Scott Timberg’s book Culture Crash makes a case that the transformation of our culture right now is killing artists’ ability to make a living making art. He cites a number of reasons, but in the end it boils down to the fact that with so much free culture/art available, people are increasingly unwilling to pay for the art they use, thus making it economically unviable for artists to make their living being artists.
The book is full of reporting about the decline of traditional culture production jobs and you can argue about his analysis about why this is happening and whether it’s something new or part of long-term trends. But it’s clear that our relationships with art and artists is shifting.
But then there’s this curious argument by William Giraldi in a review of the book in The New Republic:
“What does it mean when the middle-class makers of art are relegated to a socioeconomic purgatory? The dearth of public funding for the arts mirrors the dearth of public ardor for the arts, and yet, somehow, we’re awash in dilettantes decanting their wares on the midden of American culture. Everyone, it seems, is an artist. Toss a stone into any crowd and you’ll hit someone who’s writing a novel. (Yeats once opened his address to the Rhymers’ Club with: “The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.”) The vestal and very simple concept of supply and demand will not be debauched out of its simplicity: When everyone’s an artist and no one spends money on art, art is stripped of any economic traction and serious artists can’t earn a living. Couple that with a population that overwhelmingly doesn’t mind if art and artists go extinct and you have, ladies and gentlemen, what can be fairly called a crisis.”
What an extraordinary statement. Let me try to re-phrase: So art is such an attractive thing that “everyone” wants to make it, ergo everyone is an artist (or thinks they are an artist). And because there are so many artists (and presumably so much art) that there is an oversupply, the market collapses, and “real” artists can’t make a living at it, thereby depriving the world of real art and defining a crisis. The implication of course is that the world’s “good” art (sorry for all the scare quotes) and artists get devalued out of the marketplace and we are all impoverished.
Is this not the argument made against any kind of democratization? Let everybody participate and you devalue the quality of whatever it is?
No question that a glut of a product brings prices down (the market for crude oil for example). But the argument that too many people think of themselves as artists and create art is causing the value of art to drop is bizarre. Hasn’t the arts education lobby been arguing the opposite for years? That too few children being taught the arts leads to shrinking audiences and a decline of culture?
In order to create demand for something you have to create a market. To create a market you have to establish value. To establish value you need people who understand what they’re looking at or hearing. And then you need some clear definitions of quality and value. Hierarchy. The problem we have now is not that there are too many artists or too much art (in fact, I’d argue that everyone thinking they are an artist sounds like a really good start on creating a bigger market). The problem is that our definitions of quality haven’t caught up with our new expectations for art (and artists). And we haven’t been persuasive in establishing what current values are.
Many of the things that were hard to do yesterday aren’t so difficult today. Saying that isn’t being dismissive of the past, it’s acknowledging that we’ve moved on, that we’re evolving. The world is full of electrifying ideas. And the world hasn’t become any easier. Surely that’s enough to figure out where value lies.