Photo by Tony Fischer
A feeling of frustration clouds conversations with artists these days. Dismay over how flooded the market is constantly comes up with printmakers, illustrators, photographers, DJs, musicians, writers, graphic designers, videographers and other artisans. Technology, both the boon and the thorn to artists has done much to alter the landscape of creative markets.
And yet no one can really say if this is good or bad. Hopefuls claim that the rise of democratic media and culture and it’s use of technology is an environment where “Quality will rise above” the masses who churn out poor quality products at an overwhelming pace. Or that to some extent people want to encourage exploration of their art so that the market will become self supporting. Detractors point out that technology has opened artworks to mediocrity where anyone can call themselves a band or a graphic designer and serve to cut the market off at the knees with cheapness.
The crux of the problem is money. Worn away by the tide of ever growing self producers and DIY artists, rate structures appear to be under direct attack. With new entrants charging fees ranging from zero to nil the market has lost footing to support the professional class of artists that once existed. While artists are typically seen as class unto their own, living more by the grace of society, we have all seen a radical shift toward workers in general. We are expected to do more with less and as Astra Taylor points out in a recent interview, “…More and more of us are encouraged to think of us as artists no matter what our line of work… The ethos of the artist – someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock – is demanded from people across the board.”
Smelling a lot like conservative arguments against migrant workers and immigration, I too admittedly reacted hypocritically in the past by holding upstarts in contempt; viewing them, as many do I think, as somehow at the root of the economic troubles faced by artists. But knowing that I too jumped into graphic design rather half-assed during the recession it may be that lots of people have put stake in a last resort or to escape the unreasonable demands of the new workplace. Plus, as we are all running around “self-exploiting” we are doing more injustice to the market by holding the newcomers at arms length instead of guiding them with our hard earned wisdom.
If you, like me, have a mean anti-corporate streak in you then the new-found freedom afforded by technology can be extremely empowering such as with authors who can now self-publish, skipping the maddening middle management of publishing companies which skim a percentage off the top. However the illusion of freedom is very misleading as Taylor further points out, “Just because you can access culture of ‘free’ doesn’t mean that someone isn’t making money off it – it just may not be the artist, but rather the company that owns the backend.”
This is a common complaint from my musician friends who tell me that record companies or online services don’t share well, greedily sucking up profits from the band’s creations. Musicians are probably among the worst abused in the new market as venues start charging for the use of their stage or equipment in pay-to-play schemes. Festivals and fairs supposedly dedicated to the promotion of arts have been shown to skimp as well. As Vice reported earlier this month the upstart music festival, Underground Music Showcase, has gone commercial cutting out all but the biggest names in music offering little compensation to smaller bands.
To some extent this is representative of a sea change in modern economy. “In many ways,” continues Taylor, “artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy… there are a few stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try and reach the top.”
Twisting the knife even deeper is a growing lack of respect for the arts in our culture. For the last few years I have been working with school theaters and witnessed first hand how bad the funding is for arts education. My feeling is that this gap has left many deaf to the arts as they go out into the world creating generations of soulless bastards.
A Culture of Disrespect
That probably explains why I don’t see the kind of respect due artists from everyday people. Working voluntarily with a group starting a kind of music festival I witnessed people say that musicians, who are already not getting paid for their participation, should in fact be paying us. Furthermore we are requiring that musicians allow us to record their music for us to sell so that we can raise money for future programming. In my design business I’ve had potential clients ask me for spec work – no guarantee of payment – and come across people advertising “exposure” in lieu of payment.
If we don’t start seeking to build relationships instead of trying to be competitive, we are losing out to the companies or organizations that are using us to fill their pockets. I can see that being the source of Mark Brickey’s (of Adventures In Design) argument against supposed artist resources like Threadless or Society6 which take a large cut of your profits or demand free submissions. These are the real people doing damage to artists.
What we need is a collective movement that instead of shunning them, incorporates newcomers into the fold and teaches them to establish fair wages while upholding pratical standards. With so many people getting into the craft making business it’s too late to stop the tide. We can however teach them to have the courage to ask for more money and provide support to each other when faced with brutality from the market. In some respects that exists already.
My growing affiliation with Adventures In Design is good example of that. Here is a group of punk printers who have started a podcast that acts as a beacon to the ships lost at sea. Teaching people how to work with each other, with clients, and within the market at large, these guys who have for all intents-and-purpose already “made it” as designers and independent artists, are sharing openly and freely their experiences with complete and total strangers giving them leverage as they claw their own way up. Why exactly they are doing this I’m not entirely sure – maybe I can make that a future post someday – but they do recognize that people are hungry for this kind of information.
Not only is this an exciting example of a self-forming, albeit haphazard community, but that it’s doing so in a way that undermines corporate interests by my reckoning is a good thing. I think it’s because these are people who understand that technology has reached a point that is in some ways working against our interests. For example, large internet based companies collecting vast amounts of information about us that borders on Orwellian. Though it probably goes beyond that into a feeling that this world created by our forebears has turned into something fabricated and false. That in order to recapture a sensation of the genuine we have to offer up something that reconnects our humanity in this highly technological world.
That’s what makes the craft movement great – that it’s spontaneous and at it’s core human. Not guided by any one person but a movement driven by like minded people. It gives me hope that we can escape the Disney-esque facade that distracts us from the true ailments in culture and society.
Copyright 2014 © Robert C. Olson