The Great Unread: On William Deresiewicz’s “The Death of the Artist”
By Robert DiabOctober 13, 2020
The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz
The artists tell another tale. Yes, you can produce and post your work more easily, but so can everyone else. Every year, every major venue — SoundCloud, Kindle Store, Sundance — is inundated with thousands if not millions of songs, books, and films, but most sink like a stone. Of the 6,000,000 books in the US Kindle Store, the “overwhelming majority” of which are self-published, “68 percent sell fewer than two copies a month.” Only about 2,000 US Kindle Store authors earn more than $25,000 per year. Spotify features roughly 2,000,000 artists worldwide, but less than four percent of them garner 95 percent of the streams. The pie has been “pulverized into a million tiny crumbs.” We may now have “universal access” to the audience, but “at the price of universal impoverishment.”
Deresiewicz is a literary critic and author of a provocative earlier book on higher education in the United States, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He made his first foray into the debate about the plight of artists in The Atlantic in 2015, but declined at the time to endorse either of the two narratives set out above. In that essay, he framed the debate itself as symptomatic of a deeper shift on the artistic horizon. Creators are becoming unmoored from the institutions that have long made their careers possible, he argued, as publishers, labels, studios, and colleges are now “contracting or disintegrating.” Left to fend for themselves in the marketplace, artists have been forced to practice “creative entrepreneurship,” with less time to spend building an oeuvre or perfecting their technique, and more time to be spent on networking and self-promoting. User reviews and recommendation engines matter more to them than critical opinion. Their work tends to be tamer, safer, more “formulaic” — “more like entertainment, less like art.” More broadly, this new breed of artist is compelled to feel good about all the internet makes possible, and to ignore the fact that few have managed to capitalize on it. In 2015, the future under the new paradigm was not encouraging. But it seemed too soon to pass judgment.
Having gathered copious evidence for the book, Deresiewicz now stands firmly against the model of the creative entrepreneur. Based on some 140 phone interviews with creators across a number of fields, and ample studies and reports, the book urges us to dismiss the Silicon Valley narrative as pure “propaganda.” It is a persuasive and thoroughly engaging read. Deresiewicz is not a pioneer in this terrain — Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy cover much of the same ground. But Deresiewicz takes a closer look at artists’ lives and careers, presenting a bleak composite picture that anyone with creative aspirations must confront. All but the most popular creators, he makes clear, face new and daunting obstacles, pointing to a future in which more artists will do more of their work as part-time amateurs. Final chapters try to brighten the picture somewhat with encouraging words about organizing and advocating for IP reform. But the book leaves unclear the answer to a larger question: is the aspiration to become a full-time writer, filmmaker, or musician — no matter how earnestly held — now essentially obsolete?
It has always been hard to make a living in the arts; what is new, Deresiewicz contends, is that even moderately successful artists — who publish, show, or perform frequently — often struggle to lead a middle-class life. Revenue for most creators is falling: the Authors Guild, for example, reported a drop in the writing income of American authors from 2009 to 2015 by an average of 30 percent. When distribution moved online, the middle of the artistic earning spectrum collapsed. This runs contrary to the early optimism of figures like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who saw a bright future for less popular artists. Free of the spatial constraints of brick and mortar retail, selling books and music online would lead to a flatter distribution curve. Rather than a graph showing a sharp curve with most sales going to the top 100 or so artists, the net would lead to a graph with sales dispersed more gradually over millions of artists — leading to a long tail. But as Deresiewicz makes clear, this hasn’t happened. The net didn’t feed a long tail of content consumption; it just made the head of the curve a lot taller. In the 1980s, 80 percent of music album revenue went to the top 20 percent of content. Now it goes to the top one percent. Deresiewicz reveals a similar pattern across the arts: many of the people he interviewed earned from $20,000 to $30,000 a year, “if not less.” The more successful earned from $40,000 to $70,000, “but not more.”
Artists have lost income because content has been “demonetized.” Putting so much music, text, and video online has rendered much of it worthless, due to piracy or sheer, superfluous abundance. Publishers, labels, and studios all face falling revenues, resulting in ever smaller advances and marketing budgets. Television, having resisted demonetization, is the one bright exception to the trend. Netflix, HBO, and other platforms support a thriving culture of middle-class creators — standing out, for Deresiewicz, as the exception that proves the rule.
Chapters on rent, space, and time show how much harder it is to sustain a full-time living as an artist, alone or in close proximity to others. Median rent in the United States is up about 42 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 2000. Not a single person Deresiewicz spoke with was “living decently in a market-rate apartment in a major city on their earnings as an artist.” Artists can no longer afford “to live where artists live.” Nor can many get by without support from parents or partners. “The only way the current model works,” the author was often told, “is if you are young, healthy and childless.” Many of the profiles in the book portray artists living in extreme frugality, often in cramped quarters, in smaller cities or towns, compelled to spend much of their time on menial day jobs and side hustles. Not surprisingly, as one observed, “most people burn out after ten years.”
Deresiewicz devotes chapters to the situation in each of the arts, with the common theme being the takeover of winner-take-all economics. Musicians, for their part, never recovered from digitization. With file sharing having taught a generation to expect music for free, first musicians and then labels surrendered to streaming services — fearing no revenue at all. Yet streaming fees, now the main source of income in music, are tiny — on Spotify, fractions of a penny per stream; on YouTube, between $700 and $6,000 per million views, a number that few artists reach. “Nowhere is the long tail thinner or the fat head fatter than in music.” Ninety percent of subscription fees go to the “megastars in the head.” The top 0.1 percent of artists take 50 percent of album sales, with “similar numbers for downloads and streaming.” Musicians are left “scrambling” to find other means to make a living. Live performances support some, but in 2017, 60 percent of that income went to the top one percent.
The writing scene is equally grim. With 39 percent fewer books sold in US stores between 2007 and 2017, and fewer books reviewed in prominent venues, publishers have lost control over marketing. Mid-list and early career authors receive far less support. Now that 67 percent of books in the United States are sold online — with Amazon alone scooping up 40 percent of print books and 80 percent of ebooks — authors are at the mercy of mysterious algorithms for discovery and promotion. Flying solo, once the great authorial hope, has turned out to be a dead end. Since 2008, Deresiewicz notes, 7,000,000 books have been self-published in the United States. “All but a tiny fraction reach essentially no readers and earn essentially no money.” Economic inequality in the visual arts is even more extreme. Only 10 percent of BFA, MFA, or PhD arts grads in the United States earn a “primary living” in the field. In 2018, “just twenty individuals accounted for 64 percent of total sales by living artists.”
Where, then, are we headed? In one of the book’s most illuminating chapters, Deresiewicz draws on the work of cultural historians Larry Shiner (The Invention of Art: A Cultural History) and Howard Singerman (Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University), among others, to place the current upheavals in artistic creation within a longer history — one showing how models of production tend to have short shelf lives, and why creators of the near future may have more in common with their more commercially driven, artisanal ancestors of the past.
In the early modern age, da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Bach were just that: artisans or craftspeople who apprenticed to learn traditional methods and strove, with the support of a patron, to become masters. They worked primarily for a commercial purpose and didn’t quibble over the distinction between art and craft.
Citing Raymond Williams, Deresiewicz pinpoints the birth of our present conception of art in the second half of the 18th century, the age of Romanticism and Revolution, when the phrase “fine arts” emerged. Rather than imitating tradition, artists now sought to express an inner truth, reflecting a wider embrace of individuality, rebellion, and youth — a trend that Deresiewicz connects to the rise of democracy and self-government. In the 19th century, the cultured bourgeois would come to revere the artist as a solitary, expressive genius, a bohemian prophet and visionary, culminating in the esoteric modernism of Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinsky. By this point, works of art gained in monetary value, but artists often sought to cultivate an air of independence from the market.
The artist as genius was displaced not by the emerging entrepreneurial model, but by the artist as professional, a model born in the culture boom that followed World War II. A host of new institutions — museums, theaters, orchestras, and universities — gave the creator a safe and steady perch. No longer a wandering bohemian seeking inspiration, the artist was now a credentialed professional striving, over many years, books, films, and albums, to perfect their technique. Typically, a tenured professor, a staff writer, or a musician attached to a record label, the creator enjoyed commercial success, but strove for critical acclaim.
Deresiewicz paints each of these paradigms with a broad brush — conceding that there are exceptional or overlapping figures and works in each period. But the sketch supports his larger point that in all three paradigms, artists were sheltered from the market by an external source. Now, he argues, we’re moving “unmistakably” into a new dispensation “marked by the final triumph of the market” and “the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation.” As the institutions supporting the professional model “disintegrate” — as professors become adjuncts, and publishers, galleries, and studios downsize or die off — a further aspect of all three models is also being left behind: the ability to devote the bulk of one’s time to art. For Deresiewicz, “[g]reat art, even good art, relies on the existence of individuals who are able to devote the lion’s share of their energy to producing it — in other words professionals.”
But conditions today favor the amateur. They favor “speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability.” Artists no longer have the time nor the space to “cultivate an inner stillness or focus”; no time for the “slow build.” Creators need to cater to the market’s demand for constant and immediate engagement, for “flexibility, versatility, and extroversion.” As a result, “irony, complexity, and subtlety are out; the game is won by the brief, the bright, the loud, and the easily grasped.”
The change underway is clearly part of a larger cultural transition, involving more than just the arts. But Deresiewicz singles out Silicon Valley as a main culprit: he cites Taplin’s estimate that between 2004 and 2015, creators lost roughly $50 billion in annual revenue to the major tech platforms. They did so largely, Deresiewicz contends, by abetting piracy. Lawmakers could curtail this to some degree, by forcing Google, YouTube, and Facebook to allow creators to remove infringing content. But the big players continually resist because “[p]iracy is just too lucrative for them.” Ultimately, Deresiewicz argues that government should break up these monopolies; it should hinder their tendency to “flout the law, to dictate terms, to smother competition, to control debate, to shape legislation, to determine price.”
As with so many works of nonfiction that deliver bad news, the obligatory “what is to be done” segment at the end of the book fails to stir much enthusiasm. Deresiewicz asserts, correctly, “we’re not ‘going back’ to anything” — then urges creators to join advocacy groups like CreativeFuture or the Authors Guild, and to lobby for copyright and IP reform. Yet it’s hard to tell how the goal here is different from trying to turn back the clock. As Deresiewicz concedes, his proposals are “plainly incommensurate with the scale of the overall problem.”
They are indeed. The digital genie won’t be put back in the bottle. Big tech might be reined in on certain fronts, but it won’t be abolished or broken up. Nor can we expect labels, studios, publishers, or colleges to play the same supportive role they once did. Some see signs of hope, for some forms of creative endeavor, in the rise of paid subscriptions. But the evidence in The Death of the Artist is copious and inescapable on the most crucial fact about art in the present age that won’t change: when creative work is sold online, sales are radically unequal, following drastic power-law distributions. No matter how many people subscribe, no matter how aggressively Big Tech comes to be governed, selling art, music, or books in a digital world will always entail a lion’s share of the proceeds flowing into the pockets of a small few.
Deresiewicz shies away from putting it starkly, but the lesson is clear: a career on the older professional model — a gradual build to a moderate critical success — is only viable at this point for those who can support themselves for the long haul. A dwindling few will manage to do this by landing a perch at a magazine, a studio, a university. And so the model may not be entirely obsolete at present. But, aside from television, the book points to a future of creative production involving more work being done by amateurs, more done as a hobby, a passion project, a side gig — whatever that might mean for “great or even just good art.” Beyond that, who can say?
Robert Diab teaches law at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and writes about human rights and civil liberties.
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