Autopsy for the Arts

Portland author William Deresiewicz’s new book "The Death of the Artist" shows why it’s so hard to make a living making art today

The body wasn’t quite a corpse yet, but it was clearly on life support. The victim? The vast majority of independent American artists, with arts lovers as collateral damage.

The culprits? That’s the subject of Portland-based author William Deresiewicz’s absolutely essential new book. Adeptly combining rigorously researched statistics and studies with gripping personal narratives (many by Oregon artists), The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech blows open the grim reality of making art in America today. 

It’s also a murder mystery. And like any good noir tale, the book tells us as much about the corrupt system that produced the perps as about who pulled the trigger. With a clear eye and passionate prose, Deresiewicz elucidates exactly how the crime happened and why, who wins and who loses — and how we can repair the damage. A must-read for anyone who is or wants to be an artist, or who cares about the arts, it’s a wakeup call for artists, arts lovers and policy makers alike.

But it’s about more than just the arts. Although many of us, artists and audiences alike, think of art makers as somehow separate from the rest of society, the book shows how they’re hardly the only victims. 

 Setting the Crime Scene

Deresiewicz wrote his book before Covid-19 devastated the already-staggering arts ecosystem. (He also wrote it before the Black Lives movement fully erupted; the voices of more artists of color would have been welcome, and undoubtedly would bolster his case.)  But the pandemic’s impact wouldn’t have been so shattering if the arts hadn’t already been teetering so precariously. His book tells the two-decade tale of how they got that way. Incorporating 140 interviews (mostly with non-famous artists aged 25-40, but also editors, publishers and others), and citing multitudinous studies, surveys, organizations and trend stories, The Death of the Artist depicts a grim reality that’s hardly the carefree poverty romanticized in La Boheme, On the Road, or Rent.

Deresiewicz leavens and humanizes his impressive research with often heartbreaking personal stories of today’s hard-working artists, most between 20 and 40, who came of artistic age under the new paradigm. Many will be familiar to many ArtsWatch readers, from former and present profs at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University to members of bands like the Thermals and more.

They suffer from new economic and social conditions antithetical to producing meaningful, moving, and perspective-altering creations — for any artist. “Art is shaped by money, by the material arrangements under which it is produced — in plainer language, by the ways that artists get paid,” he writes. “When those shift, art shifts.” 

For most artists, the shift has been devastating. Ask almost any you know, especially if they’re under age 40. But to understand why the arts economy sucks for artists now, you have to understand how we got here.

Stages of Decline

The book helpfully offers a potted history of the evolution of the artist’s role in society — what art is, why we make it, and how those notions have changed over time, from artist-as-craftsperson to artist-as-visionary revolutionary. Then, after World War II, Deresiewicz explains, the arts, like much of the rest of society, became largely professionalized. Rising institutions (often publicly supported by academia or tax deductible endowments) such as MFA programs, music conservatories, orchestras, dance companies and museums, the National Endowment for the Arts and the rest goosed the supply of art. A newly enriched capitalist middle class with the wherewithal to buy the tickets and subscriptions provided the demand. 

Private sector professional institutions followed, from publishers, studios and record labels (and industry awards to glorify them) to agents, promoters, managers. “Art, in short, was institutionalized,” he writes. “And so the artist became a product and denizen of institutions — in other words, a professional,” a status “halfway between a sacred calling and a job.” Careerist behavior recognizable to any MBA or JD ensued: many “successful” artists spent more time gathering credentials, fellow travelers and mentors, assiduously building CVs, and writing grant proposals than making art. It didn’t always or even often produce durable creations, but hey, it was a living. Until it wasn’t.

Enter the villains. Institutionalized art had its up- and downsides, but all that began to change with the rise of the internet, especially everyone’s favorite villain: Big Tech. “There’s still a lot of money in the arts economy; it just isn’t going to artists,” Deresiewicz writes. “The issues go way beyond piracy, way beyond copyright. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—above all, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have engineered a vast and ongoing transfer of wealth from creators to distributors, from artists to themselves.” 

If prosecutors need an actual date for the inception of the criminal conspiracy,  he suggests 1999, when Napster appeared to enable internet theft of art without paying for it, along with the rationalization that depriving artists of income was OK because after all,  as they used to say, “information wants to be free.”  As downloading soared, recording sales — and musicians’ income — plummeted. 

The crime spree then spread to other arts. Deresiewicz identifies the burglary tools and murder weapons. “The assault has taken the form, specifically, of demonetization, he wrote in a recent article in The Nation. “Any content that can be transmitted over the Internet—music, text, still images, video—has seen its price severely cut, often to zero. Across a wide range of fields, major revenue sources have crumbled: for musicians, recorded music sales; for writers, freelance fees and book advances; for publications, advertising revenue; for the movie business, ticket sales as well as DVD sales and rentals.” 

Granted, the new reality also brought plenty of upsides, as Deresiewicz is careful to note, recounting tales of fans finding out about a TV series before it aired and inundating the makers with requests to connect — the opposite of artists having to gin up an audience. Indie filmmakers can now use YouTube and other streaming outlets to reach audiences, especially marginalized communities, who would never have encountered them under the old model, where the only chance might be a single showing in a college town film festival. Same for musicians; many of us have cheered the rise of amateurs who reached stardom armed only with an iPhone, a laptop with GarageBand or other free or cheap music creation software, a bedroom or basement to record in — and a YouTube channel whose audiences multiply as their songs go viral.

Unfortunately, as with other once attractive techno-utopians’ notions (We can all be connected! Information free to all!), the ugly reality of the latter-day corporate-corrupted internet refutes utopian claims that there’s never been a better time to be an artist. The digital channels that have made it so easy for art to reach audiences have also made it almost impossible for anyone but a relatively few superstars to make a living while making art.

Sure, it’s easier to reach audiences — but exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Despite a few well-known cases (like social media music master Li’l NasX), the techno utopians’ dream come true of a thousand venues (including screens) blooming means in practice that it’s harder than ever to get noticed amid the swarm of other bands and filmmakers out there. Deresiewicz shows the long odds against such breakthroughs, and how even crowd-sourced funding like Kickstarter can’t begin to compensate. 

Others hold out hope for strategies that have emerged since his book was published, such as Substack (for writers) and TikTok, whose long-term sustainability remains unproven. Nor are the latest would-be saviors, climate-killing NFTs, the answer for artists.

Artists at Risk

The combined clobber of all these changes on artists, especially those just emerging, has been catastrophic — and class-based. “There’s nothing left to shield you from the market,” Deresiewicz writes, citing a survey that found a seriously widening gap between artists’ income and that of their parents. “The ‘starving artist’ may be a cliché,” he writes, “but it is not a myth.”

But hasn’t it been ever thus? Deresiewicz makes a strong case that it’s worse now. Much of the book is an elegy for “the ongoing loss of the ‘middle-class’ artist,” he writes. “Even artists who are otherwise successful—who make art as their principal vocation; who produce on a regular basis; who publish, show, release, perform; who win a modicum of recognition—are unable to support themselves at a middle-class level. To pay for adequate housing, to afford reliable health care, to take a vacation every once in a while—rather than subsisting from check to check, forever on the brink of the financial abyss. That possibility, beyond the biggest winners in the winner-takes-all, is disappearing from the arts.”

If Big Tech was the Godfather in this crime story, it had plenty of henchmen and co-conspirators, like soaring rents. Deresiewicz explains why today’s arts economy all but requires many artists to live in just a few arts capitals — and that demand, coupled with limited supply, has thrust once-cheap and therefore artistically fertile scenes like New York’s SoHo and Greenwich Village and others out of reach of emerging artists.

The space crunch, as ArtsWatch has detailed in Portland, especially affects artists whose means of production don’t fit in a laptop backpack. Over the past decade, the price of studio space for painters, sculptors and other visual artists — even garages for bands — has skyrocketed, and many spaces have been converted into more remunerative condos and other developments. 

Didn’t anyone try to prevent the crime against the arts? What about all those 20th century bulwarks that once cushioned artists against such upheavals? “Here, too, the story is grim,” Deresiewicz writes. “Old-line institutions have been struggling to adapt to new audiences and habits.” Museums, orchestras, theater companies, philanthropists — the infrastructure of the institutionalized arts — have crumbled. This book shows exactly how and why. 

New Paradigm

All these changes, Deresiewicz argues, have conspired to create an emergent new paradigm in which the market more than ever dictates not just which art will thrive — but also which people will be able to make art. The new paradigm filters out many working class artists, preventing them from taking advantage of the networking and other opportunities available in everything from poorly paid (if paid at all) internships to ritzy graduate programs, to just being able to pay the rent in the few arts capitals where many young artists must live to have a hope of making it big.

Even earlier in the filtering process, many working class children attend public schools bereft of arts programs. And while wealth has always provided preferential access to the arts, Deresiewicz writes, “now the skew is getting worse and worse, as incomes fall and costs—especially rent and tuition—go up.”

To stay afloat, most artists today who make it through the class filter are working harder than ever — but not at creating art. One of the big takeaways for readers unfamiliar with the actual working lives of artists is just how long and hard they have to work these days, just to be able to make their art. Some composer should set to music — maybe even a rap — Deresiewicz’s half-page-long list of day jobs that (barely) sustain the younger artists Deresiewicz interviews. It would be an elegy. (Looking at the list mid-pandemic, I was shaken to realize at least half seemed in jeopardy.) 

On top of all that comes the officially unpaid work that 21st century artists must do, from dealing with editors or bookers or managers, to feeding the ever-ravenous social media beast that’s required to get your work noticed, to applying for grants, workshops, performance/exhibition opportunities, and on and on. Those tasks are all part of “managing the brand,” doing all the business stuff that others used to do (for a fee, of course) to help artists get their work made and sold. 

“Doing it yourself in the digital age—the age of the attention economy— centers on the overlapping trio of self-marketing, self-promotion, and self-branding,” Deresiewicz explains. “Since you’re doing, in essence, two jobs, manager as well as maker, you need to develop a second, very different set of skills on top of your artistic ones…. The good news is, you can do it yourself. The bad news is, you have to.” 

And all for what? Deresiewicz’s sources told him that “success means simply having the ability to do your work, full-time and on your own terms. Every additional year is a victory. Think about that: art is so difficult a field that just being in the field is considered an achievement.”

For many, it’s just too much. Burnout strikes, artists give up on art, not necessarily because they’re inadequate artists — Sturgeon’s Law ratio is a constant no matter the era — but because they’re inadequate managers, or are just exhausted from doing one job to do the other. One of many examples he cites is a Portland rocker who “couldn’t make music anymore. He was too busy being a musician.”

Those who stay, adapt. “Operating in the market inculcates a market personality,” he writes. “In the digital age, the artist is unfailingly genial, cheerful, relatable. … They need to engage their audience, so they are engaging. Their supporters look to them for inspiration, so they are encouraging. They are ingratiating and earnest, with no anger and no edge. And what is that personality—that stay-positive, self-effacing, smile-and-a-shoeshine personality—if not a commercial one? It is the shop clerk’s smile, the salesman’s hearty handshake, because the audience now is a customer base, and the customer is always right…..”

Collateral Damage

Nothing wrong with nicer artists, I guess, but Deresiewicz thinks all this niceness has adversely affected their art as well. Citing Pacific Northwest College of Art prof J.P. Reuer’s concerns about young artists thinking too much about audience appeal too early, before fully forming their own artistic approaches, Deresiewicz worries about creeping commercialism. “Not only are works of art increasingly commercialized, of necessity, in their own right,” he writes, “they also increasingly function—as loss leaders, marketing platforms, branding devices—as merely one component of a larger commercial endeavor, a cog in the commerce machine.” 

The market bias continues to afflict the art that does somehow manage to break through, as social media algorithms do their self-reinforcing thing: “Best-selling books have gotten bestier; blockbuster movies have gotten bustier; chart-topping singles just sit there, topping the charts, for longer and longer,” Deresiewicz writes. 

While the megastars’ success metastasizes, non-blockbuster art’s scale shrinks. Artists have adapted to the space and rent crunches by downsizing the scope and scale of their ambitions and productions, and Deresiewicz laments the deleterious effects on their artistic products — that is, the stuff we arts lovers enjoy. True, smaller art can be beautiful, but they used to say that about the “art” of foot-binding, too.  

Audiences have also adapted adversely (in Deresiewicz’s view) to the new paradigm. He decries the baleful effects of today’s ADDled tech, which permits audiences to shift easily among reading, film, music and more with a click or a flick, undermining the sustained focus needed to grok complex art.

“Irony, complexity, and subtlety are out,” he declares. “The game is won by the brief, the bright, the loud, and the easily grasped. … In a climate of instantaneity, where virality is king, everything must pop the moment it’s released,” lest it be overwhelmed by the next flood tide of content. “On the Internet, it’s always now or never.”

I worry, too, that to the extent art is more and more disproportionately created by people of privilege, who may not connect with how the rest of the world really lives, it will less and less reflect the perspectives of the nonprivileged majority. And that, in turn, may be creating a self-reinforcing cycle in which working people shun many art forms, leading artists to increasingly cater to the privileged few who care about it and are willing and able to pay for it. 

Poverty, Privilege & Pandemic

Who benefits from the crimes against art? One of the most revelatory portions of the book is Deresiewicz’s exposure of the twin dirty little secrets of making art today: poverty and privilege. Nobody wants to admit to possessing either, but at least with one of them, you don’t have to worry about where your next rent check’s coming from. In field after field — film and theater directors and writers, visual artists, and more – Deresiewicz systematically shows how people of privilege increasingly get unfair access to the tools of success. 

Why isn’t this seamy side of today’s art scene better known? The solid numbers he reports, covering unglamorous items such as artist income, can be hard to come by, not least because artists are ashamed at how low they are. In wealth-besotted America, poverty is regarded as a moral, individual failure, not a socioeconomic one perpetrated by the ruling class.  For impoverished artists, inculcated in capitalism’s equation of money with worth, disclosing they don’t make enough to get by is tantamount to admitting their art just isn’t good enough. So they don’t realize just how prevalent their condition is — and how it might be the system’s fault. Artists who hail from privilege, on the other hand, also have a motive to play down their income, fearing that their success might be attributed to their unearned advantages rather than artistic merit. 

Other new paradigm winners: gatekeepers. With so much art out there, audiences need help finding what they like.  “For artists, the more noise there is in the system, the more valuable become the players who can cut through it, which mean the major corporations, old and new, of the culture industry,” Deresiewicz explains. “For the audience, the more valuable become the players who can filter it, who perform the work of ‘curation,’ of selecting and sorting. Whatever we’d prefer to think, the gatekeepers are not dead (a curator is just a gatekeeper that you happen to like)….” I suppose ArtsWatch itself counts as one of those barnacles on the sinking, or at least listing, ship of the arts.

Still another winning team: megastars such as Taylor Swift, who like star athletes can use the new paradigm to gain new leverage over the corporate art masters. “In the future,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around.” Now, she’s using that following to control her art: Swift just released re-recorded versions of her old music so that she, not her old record company, gets most of the benefits. Her power play may portend a new, fairer power balance between stars and their corporate enablers. 

But how’s that working out for the non-1 percent of stars? The bad news is that, like seemingly everything else in our current Age of Inequality, the positive effects tend to escape the 99% of artists. “In the age of Thriller, the great blockbusting album of the early 1980s, 80 percent of revenue in the music business went to the top 20 percent of content,” Deresiewicz writes. “Now it goes to the top 1 percent.”

Nothing infuriates him more than tales of the new paradigm’s winners that extrapolate a few success stories to a misguided general approbation of the whole system. Many of the winners (especially legacy rock bands and authors) often touted actually won their audiences under the old, pre-algorithmic system. Meanwhile, non-star artists under 40 or so struggle to get noticed amid the tide of new content constantly rushing through our screens. “In this as in so many other respects,” he writes, “the arts are a microcosm of the economy as a whole, in which the old and middle-aged, having built their wealth (and other forms of capital) in times of greater abundance, have secured a generational incumbency against the young.”

The biggest winners in the new paradigm are of course the social media and commerce firms that everyone now (deservedly) loves to hate. Deresiewicz reserves his most caustic vitriol for those predators the great jazz composer and bandleader Maria Schneider (who’s found a way to sustain a big band by connecting directly to her fans) call the Data Lords: the Big Tech giants like Google that profit from the theft of music and films pirated by companies hosted on their platforms. 

“A model that depends on not paying people,” he thunders, “isn’t a business model; it’s a criminal conspiracy.” His takedown of Silicon Valley’s pirate economy — which makes artists walk the plank — should be required reading for lawmakers considering reform of these artist-screwing oligopolists, outmoded copyright laws and more.

The pandemic just exacerbated the crime wave against the arts. In an article he wrote for The Nation last May, Deresiewicz explains how the pandemic suspended one of the few income-generating opportunities still available to artists — live appearances. Festivals, concerts, conventions, performances, talks, workshops, book signings, screenings, exhibitions … gone. 

So are many of the day jobs and gigs provided by colleges, cafes, cab services and more. In the cover story of last month’s Harper’s magazine, he enumerates the casualties: the jobs of “musicians, actors, and dancers, plus all the people who enable them to take the stage—playwrights and choreographers, directors and conductors, lighting designers and makeup artists, roadies, ushers, ticket takers, theater managers,” he wrote.

Along with artists income, so too have vanished the art-buying budgets of many arts lovers. For artists, Deresiewicz laments, “The pandemic is a random screwing on an epic scale.”

Glimmers of Hope

Can this near-corpse be resuscitated? Not everything in The Death of the Artist looks as bleak as its title. Though his commendably clear-eyed analysis doesn’t shrink from acknowledging the scale of the challenges, Deresiewicz also sees where possible solutions lie. Invoking labor leader Joe Hill’s famous valedictory, “don’t mourn, organize,” he points us to artist-rights organizations such as Artist Rights Alliance, CASH Music, CreativeFuture, and worthy efforts such as Smashwords self publishing, OurGoods for visual artists, Portland’s own well-known XOXO festival, and others that often use the resources of the digital economy to empower creators rather than exploit them. He identifies unionization efforts, potential statutory reforms, and more, making the book useful as a handbook for resuscitating the arts, not just an extended autopsy. 

Many such efforts run by volunteer artists themselves alas, merely give already beleaguered artists yet another unpaid day job to distract them from making art: joining forces with other artists to fight for their rights. Yet in an everyone-for-themselves era that often places them effectively in competition with one another, independent-minded artists are about as easy to organize as cats. “Artists also often fail to recognize their common interests,” Deresiewicz admits. 

He realizes that even these admirable efforts aren’t enough to save the dying victim. One of the big takeaways from DoA is that solutions to the problems that plague the arts actually transcend the arts. It takes a writer with a broader field of vision than just arts to understand just how connected the pathology afflicting the arts is to the life-threatening illness of our democratic society. Deresiewicz’s background in writing about other social issues — he’s also the author of many other essays and books, including Excellent Sheep, a takedown of privilege in education –allows him to look beyond the arts hugbox. It’s a problem that’s literally above our pay grade. 

But not beyond our power to fight. “To fix the arts economy,” he writes, “we need to fix the whole economy.”

The primary solution to the devaluation of art and artists depends on the defeat of the Data Lords — and that means our elected reps rewriting the outdated, unfair laws that enable theft of their work, breaking the monopoly power held by Facebook and others. Some of their obscene profits might then be redirected to pay the rent and food bills of the artists responsible for them. But the tech giants use the money they make off of us to lobby and legally bribe (through campaign contributions) those same reps, including some of Oregon’s own, to look the other way and prioritize the Data Lords’ profits over the livelihood of artists. 

Beyond better regulation, Deresiewicz also endorses greater government arts funding, noting that the European Union subsidizes the arts at 60 times the rate of the U.S. But citing another favorite writer of mine, the great critic Dave Hickey, he rightly worries about government support severing the tie between what lots of people actually want from art and what favored artists produce, at least under the current models that leave it up to other artists and “experts” to decide what’s worth funding.

What about funding everyone, not just artists? Deresiewicz thinks one of my own favorite ideas, universal basic income, proposed a century ago by George Bernard Shaw and others, would be helpful but not sufficient. I think it’d help a lot, especially in art forms with low overhead. Some places are trying it.

Instead of providing artists (and everyone else) a living wage by fiat, Deresiewicz wants to rebuild the middle class through familiar (though no less crucial because of that) inequality-reducing measures like higher minimum wages, reining in monopolies, modernizing regulations, fair taxation and other progressive ideas that until recently have regularly made the death march from the consciences of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other progressives to the McConnell killing fields of the U.S. Senate, whose controlling majority until a few months ago represented barely a fifth of the U.S. population. If our democracy works the way it’s supposed to, that means that if you really care about the arts — and if you’re reading this, you do — then you should consult the list of middle-class-boosting policies he cites, and get behind politicians and organizations that’ll work to enact them.

Until then? If artists alone can’t save the arts, the big business exploiters who prey on them don’t want to, and the government that the latter control seems unable, at least at the moment … then who can?

Us. Deresiewicz sees this book as a wakeup call to informed artists and arts lovers, hoping to open their eyes to the reality of today’s anti-art economy, and lead a revival of voluntarily paying for the books, music, films and the rest that we can now get “free” or much cheaper than a sustainable price for the artists who make it. “It is long past time that we established the principle that it is absolutely unacceptable to ask people to work for free,” he writes. (And here I should remind our readers that, yes, ArtsWatch does pay its writers and staff, though not as much as they deserve, and yes, you should totally pay for whatever value our site — which doesn’t charge for access — brings you by becoming a member.) You could start by buying Deresiewicz’s own invaluable book, an essential work of angry art itself. 

After that, get involved with efforts to redress the power imbalance that’s killing the arts and threatening democracy itself. If the arts really are a bellwether for where we’re headed, then their dire condition shows us, as though we needed more evidence, just how much trouble our broader society is in. As this powerful book shows so persuasively, we desperately need to arrest the criminal, rampant and increasing inequality that’s killing the arts and threatens democracy itself. And not just to save the artists. Even if the arts as we know them are terminal, we can’t let the perpetrators of the death of the artist get away with another murder. The next victim could be democracy itself.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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