate, i think all of us artists and writers are a bit naive. we envision a world where we’re free to create and “someone else” does the dirty work of finding clients and selling. and indeed, that’s true for a few artists. they’re plucked out of the pile by some agent or gallery owner and like orphan annie being picked up by a long black limousine are whisked off to a world of wealth and comfort. it’s the writer’s version of cinderella (or pretty woman if you prefer.)

    the truth is that art has pretty much always been about self-marketing–shakespeare, wilde, twain, etc were fierce marketers and self-promoters. read van gogh’s anguished letters to his brother theo.

    i like every other writer, sit at my desk and dream of an agent who will “get” my work and find a publisher who will “get” my work who will find an “audience” who will get my work, and all i’ll have to do is write, cash checks, and have the tuxedo dry cleaned to go to the awards ceremony. but that world does not exist, and probably never did.

    technology is a furphy, a distraction. writers and artists have always had to flog their own work, some less than others. the internet makes it easier for some and harder for some. however, the key is and ever were finding someone willing to pay for your work. and if you can’t (as I can’t,) then the problem isn’t technology or changes to the world of publishing or a poor education system which has turned out 300 million philistines. the problem is either bad work or bad luck, and technology doesnt have much to do with it.

    • Otherwise said….”at any rate, i think all of us artists and writers are a bit naive. we envision a world where we’re free to create and “someone else” does the dirty work of finding clients and selling. and indeed, that’s true for a few artists. they’re plucked out of the pile by some agent or gallery owner and like orphan annie being picked up by a long black limousine are whisked off to a world of wealth and comfort. it’s the writer’s version of cinderella (or pretty woman if you prefer.)”

      “technology is a furphy, a distraction. writers and artists have always had to flog their own work, some less than others. the internet makes it easier for some and harder for some. however, the key is and ever were finding someone willing to pay for your work. and if you can’t (as I can’t,) then the problem isn’t technology or changes to the world of publishing or a poor education system which has turned out 300 million philistines. the problem is either bad work or bad luck, and technology doesnt have much to do with it.”

      Pretty broad stroke of your ‘paintbrush’ – ALL of us….are a bit naive? When you’ve pounded the sidewalks talking to gallery owners in multiple cities, kept your work in front of the public consistently – I mean every day – for 3 years, and have your work complimented and praised by people outside your friends and family – there’s no one else doing the ‘dirty work’ and you can bet it’s not due to the work being bad. Bad location, bad economy, less interest, less support maybe but not ‘bad luck’. Can technology really be let off the hook when most people want to shop (myself included) from the comfort of their homes rather than fight crowds and waste fuel looking for just the right match to our needs/wants? If we then suppose that technology is a key factor in the art world how does one pull people in off the ‘internet boulevard’ to even look at the work? Compare that to working the traffic from the sidewalk in a large city – the work was right there in front of the people going about their daily tasks and you could change locations as the demographics changed.
      If there is a way to do that on the internet I’d like someone to present it.

  3. we have art in our home that (1) we’ve seen on the internet and purchased (2) as well as a piece we saw at a show and then used the internet to track down the artist. if we’re going to argue based on anecdote I’d say my anecdotal experience is different from yours.

    and i didnt say ALL failure was bad luck. i admitted some is bad art.

  4. Lea

    Been pondering your response and I’m a little puzzled. Not sure you understood what I was saying.

    I didn’t say artists didn’t work to sell their work, I said we’d prefer to create art rather than market. And yes, I’d argue that’s almost universally true. We ALL would like someone else to market for us.

    And I’m not sure why you object to the bad luck argument. If you’re doing good work and doing all you can to market it, then I think bad luck is just as likely an explanation of your lack of success as anything else. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of luck and want to push for a deterministic answer, I still don’t think it’s technology. It’s more likely “clutter,” an absolute deluge of creative material flooding the market these days.

    At any rate, I feel for you. I too have been working pretty hard at this for a long time and have been kicked in the teeth so many times I automatically fall to the ground and curl up into a ball whenever my email pings. 🙂 Hope your luck/work/technology/whatever is better than mine in this area.