The New Industrial Art

“What man, worthy of the name of artist, what genuine lover of art, has ever confused industry with art?” – Charles Baudelaire

When Baudelaire asked that question he was making a rhetorical point. In the twentieth century our attitude has become less certain. Complaints about the industrialization of the arts and their dissemination by global media corporations have taken on a political dimension. In addition to being soft-hearted and fuzzy-minded in a William Morris kind of way, they are also viewed as elitist. Didn’t Walter Benjamin think the loss of art’s “aura” through mechanical mass production was going to be a good thing? Wouldn’t it help bring the experience of art closer to the people? At least the idea seemed credible, even as the debate itself was becoming moot. Finally, as the century came to a close, we had to ask, pace Baudelaire, whether any man (or woman) was able to distinguish between industry and art. Where were we going to draw the line, even if we wanted to?

In my essay “What Has Changed” I looked at some of the features that I think define the spirit of our literary age. As I pointed out in conclusion however, these were really best thought of as ongoing trends. In the present essay I thought it would be worth finishing what I started and consider where those trends are taking us. In doing so, I think it will also be possible to broaden the discussion and consider the likely fate of the arts in general.

In discussing the future of the arts, the most important trend to take into consideration is the industrialization of its production. This is more than a shift in technology, as important as that has been. What I mean by industrialization is the more general transformation of small scale, individual, and local production to a system where production is global, anonymous, and on a massive scale for a mass market. This transformation was certainly fueled by technology, but its social expression lay more in the growth of corporations and the rise of such horrors as “human resources” departments and “scientific management.” As I hope to show, it is the fallout from this shift that has had the greatest effect on the arts. The engine of change in the arts during the past century was not an advance in technology, but the application of managerial models of production that followed in its wake.

Where I think projection has to begin, therefore, is with a consideration of economics, and the first thing we have to acknowledge is that traditional arts in the twentieth century were a spectacular economic failure. Symphonies and dance companies today exist on a hand-to-mouth basis, even in the major urban centres of the affluent West. As far as the visual arts are concerned, the Gold Rush that was the 1980s ArtWorld (itself only an example of faddism and the triumph of hype) is well over. (What percentage of the general public can even name a living painter? Maybe no more than could name one in 1920; but aren’t we supposed to be doing better with universal education and greater public accessibility?) As for the death of serious fiction, it is almost as widely accepted and commented upon now as the death of poetry (the latter field now largely relegated, at least in terms of sales, to slumming pop stars).

No doubt about it, the arts today are a hard sell. This is a problem because, despite all protestations against commercialism and “selling out,” art has always had a tendency to follow the money. To an extent still far greater than many critics are willing to concede, all of the arts are economically determined, and their failure can be described in simple economic terms. There has been no problem with the supply of art (leaving aside arguments over its quality), what has been lacking is the demand. Look at literature. More poetry is being written, and published, today than at any time in human history. Unfortunately, no one is reading it. While the audience for literature may or may not be duller than ever, as Philip Roth recently suggested, there is no denying it is smaller. And if the reports of rising “aliteracy” (people who can read but simply choose not to) are any indication, there is little reason to think this is going to change. Among culture commentators and critics this is what is known as the problem of the “disappearing audience.”

But there is, of course, one very big exception to this gloomy scenario.

The entertainment industry, and in particular movies and television, provided the only successful business model for the arts in the twentieth century. There are many different reasons for why film – and its values – became so dominant in our time, some of which I will go into in just a bit, but perhaps the most important is that they were the first genuinely mass art. While Shakespeare had his groundlings, opera had a remarkably broad popularity in the nineteenth century, and literature has taken on an increasingly mass character with every new advance in technology from the printing press to the paperback, movies were the first public art available to everyone. The process of reproducing identical prints made them capable of mass distribution, ticket prices have historically been relatively inexpensive, and the product itself doesn’t even require an audience that is literate. (This final consideration, by the way, is one reason for believing that the Internet, at least in its present state, will be slow to achieve the popularity of TV. This is not being elitist, but only pointing out the real effects of persistently significant levels of illiteracy – and aliteracy – even in “advanced” countries.)

But the important point I want to make is that the audience for film was a mass audience. Movies had a large, global market almost from the beginning. The movie industry was thus able to provide a successful business model despite, by century’s end, being remarkably unprofitable (only one out of every ten films now makes a profit, and theatre attendance has been on the decline for decades). This is key because the entertainment industry has become such an expensive arena it is necessary to have a mass audience to keep it going. And the reason it has become so expensive, I would argue, has less to do with the cost of technology than with the cost of industrialization. While the cost of producing the arts has gone up, in some cases spectacularly, what has really taken off is the cost of their distribution and promotion. As a consequence the arts, which have always been market-oriented, have now entered the cancer stage of capitalism – a vast tumor of administrative and managerial rot.

How did this happen? As the rest of the arts struggled to survive into the twenty-first century, they had to adapt – or more properly converge with the entertainment industry – in order to survive. And, to borrow another term from contemporary economics, this evolution has increasingly taken the form of a disastrous race to the bottom. The link between the decline in publishing and its imitation of the worst excesses of the movie industry (again, the only viable economic model available) provides one example of how this has worked. In a review of two recent books on publishing, Scott Stossel asks

What happened? How did backlists and small print runs get cast aside in favor of the blockbuster-at-all-costs mentality? How did the relationship between editor and author change from being a long-term partnership based on ideas and words on the page to being a contractual obligation based on marketing, publicity, returns, profit margins, agents and remainders?

Change a few words – “residuals” for “remainders,” “producer” for “editor” – and you have an exact repetition of the complaints that have been coming out of the film industry for at least the last two decades. The “blockbuster-at-all costs mentality” (self-perpetuating, since the business is so wasteful it is always in need of blockbusters to bail it out) and its attendant star system of celebrity, long a source of despair for filmgoers, has now become the accepted business model in a book industry where, between 1986 and 1996, 63 of the top 100 best-sellers in the U.S. were written by just six authors.

The question of whether movies and television can even be considered art is, from this point of view, unimportant. What is important is the business model they have used to survive. Film is, as a technology, on its way out anyway. Almost certainly the dominant art form of the next century will be some kind of interactive, digital entertainment. But the business model, one that has shown that it can create a viable new industrial art, is likely to continue. What are the defining characteristics of this model? In outline, what will the new industrial art be like?

What it will involve, first of all, is an overwhelming emphasis on promotion and advertising. Make no mistake: Huge budgets are required to get people to buy things in today’s economy, and this is no different for books and movies than it is for cars and mutual funds. Anybody, at least in theory, can go out and make a low-budget “indie” film or self-publish a novel, but at the end of the day it will still take a small fortune to distribute and promote it. The numbers I have heard quoted usually place the budget of Blair Witch Project at around $40,000. Distribution and advertising, however, may have been as high as $20 million (and that’s not including the bogus Internet campaign that was used to generate the initial hype). I admit this is an extreme case, but it does give some idea of just how much capital is involved in simply getting a work out there. It is not at all untypical for P&A to equal production costs, even for very expensive movies. This “cost of doing business” is something many e-authors have yet to learn, though the failure of a brand name like Stephen King should have made it clear to everyone (see here for the notes I took at the time).

To return to the fundamental economic problem with the arts that we began with, we can see how necessary advertising is in creating a demand for art; that is, creating an audience. For John Kenneth Galbraith, writing in The New Industrial State, this manufacture of demand by advertising is an absolutely essential component of an industrial economy. This is because the things made by such an economy are so expensive and take so long to bring from the concept stage to their actual production (sound familiar?). When they finally do get to market, the consumer must be primed and ready to buy. It is not enough to simply build a better mouse-trap; one has to create the demand for it as well.

One objection to this is to say that advertising, while perhaps a necessary evil, is not really a quality of art itself, and so doesn’t have any part in the present discussion. This is, however, hard to accept. As any student of the rise of film will tell you, the star system is what made Hollywood, not the other way around. As Galbraith understood, advertising is not just the business of selling a product, it is something that is understood to be essential to the product from Day One.

Along with the marketing of the new industrial art has come another concept borrowed from the economics of industrial marketing: Dynamic obsolescence. This is the essence of disposability that in “What Has Changed” I took to be the most profound shift in our thinking about, and relation to, art in the past century. What I said there is, I think, worth repeating:

In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.

That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.

It took an American artist to see how in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, and no more. Warhol’s point wasn’t that everyone would be able to enjoy a brief flash of celebrity, a democracy of fame, but that even the biggest celebrities (that is, what artists would be known as in the future) would have to measure the duration of their fame on a stopwatch. Perhaps more than anyone else he saw the relation between industrial mass production and art in our time for what it was.

We can pity the authors. In a review of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold appearing in the New Observer, the author made the point that while saving old newspapers may be a noble idea in theory, only a little bit of our written record can be expected to last. He then brought up the example of Stanley Elkin, a highly regarded author whose work basically fell out of print almost immediately after his death in 1995. He might have added the name of the Australian novelist Patrick White. Last year it was brought to my attention that none of White’s fiction was available in the U. S.

Now make no mistake: These authors were not nobodies. Elkin had won several major awards. In 1973 White won the Nobel Prize! When I was at university in Toronto in the early 1990s there was a separate course offered in the fiction of Patrick White. Less than ten years ago Elkin and White would have been considered two of the leading writers in the English language. Yet shortly after their deaths their work had all but disappeared.

Faulkner once described writers as just a bunch of people who wanted to put their “Kilroy was here” on the wall. By the 21st century those walls were crumbling down.

And this is only the fate of giants. According to a New Republic essay, authors of e-literature are affected by something called the “anxiety of obsolescence”: fearing that the software they use to compose and present their work will become antiquated. We might expect such a condition to soon reach epidemic proportions. But the problem is deeper than the obsolescence of print in a visual culture, or the publication of electronic books time coded to self-destruct at the end of a semester or a set number of hours. As I began by pointing out, what characterizes contemporary art are not the changes we have seen in technology, but in their production and marketing. This is obvious when we consider how important, even necessary it is that art be disposable. “Dynamic obsolescence” is a key component of the industrial system. Is it any wonder Ford thought history was bunk? For an auto manufacturer it has to be. Ditto for Bill Gates. We shouldn’t be surprised such a useful tool has found its way into the industrial production of the arts. Dynamic obsolescence, in the words of art critic Robert Hughes, is simply the “commodified cousin” of the avant garde.

We speak too much of the death of history without considering that what this really signifies is the death of any sense of posterity. You don’t have to be a profound metaphysician to realize that the future is the past, only differently located. And if art doesn’t have a future, just what is it anyway? As Leslie Halliwell said of film: “no longer an art, or even a craft,” but rather “an exploitation industry designed to take quick money from suckers.”

Grim enough, but it gets worse. The second characteristic of the new industrial art will be its corporate nature. Since only very large corporations are capable of affording the scale of advertising and control over distribution networks that will get their products effectively placed before the public, it is only very large corporations that will be able to get an audience.

The indirect result of this is art by committee (or “creative management teams”), a subject that I looked at in an earlier essay (“The Death of the ‘Author’.”) Again we need to look at the example of film. For years the debate has raged over whether movies can be considered art forms since they are obviously not the product of a single creative intelligence or imagination. Halliwell again: “True art is the work of one man, or at least his personal vision: each film is the work of several hundred people.” For a while the French tried to make the case for an auteur, but American critics, perhaps more comfortable with the industrial production of culture, have never been thrilled by such a theory (except where it can be co-opted into a form of celebrity). When F. Scott Fitzgerald went to Hollywood he had no trouble reading the writing on the wall:

I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best-selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.

The erasure of personality – for which I read originality, creativity, imagination – by the inevitable “low gear of collaboration” is pretty much complete now. The result is our “mechanical and communal,” or new industrial art.

And again, the question of whether movies can be considered art is not important. Markets, which don’t even have a morality, can hardly be expected to have an aesthetic. What is important is the success of the entertainment industry’s business model. You can say that a movie made by a bunch of suits sitting around a boardroom is an insult to the very idea of art (“What man . . . ” cries Baudelaire from the grave), but you can’t say the corporate system hasn’t managed what more traditional arts have failed to do: create a mass audience for its product.

As a result of that success we are now seeing much the same thing going on with books. Is it any wonder there is so much attention being lavished on “insider” news in the publishing world (a trend mirrored by the growth of sources reporting on insider news throughout the entertainment industry)? After all, what’s really more important: The latest attempt at the Great American Novel, or the fact that super-agent/editor X is jumping ship to a rival corporation? Nowadays authors are said to belong to a “stable” (a place all too many of them belong). Management is everything. After all, if writers are going to make seven-figure deals before they’re even published, who cares if they’re any good? The true artist is his agent. A British literary agent writing in the London Guardian recently could barely control his glee at the current state of affairs:

The greatest difference between the profile of literary agents in 1888 and 2001 is demonstrated by this article: in a media-conscious age, agents have stepped out of the shadows, and seem to be a subject of interest to people beyond writers and aspiring writers. We are seen as the brokers of authors’ careers, and – can it be true? – quite glamorous, at least in a B-list sort of way. There are even some agents who are more famous than their authors.

It is hard not to see all of this as throwing the baby out with the bathwater; or, to put it more precisely, throwing the artist out with the art. But what is most disturbing about the corporate production of art is not that it happens, or even that it works, but what it tells us about the present status of individual creativity, which I would place at an all-time low. Which brings us to the final element of the new industrial art: the manufacture and marketing of celebrity.

Since celebrities are, in effect, brand names, they can be attached to virtually any product. It should therefore come as no surprise that celebrity will help sell books. Poetry, for example, is pretty much dead in terms of its sales. A new book of poetry will often only have a run of 1,000 copies. A printing of 10,000 copies is considered huge. Yet when the actress/singer/pop icon Jewel Kirchner decided to add “poet” to her résumé, her debut collection A Night Without Armor sold over 700,000 copies! Again, whether the book was any good or not becomes, in the face of such figures, totally irrelevant.

As Neil Postman has it, in a post-expositional world all “content” is an irrelevance. Image really is everything. Hence the complaints, growing in recent years, that new authors be “beautiful,” telegenic and glib. Postman notes how Americans will never elect a bald president. Can it be long before no one will read a bald author? (Trust me, I’m not being facetious.) Looks sell books. Why? Again we find Warhol ahead of us, foreseeing an art of the future that will merely be an empty form that we pour celebrity into. And this celebrity, I must add, is not a celebration of the individual or the result of any personal charisma, but entirely a social/corporate construction. “Personal charisma” may be taken as an oxymoron in today’s media environment.

I think it’s possible to now attempt some conclusions, or at least advanced speculations on the future of art.

The forms the art of the future will take are anybody’s guess, and are likely to be determined by new technology anyway. But these new forms, as I have tried to argue, are unimportant. What will determine the nature and quality of future art will be the production model it chooses to follow, and whether we like it or not there is only one model that is currently viable. The new industrial art will be massively advertised, produced by corporations and branded with celebrity.

I don’t think any of this should strike us as surprising. There were two giant shifts in the definition of art at the end of the twentieth century. The first was the rejection of the idea that art is the creation of an individual The second is our loss of faith in art being, if not eternal, at least enduring in some sense of the word. We will have to learn to live with the results.

On a personal note, I should conclude with my own thoughts and feelings on what I am resigned to believe is an inevitable process. While I am cynical about the changes taking place, I can’t say that it bothers me much. There will, for example, always be plenty of good books to read, even if people stop writing them tomorrow (which isn’t going to happen). The thing I regret the most about the triumph of the new industrial art is what I have referred to elsewhere as the death of the “author.” Right or wrong, enlightened or naïve, a belief in individual creativity, imagination, and talent has been with us, at least in the West, for a long time, and it is really a shame to see it go – mocked on the way out as a kind of bad joke. It may well be that artistic genius was never anything more than a Romantic myth; but if so then it was truly a “lie that worked.” It is hard to imagine the desire to create meaningful art will long survive its loss.

Essay first published online December 11, 2001.


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