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…
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.
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.
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?