THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST: HOW CREATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN THE AGE OF BILLIONAIRES AND BIG TECH
By William Deresiewicz
A lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say in The Death of the Artist isn’t all that new. The collapse of the arts economy, mainly as a result of the digital revolution, has been well documented in such earlier books as Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash. Still, it’s an important transformation that needs to be recorded and analyzed, and I welcome any fresh perspective on the ongoing crisis.
Deresiewicz gives us that fresh perspective mainly through a series of interviews with artists who are trying to make it in the new entertainment order. These aren’t all tales of doom and gloom, though most of them are and the few success stories seem limited to me, while also underlining just how much has changed. In talking with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers Deresiewicz shows us how real lives have been impacted, as well as what coping/survival strategies have been adopted. So while fascinating in their own right, there’s also some practical information relayed relating to what is “the central question that is raised by this book as a whole: how to keep your soul intact and still make a living as an artist.”
Lanier has already made one dark prophecy, that in the future art may be the sole preserve of the privileged. But while Deresiewicz is alert to the danger of the arts becoming merely “a rich kid’s game,” that may be too pessimistic. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there. Unfortunately, while “success” (the word has different meanings) in the arts may be open to all, it is only so as a lottery. This being the preferred word of many interviewees to describe the current economy, and the one I would adopt as well.
Where I found the book most interesting is the stress that is (correctly, I believe) put on the way these transformations are tracking the widening inequality in American life more generally. “As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.” The arts are very much part of that “everywhere,” which means “the devastation of the arts economy . . . is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality.” Now ask yourself when you see such a trend being reversed.
This leads to the next important point. If things continue, as I think they will, on their present trajectory, what will the future of art look like? As Deresiewicz puts it, “What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?”
We might not be surprised that Alexis de Tocqueville has been here before us. Surveying the American literary scene in 1831 he writes of how Americans “like books that are easily procured, quickly read, and that do not require scholarly research to be understood. They insist on facile beauties that are self-evident and that can be immediately enjoyed; above all, they demand the unexpected and the new.” “Need I say more?” he continues. “Who cannot guess what is to follow?” But we really don’t have to guess. We’re familiar with it already:
Taken as a whole, the literature of democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, regularity, knowledge, and art that literature exhibits in aristocratic times. Form will usually be neglected and occasionally scorned. Style will frequently seem bizarre, incorrect, exaggerated, or flaccid and almost always seem brazen and vehement. Authors will aim for rapidity of execution rather than perfection of detail. Short texts will be more common than long books, wit more common than erudition, and imagination more common than depth. An uncultivated, almost savage vigor will dominate thought, whose products will frequently exhibit a very great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will seek to astonish rather than to please and to engage the passions rather than beguile taste.
Deresiewicz doesn’t mention Tocqueville, but I find this vision of the future of American writing fits the contemporary scene pretty neatly, and not just in terms of its literary productions.
In attempting to define the spirit of the age (at least in the arts) Deresiewicz settles on the word “producerism,” which makes central the twin ideas that art is now just content and that everyone is an artist. However, while rejecting the latter notion as absurd (even if this runs the risk of making him appear “a snobbish old asshole”), I don’t think he addresses how much sense it makes within a lottery economy (which would be my own way of defining the current paradigm). In a lottery everyone has a chance to make it, and so everyone is an artist. Dan Brown. Stephenie Meyer. E. L. James. Are these not authors? Artists? By present standards I think we have answer that they are. Indeed they are the most successful – and so representative? – of the new paradigm. As Deresiewicz recognizes, it’s crazy to say that the cream is rising to the top. But whatever it is that is rising to the top of a flooded zone (one can’t resist referencing how shit floats), that’s where we’re at. Bad art drives out good. Which means it isn’t bad.
Or at least so the poptimists would tell us. Criticism has gone the way of the arts. Today’s reviewers and critics have little left to do aside from offering superficial commentary on the vagaries of celebrity while reporting on the rankings of box office and bestseller lists. Art appreciation is all about liking things, and how we like them.
So, just as everyone’s an artist, everyone is now a critic. And like the corpses caught in the web of the monster haunting the sewers of Derry in Stephen King’s It, everyone floats. In 2018 YouTube’s top earner was reported to be someone named Ryan, who generated over $20 million in income. Ryan, you may be surprised, is a critic. His YouTube channel is a review program. He was also, in 2018, 7 years old, and his reviews consisted of opening up boxes of toys and playing with them. Need I say more?
Review first published online December 12, 2020.