After the Artist is Present - Is the Artist Dead? Interview with William Deresiewicz, Author of the Book "The Death of the Artist"
"How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech" is the subtitle of the book "The Death of the Artist." Based on hours and hours of interviews with a wide range of artists - musicians, visual artists, writers, illustrator and more - this book casts a sobering still, unfortunately, truthful account of the reality of today's artists daily life made of struggling and hustling to survive as a creative in this era.
Few books before this one looked into the subject in such a thorough manner. This in-depth, researched book is a testimony of our time. It is also essential for readers to know that this book isn’t just about visual art. It is also about music, writing, film &television. It features many individual artists’ profiles because everybody has their own path and own way of putting them together. There are cross-overs and recurrent themes in the challenges they face and the harsh decisions each one made to survive- both personally and financially. To show people how artists are managing to survive, William Deresiewicz said that he needed to tell many different stories because stories are unique.
And before proceeding with this interview, yes, the book focuses on negative’s aspects, but it is important to say that the book isn’t entirely negative.
I didn’t write this book to find if things were harder now because I knew they were. And the critical part is the second part of the title – the how, how people are managing to survive, and it is hard – that is the reality. Still, with a great deal of effort and creativity, flexibility, and persistence, people are managing to carve a space to do work meaningful to them.
This interview with William Deresiewicz must have started like many of the ones he conducted as research for The Death of the Artist. An hour of his time, a few questions and the conversation unravelling as we dive into the heart of the subject.
When did it all go wrong? Was it when art split from the church? When art became institutionalised or professionalised? Or when art was demonetised as well as hyper monetise for the top 1%? Was it a little by little and not one element in isolation but a succession of small elements?
I don’t think there is any one moment—my book focus on art that can be digitised, which leads to the demonetisation of content.
The liberation of art from subservience to be able to express itself freely. The separation from the church was one step, but it wasn’t a negative one. It is important to recognise that art liberation was only possible because of capitalism, it created a market where they (artists) could now sell to an audience they no longer rely on church and king to support themselves.
And then we mentioned professionalisation, which came after WWII, there was good and bad from it. It created the possibility for artists to have sustainable middle-class careers and lives, lead to a considerable increase in the number of artists who can live from their art. Creation of institutional framework -MFA’s and art school, foundations, residencies and public funding- that enable the art world to expand significantly outside NYC where it was previously located. This also provokes a downside came along with that was the massive expansion of the art market. It started in the ’60s but it is really entering in the 80’s that art prices becoming inflated, it is also due to changes in the larger economy – whitening and inequality, the growing class of the wealthy and the super-wealthy and art became a status symbol. Art is now it has become an asset class for the wealthy, it is now traded.
How much time during an average day do you spend consuming art? Not just visual-art; not just high art; all art: narrative in books, narratives on television, jazz on the stereo, songs in your earphones, paintings, sculptures, photographs, concerts, ballet, movies, poetry, plays. Several hours a day, no doubt.
Even for art that can’t be digitised, has the market become flooded?
Two or maybe more distinct realm, the flood is mainly a problem for the artists that play on the same platform. Platforms like Etsy have followed the “typical digital platform path” – it starts, and it is this wonderfully amazing and liberating thing when there was a few 100 people. Still, now everybody got on it, and it is a rat race. There are consultants and videos and people who will try to sell you their services to increase your traction and so on.
But, with the Art World of more expensive – the most serious side artists who invested a great deal of time in their art and money, who have MFA – there is no interaction between the realms. Even in the higher-end art world, there is the blockbuster effect – top-line prices paid for top artists such as Jeff Koons, Richter or Jasper Johns.
One of the most compelling quotes from the book is the following:
The numbers belie that ambition. Studies by the activist group BFAMFAPhD revealed that only 10 percent of the two million arts graduates in the United States make their primarily living as artists, that 85 percent of artists in NYC have day job unrelated to the arts and that the other 15 percent have a median incomes of $25 000$. Like everything else, the market for art is a winner-takes-all. In 2018, just twenty individuals accounted fr 64 percent of total sales by living artists.
At least in the United States and that must be true for elsewhere, there is an oversupply, an overproduction of “serious” artists. That world of Arts schools and MFA graduates have gone up and up and up. More and more people are competing for fewer and fewer spots in the big galleries.
There is more to say, the middle, that middle, this is a theme across the book the middle. The middle tier is getting wipe out, as well as the mid-tier galleries, so there is less and less place for mid-tiers artists. Artists lose their galleries as they close, and that middle was providing the next run to get up. You can’t sustain a career by being in only artists run centre or places where young emerging artists start their career and if there aren’t many middle ones – how do you go up to the next tier.
Another factor is that big centres are more and more critical – in the USA if you want to be at that level, you need to be in NYC, LA or Chicago. It has to do with the global economy as a whole, country by country level, it is kind of the blockbuster effect but for cities. If you aren’t in those cities, you don’t get the attention or the traction – no one will know who you are.
Art fairs are another huge issue, and they are costly for mid-tier galleries. If you are in a big city, real estate or rental prices are crazy expensive, and if you aren’t close to the centre, then you are off the beaten path, and you struggle to get attention. This is why mid-tier galleries go under. Furthermore, and someone says that to me in the book, fairs are a big gamble – if you have a bad fair, you could lose the gallery. That is centralisation again.
Clientele for the mid-tier gallery, upper-middle-class collectors, and I am not sure if this is true or not, but they were damaged by 2008, and they are damaged now. Expending the collector base, how you do that and there is one good example in the book 20×200 a business spearheaded by Jen Beckman. She is working on expending the collector base, make good art by professional artists more accessible. Changing the whole cultural attitude about art takes a long time.
The whole way we are doing this is so crazy, we forced people to leverage their art careers, their higher education, it becomes a leverage game, with a considerable amount of debt. People are forced to take this gamble. Education should be subsidised. Music venues take on debts too, university as well to build those programs. Few people managed to squeak through and obviously, in a disproportion, people mostly from wealthy families, or otherwise they get a huge amount of debts, and they are out of the profession within a few years.
I think it is ok for art to be though business to a certain extent because I believe talent is relatively rare. It takes an enormous amount of perseverance, even beyond the financials. What I don’t think it isn’t a good situation was the reason why people drop out, and that reason is the financial aspect of it. It is fine if people drop out because they realised it is too hard or they are not good enough, but not just because debt is drowning them – and this is a huge issue in the USA.
Being an artist is not a job. In economic terms, it is a business.
What are your thoughts on Branded art? Are artists selling themselves to capitalism, or is this the way to survive in this economy?
First of all – there no “THE” way to survive. One of the big themes that I encounter in my research and try to emphasis for this book is that very few artists are making money in only one way. You got to think about it as a table with different legs. There is one example in this book, of two individuals who create that business and they seem to be the only one who does that at that level of expertise. Their primary motivation is to add that additional way to make ends meet for artists. And they were a little uncomfortable about this issue of selling out. It is a whole other level, you are not just making the work you want and selling it to a rich guy, or doing the work and exhibiting it an exhibition that is sponsored by a corporation. You are now creating work that is own and branded by the corporation. I would have answered differently before having written this book, and the person I now feel that it is deplorable that this is one of the things they need to do. The things that bother me the most is that it adds further legitimacy to the corporatocracy, it isn’t just what kind of work that the artist is making. I still think that artists should even play some kind of counter-cultural role. It has been hard already for the art world to maintain the critic hegemonic, critical discourse and all that pretentiousness, and it is already difficult when you are doing your work for rich people and that you are pretending that it isn’t true. Museums are supported by all those filthy rich, arms dealers, and oil merchants and big pharma. But when you are cutting out even the middle man, cutting out the museum and working directly for those corporations – how can art continue to claim that there is any anti-hegemonic force? But this is what the market is doing, and inequality is doing – it is forcing everyone to abandon their value, university to do it, journalist to do it, artists to do it.
Your book is written from the input of artists a lot more than as a piece of pure criticism about what is wrong with the market, for me it is more how the market has changed the artists and not the opposite way around. Still, I would love to hear your thoughts on brands that harness the power of art to promote themselves as good corporate citizens? For example, how the brand pigalle & NIKE did with the basketball court in Paris?
This is an old story from the gilded age, think about the names of art & education institutions. Age of the market liberate artists from patronage, no longer dependent on that kind of thing. Never exclusive always a table with several legs. We had a middle-class audience that was able to support the art, the big culture was supplemented by lots of individuals buying your book and buying tickets. Created a great culture. Many places now have public support but artists and non for profits mostly still need to go to dinner parties and things like that, making nice to rich people, and it is revolting. With more public support and middle-class input, we would have fairer support, and we would be less dependent on the wimps of billionaires. The way wealth is tax needs to be rethought, and we need to decide collectively how to spend it. This would mean fewer strings attach and a more moral art world.
There is a lot of pros and cons in your book about the value of art school and the reforms that need to take place in their curriculum, so they are no longer simply a business but something that make artist equip to sustain their career. What is your advice regarding art school? Or what do you hope for them? Can they be saved, or are they doomed?
This is a complicated question – we build too many art schools some should go out of business, and right now some of them are going out of business but not necessarily the right one in my opinion. They need to do a better job at equipping their graduate to sustain a career. And they must do that without turning themselves into trade school. There are two directions that schools have gone, one is that they ignore the market entirely, and it is hard, and it is a disservice that they are doing to their graduate. Which leads graduates to get out of art school and have no ideas of how to support themselves. Or, and this is probably more common, they turn their back on their traditional, core disciplines – painting, sculpture, etc., what you make with your hands – and turn toward supposedly market-friendly market savvy new disciplines that generally involved using computers and generating the kind of students that business and corporation are looking for.
Generates new programs that are rush, and poorly thought through, also as they are market-dependent, they can become quickly obsolete.
What art school that need to do – teach students to make art and teach them how to make a living creating their art – complicated and ever-changing process, not a hopeless process. It requires an investment not just of money but of thoughts and also out of care. Faculty needs to retool and rethinking – and accept changes.
Faculties feel like it isn’t their problem to think about, they don’t believe that it is their job, or at least it was reported to me. There is this romantic notion that artists shouldn’t think about money. Some know that it is a problem, but they don’t know how to deal with this, to address this issue. This was cut off the book, but one faculty member was teaching a professional practice course, and some of her colleagues were sitting in the class as they need this update, the world has changed, and they are out of touch.
The notion of new blood it is though it is needed. But the alternatives aren’t good. Tenure is important, but maybe art school don’t involve – either you have tenure and shrivel out on the wine, or you are an adjunct – longer-term contract at good pay. Universities don’t want to do that as they want maximum flexibility.
Are they producing too many graduates for a market that is already saturated, and how could we integrate the soft skills into putting the creative mind in industries that need a bit of a shakeup?
That isn’t the right way to think about it. What people were saying isn’t that we need to give our art students, they already have a lot of soft skills that they get from their education. We need to provide them with the tools to present that to potential employers. It is all about pivoting, to think about all the skills that you have been developing, what you have to offer to employers in a very mindful way and how to “pitch” yourself. You need to figure out how to look at yourself as a painter but what else can you do that you already know how to do but can apply elsewhere.
What do you think of public funding or universal basic income? Do you think that this sort of program is part of the solution or will simply create more issues?
Indeed, a universal basic income would help everybody. Not something I have thought through extensively, but I am thinking more about traditional forms of redistribution, free higher (art) education, free healthcare, better funding—the idea of making a tax-free income bracket. I am open to any idea that can help because it is a disaster right now, it was terrible before this thing (the pandemic), but now it is just hopeless in some cases.
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At some point, you are comparing the local food economy with the potential for the arts to get into this sort of economy, but you have serious doubts about art lovers adopting the same vision. Why is it there? Is there a way we can learn from the support local, shop local movement – especially the way food subscription, or local market works?
I have been rethinking that since I started researching this book. Several people said to me “we need to have a consumer moment for the arts the same way”. I am scepticism that people would be paying for things that you are getting for free as you aren’t not getting a different product and self-identify. In discussing that since the book was released, my feeling about that has evolved, partially because we need every single solution, all solutions. We need better public funding; we need to break up big tech and a more conscious consumer-based. Consumer movement also helps put pressure on policymaking, it can help and lead to changes in the art and tech industry. The more consumer demand increase, the more the market work to satisfy that demand. If you pay for the music you listen to, if you go to your favourite mid-tier artist, and you put more money in their pocket, they will have more time, and therefore they can make better art. Art, currently, is made in a haze because of the low price and the quality is consequently suffering.
At one point in the book, art and activism seem to be a thing from the past. With the US election in 2020, we saw more artists mobilising than ever – what are your views on this?
I didn’t mean for the book to give this impression, but I think it is because the book is about how people can sustain their living from their art practice. Activism is a vast part of some artist practices, but it is another question. Social practice art is all about activism, and it is something that people do, but they don’t know how to sustain this practice. It doesn’t solve the problem, and you still need to figure out a way to make a living.
Artists persevere, despite financial hardship, because autonomy and fulfillment are worth more to them than wealth. (which is also not a reason no to pay them)
At the end of the fourth paradigm chapter, you are asking amateur to create their art but still suggest that they don’t need to put it out there and suggest a list of activities to occupy their time more beneficially – do you think that amateurship in conjunction to the internet and the fast pace in which we are living is killing the artist prospect? Asking the question if the internet is good or bad isn’t the right question. In many ways, it has been suitable for the art, dissemination is wonderful with the internet, it created a lot of opportunities, about the potential of collaboration. But monetarily, yes, the internet has been very hard for artist and in many ways made things much harder.
How can we do business like Amazon, Google, Apple, Netflix and so on more responsible corporate citizens, especially regarding the art economy? Or at least making them more accountable?
This is an important question to ask. But it isn’t about a way to make them responsible corporate citizens by some sort of moral act. These companies need to be broken up. We did that with monopolies in the past. Their size and power have grown out of proportion.
A little bit more about the author
William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent speaker at colleges and other venues, and a former professor of English at Yale. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, the Nation, the New Republic, and many other publications. He is the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing and is the New York Times bestselling author of Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist, and A Jane Austen Education.
Want to know more about this topic, get a copy of this book, The Death of the Artist, at an independent bookstore close by you. You can also extend your knowledge with other related books such as:
- Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class by Scott Timberg
- I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette – published by Paper Monument
- Art Thiking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedule, Budgets, and Bosses by Amy Whitaker
- Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, edited by Sharon Louden
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