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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Death of the Artist

How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech

William Deresiewicz

Henry Holt and Co.

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

PART I

THE BASIC ISSUES



1

INTRODUCTION



This is a book about art and money and the relationship between the two and how that relationship is changing and in turn changing art. It is a book about how artists—musicians, writers, visual artists, creators of film and television—are making a living, or struggling to, in the twenty-first-century economy.

A few vignettes:

Matthue Roth is a Hasidic Jewish memoirist, young adult novelist, children’s book author, short story writer, slam poet, video game designer, blogger, zinester, columnist, and screenwriter who once dated a non-Jewish sex worker, performed on Broadway with Def Poetry Jam, and became the only male member of Sister Spit, a feminist spoken-word collective in San Francisco, where he’d make Shabbos dinner for the riot grrrls. His books carry titles like Yom Kippur a Go-Go, Never Mind the Goldbergs, and My First Kafka (one of the children’s books). A sweet, almost childlike man, Roth composes in little notebooks during his hour-long commute between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and four children. If he gets an idea on the Sabbath (and he gets ideas all the time), he has to wait until dark to write it down.

Most of what Roth does earns little or no money. When he sold his first novel for $10,000 in 2004, the sum was roughly twice as much as he had made the year before. In 2016, after working for a Jewish website producing video content, an EdTech company creating video games, and Sesame Workshop writing science-related sketches, Roth responded to a blind posting on the Facebook page of a small New York–area game-writers group. It turned out to be for a job at Google. As a creative writer. His first position there was as a member of the “personality team” for Google Assistant, writing lines of dialogue and devising “Easter eggs”—surprise bonuses and jokes.

“Once I got the Google job, a lot of my friends were like, ‘Oh, you’ve hit easy street,’” Roth told me, “and I thought I had for about a week and a half.” But the job turned out to be contract work, with no benefits: good money for his young, single coworkers, less so for someone whose family spends about $30,000 a year on health insurance. His position was renewable for three to six months at a time, limited by state law to a total of two years. When we spoke, he was up to a year and a half. He was also facing down another benchmark. “Almost thirty-nine and a half,” he replied when I asked for his age. “I’m getting less young every day.” Roth went on to compare himself to the “Ocean of Notions,” the storyteller in Salman Rushdie’s children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories, whose “idea spigot runs dry” one day. “I’m scared shitless that my brain’s going to turn off or that I’m going to get too afraid to constantly come up with new and exciting ideas,” he said—and thus that, on the brink of midlife, he will become unemployable as a creative person.

Lily Kolodny (not her real name) is, by any reasonable standard, a successful young illustrator. Her charmingly childlike style has won her commissions from Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and many other well-known publishers and publications. “My friends would always say to me, ‘You’re so lucky, you’ve found the thing that you’re supposed to be doing,’” she told me. “And when I do feel talented, and I feel like I’m in the flow, I’m like, I know how to do this. I should be doing this.”

At the same time, Kolodny is consumed by financial anxiety. “I’ve always just survived,” she said. “I don’t have any savings, really.” When I asked her what her “nut” was—the number, in dollars, that she felt that she needed to get to each year—she said, “I don’t have a number, but that’s because I’ve been postponing the idea of having a number. It’s been hard for me to visualize the future.” Things had actually been looking up for her a bit around the time we spoke. In recent months, she had engaged in “conscience-free eating out” on several occasions, and had “bought a few things,” and was no longer constantly checking her bank account to see if the rent would clear. She was also working with an agent on a project that she hoped would bring her career to the next level, an “impressionistic semi-fictional illustrated memoir,” as she described it. “I’ve thought of it as my get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “But it’s not very quick,” she laughed, “it’s very slow.

“For me, that’s the golden egg,” Kolodny explained. “If that crashes and burns, then I have to assess everything.” And what would that assessment look like? What else could she do instead? Plan B would be teaching, ideally art but anything, if necessary. Plan C would be any job at all. “Everyone I know,” she said, “if they’re not in a nine-to-five job, or they’re not a trustafarian, they’re a yoga teacher, or an Uber driver, or a nanny.” It would be hard for her, after all these years, “to turn to something like that, that’s so disconnected from my trade.” But Kolodny, who was thirty-four at the time we spoke, also knew that she was reaching a decision point. “It’s not sustainable,” she said about her situation, “especially if I want to have a kid. Well, actually, if I want to have a kid—I do want to have a kid.”

Martin Bradstreet was twenty-nine when he got to live out his musical dreams. Bradstreet, who grew up in Australia and lives in Montréal, was the founder of the rock band Alexei Martov. (Their music can best be described as loud.) The band built a following around Montréal with shows that they promoted on Facebook. Then, in 2015, Bradstreet decided to put together a tour. For a musician like him, he told me, that’s what success is: “touring around in a van, playing songs you worked on with your friends,” expressing something meaningful to total strangers.

So Bradstreet got online, searched for bands that were similar to his, and looked at tour schedules, hundreds of them, to identify the venues where those bands had played. Then he went on Indie on the Move, a database of venues, for contact information. Places are more likely to book you, he said, if you approach them with a full program already lined up—meaning you plus a couple of local acts—so he’d look up, say, eighty bands in Louisville and listen to their music to find the most compatible ones to reach out to. Then, he said, “you’ve got to work out how to promote a show in a city you’ve never been to, at a venue you’ve never played at, with bands you don’t know,” which he did, in part, by getting the venues to give him their media contacts so he could approach the latter directly.

Yes, Bradstreet agreed, it’s a lot of work, but thanks to the Internet, all you need to tour is work. You’re going to lose money at first, he explained, but money wasn’t the point for him. (Bradstreet was supporting himself on his savings from online poker and, as he put it, “other investments.”) He would have liked to get to the next level—a publicist, a booking agent, a record deal—but, he said, “there are a lot of really talented me’s out there.” By the time we spoke, Bradstreet had moved on to other pursuits. “It does seem like playing music for a living would be a nice thing to have done,” he said, growing wistful, “but it’s tough to fit everything together especially in modern life as you get older.” Still, he had no regrets. Of the tour’s roughly fifty shows, he said, “half are amongst the best hundred nights of my life.”

Micah Van Hove is a self-taught independent filmmaker from Ojai, California. Van Hove did not go to film school or even college. His work, he told me, has been “entirely enabled by the Internet” and what he’s been able to learn there. For him, if television is like fiction, film is like poetry. “It’s about communicating as much as possible in the least amount of time,” he said. “There are just certain moments in life that seem to be all-encompassing, or the smallness of something hints at the infinite sprawl of the human experience, and I’ve always been interested in those moments, because they happen at the weirdest, most random times.”

He learned, he told me, by doing, by “falling face first into it.” On the first day of shooting his first short, he brought his camera but forgot the lens. His first feature, which he financed on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site, and made for about $40,000, a “micro-budget” sum, took five years. Van Hove, who grew up poor, had been crashing with friends for most of the previous decade and often still found himself sleeping on floors. He would have been happy to live with his mother, but she was worse off than he was. “It depends on what you can sacrifice,” he said. “I can sacrifice having a roof over my head. Most people can’t give that up, and it cripples them.”

When we spoke, Van Hove was just completing his second feature, having been up doing edits until 5:00 a.m. the night before. He was planning to submit the film to as many festivals as he could afford the entrance fees for, maybe ten to twenty. “I’m on the precipice of seeing if everything I’ve learned is going to work,” he said. Yet he felt ready to take the next step—writing a solid script and piecing together some real financing, on the order of $500,000—“and people can sense when you’re ready.” What keeps him going? I asked. “I’m about to be thirty,” he said. “I made a decision nine years ago that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. I went all in, and I’m all in.” Now it was about discovering what he had to contribute. “Because I do see it as a lineage,” he said. “We observe the art that came before us, and we secrete it in our own way as a way to talk about the world and shape the world.”

* * *

There are two stories you hear about making a living as an artist in the digital age, and they are diametrically opposed. One comes from Silicon Valley and its boosters in the media. There’s never been a better time to be an artist, it goes. If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a recording studio. If you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera. GarageBand, Final Cut Pro: all the tools are at your fingertips. And if production is cheap, distribution is free. It’s called the Internet: YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Kindle Direct Publishing. Everyone’s an artist; just tap your creativity and put your stuff out there. Soon, you too can make a living doing what you love, just like all those viral stars you read about.

The other story comes from artists themselves, especially musicians but also writers, filmmakers, people who do comedy. Sure, it goes, you can put your stuff out there, but who is going to pay you for it? Digital content has been demonetized: music is free, writing is free, video is free, even images you put up on Facebook or Instagram are free, because people can (and do) just take them. Everyone is not an artist. Making art takes years of dedication, and that requires a means of support. If things don’t change, a lot of art will cease to be sustainable.

I’m inclined to believe the artists. For one thing, I don’t trust Silicon Valley. They have billions of reasons to promote their particular narrative, and it’s clear by now they’re not the model corporate citizens they like to claim. For another, the data support the artists, who are also, after all, in the best position to know about their own experience.

Still, people are still making art. More people than ever, in fact, as the techies like to point out. So how are they managing to do it? Are the new conditions tolerable? Are they sustainable? Are they more democratic—that “even playing field” the Internet was meant to give us? How are artists adjusting? How are they resisting? How are they thriving, those of them who are? What does it mean, in specific practical terms, to function as an artist in the twenty-first-century economy?

The twenty-first-century economy: that means the Internet and all it’s wrought, for good and ill, but it also means rental costs, for housing and studio space, that are galloping ahead of inflation. It means soaring tuitions for college and art school and, with them, soaring student debt. It means the growth of the gig economy, coupled with the long-term stagnation of wages, especially for the kind of low-end day-job service work that younger artists, in particular, have long resorted to. It means globalization: globalized competition, globalized capital flows. Many of us who are not artists, maybe most of us, are also facing these facts or soon will. Artists were among the first, and they’ve been hit among the worst.

* * *

Being an artist, people might argue, has always been hard. Sort of—that “always” goes back only so far—but for whom, exactly, has it been hard? For younger artists, who are still trying to establish themselves; for artists who aren’t very good, of whom there is never a shortage; for those who are good but who never manage to find an audience, to find success. The difference now is that it’s hard even if you do find success: reach listeners or readers, win the respect of critics and peers, work steadily and full-time in the field. I spoke about these matters with Ian MacKaye, frontman of the hardcore bands Fugazi and Minor Threat and a leading figure in the indie music scene since the early 1980s. “I know plenty of filmmakers,” he said, “who poured their heart and soul and all their money into projects long before the Internet who lost their fucking ass, because not enough people wanted to see their movie.” And that is as it should be. The problem now is that you often lose your fucking ass even if enough people do want to see your movie, read your novel, listen to your music.

Being an artist has always been hard, but there is hard and hard. How hard matters. How hard affects how much you get to do your art, as opposed to grinding at your day job, and therefore how good you become, as well as how much you are able to make. How hard affects who gets to do it in the first place. The less you can earn from your art, the more you must rely on other sources of support, like Mommy and Daddy. The less money there is in the arts overall, the more they become a rich kid’s game. And wealth correlates with race and gender. If you care about diversity, you need to care about economics. The idea that “people will do it anyway”—that if you’re a real artist you’ll make art no matter what—can be the product only of naïveté or ignorance or privilege.

If many of us are oblivious to the plight of artists in the contemporary economy, there is an obvious reason for that. Not only is there a lot of art being made, there is much, much more of it, at lower cost, than ever. For consumers of art, there really hasn’t ever been a better time—at least, not if you equate quantity with quality, or do not worry overmuch about the workers at the other end of the supply chain. First we had fast food, then we had fast fashion (low-cost, disposable clothing made by poorly paid workers in places like Vietnam and Bangladesh), now we have fast art: fast music, fast writing, fast video, photography, design, and illustration, made cheaply and consumed in haste. We can gorge ourselves to our heart’s content. How nourishing these products are and how sustainable the systems that create them are questions that we need to ask ourselves.

* * *

How artists get paid (and how much) affects the art they make: the art we get to experience, the art that marks our age and shapes our consciousness. This has always been the case. Art may be timeless, in the sense that it transcends its time, but art, like every other human thing, is also made in time, conditioned by the circumstances under which it is brought into being. People prefer to deny this, but every artist understands it. We get more of what we support, less of what we don’t. Art that is truly original—experimental, revolutionary, new—has always been a marginal affair. In good times for the arts, more of it gets dragged across the line of viability, where it is able to survive—where the artist can stick around and keep doing it—until it can be recognized. In bad times, more of it gets dragged the other way. What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?

The people who pay for art are the ones who determine, directly or otherwise, what is produced: Renaissance patrons, nineteenth-century bourgeois theatergoers, the mass audiences of the twentieth century, public and private funding bodies, sponsors, collectors, and so forth. The twenty-first-century economy not only has sucked a lot of money out of the arts, it has also moved it around in ways that are unpredictable and not by any means all bad. New financial sources have arisen, most notably crowdfunding sites; old ones are making a comeback, like direct private patronage; existing ones are getting variously stronger, like branded art and other forms of corporate sponsorship, or weaker, like academic employment. All this is also changing what gets made.

My largest interest in this book is to delineate those changes. The Internet allows unmediated access to the audience—and to the artist. If it starves professional production, it fosters the amateur kind. It favors speed, brevity, and repetition; novelty but also recognizability. It puts a premium on flexibility, versatility, and extroversion. All of this (and a great deal more) is changing what we think of art, as well: changing what we think is good, changing what we think is art.

Will art itself survive? I don’t mean creativity, or making stuff—playing music, drawing pictures, telling stories. We have always done those things and always will. I mean a particular notion of art—Art with a capital A—that has existed only since the eighteenth century: art as an autonomous realm of meaning making, not subordinate to the old powers of church and king or the new powers of politics and the market, beholden to no authority, no ideology, and no master. I mean the notion that the artist’s job is not to entertain the audience or flatter its beliefs, not to praise the Lord, the group, or the sports drink, but to speak a new truth. Will that survive?

I talked with the musician Kim Deal, another longtime icon of the indie music scene. (Her bands include the Pixies and the Breeders.) Deal was raised in Dayton, Ohio, and lives there, in her fifties, once again. With no self-pity, she compared herself to the kinds of workers she grew up among in the industrial Midwest—increasingly, the postindustrial Midwest. “I’m an autoworker,” she told me. “I’m a steel man. I’m just another person in the history of the world where their industry has become archaic, and it’s gone.” Except that music isn’t like coal mining, or buggy-whip manufacture. We can live without buggy whips; we’ve found alternatives to coal. Music cannot be replaced. How much time during an average day do you spend consuming art? Not just visual-art art; not just high-art art; all art: narratives in books, narratives on television, jazz on the stereo, songs in your earphones, paintings, sculptures, photographs, concerts, ballet, movies, poetry, plays. Several hours a day, no doubt. Given the way that people listen to music at this point, possibly every waking minute.

Can we live without artists, professional ones? The tech evangelists would have us think so. We’ve returned, they insist, to the golden age of the amateur. Folk production, just like in the good old days. So of all that art that you consume, how much is actually created by amateurs? Other than your roommate’s band, probably not very much. Have you seen your cousin’s improv troupe? Is that the only kind of art you want to have available, not only for the rest of your life but for the rest of foreseeable history? Yes, you’ll have access to everything, but what will you have access to? Someone else’s roommate’s band? Great art, even good art, relies on the existence of individuals who are able to devote the lion’s share of their energy to producing it—in other words, professionals. Amateur creativity is no doubt a wonderful thing for those who engage in it. It should not be confused with the genuine article.

* * *

One of the more egregious examples of the techno-Pollyannaish line (and, among musicians, one of the most notorious) was published by Steven Johnson, a prominent writer on science and media theory, in the New York Times Magazine in 2015. The article, “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” rested on some very general (and poorly interpreted) data sets to argue that, guess what, there’s never been a better time to be an artist. In a response, “The Data Journalism That Wasn’t,” Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition, a research and advocacy group, dismantled Johnson’s argument brick by brick and then went on to say this: “If you want to know how musicians are faring, you have to ask musicians, preferably a whole lot of them. You’ll get different answers from different musicians, and they’ll all be correct in terms of their own experiences. But your overall understanding will better reflect the complexity of the landscape.”

So that’s what I did. I asked musicians, a whole lot of them—and novelists and memoirists and poets and playwrights, people who make documentaries and fiction films and television shows, painters and illustrators and cartoonists and conceptual artists. This book is based on roughly 140 lengthy formal interviews, and many informal conversations, with teachers, journalists, and activists; producers, editors, and dealers; consultants, administrators, and deans—but mostly with artists.

Stories of individual artists tend to take one of two forms. There are those tales of viral success that serve as propaganda for Silicon Valley: people like Chance the Rapper, who won a trio of Grammys without a record deal, or E. L. James, who spun her Twilight fanfic into Fifty Shades of Grey. Then there are, as there long have been, biographies and profiles of, or interviews with, successful artists of every variety. The latter are perfectly unobjectionable; we want to know more about these extraordinary individuals, including their ordinary origins and early struggles. But between the two genres, every story we hear about artists is a success story, and in every one, success appears to be inevitable, because it has already happened. Our ideas about the lives that artists live are distorted by a huge selection bias. The vast majority of artists, even of lifelong working ones—already a small percentage of the total—do not become rich or famous. It is those kinds of people I sought out to talk to: not the unicorns who’ve made it big, but artists like the writer Matthue Roth, the illustrator Lily Kolodny, the musician Martin Bradstreet, and the filmmaker Micah Van Hove. The bulk of my interview subjects, moreover, were younger practitioners, between the ages of about twenty-five and forty: people who are making their careers in the contemporary economy, and whose stories therefore have the most to say about the challenges of doing so.

A word about those interviews, which were the most rewarding and certainly the most moving part of writing this book. I decided to conduct them by phone rather than in person, because I sensed that the former arrangement—which would relieve my subjects of the self-consciousness of a face-to-face encounter—would make for more candid, more honest, less guarded interactions. And so it proved to be. I asked my subjects for an hour of their time. Invariably, the conversations ran long. Often, we’d stay on for an hour and a half, even two hours, as these individuals unfolded the most sensitive details of their financial lives. And at the end, it was often they who thanked me. People want to be heard. They want to tell their stories. I was humbled by the trust these strangers placed in me, and I can only hope, in the pages that follow, to have proven to be worthy of it.

* * *

I come to this project as both an outsider and an insider. I’m a writer, but I’m not an artist. (I like to describe the kind of work I do as noncreative nonfiction, if only because I believe that it’s important that there be at least one person in the world today, when “creativity” is the word on everybody’s lips, who stands up proudly and declares, “I am not creative.”) But for the last twelve years, I have also been a full-time freelance. In broad practical terms, my situation resembles my subjects’.

My life not in but near the arts began one day in 1987 when I walked into Tobi Tobias’s dance criticism class at Barnard College. (I was doing a master’s in journalism across the street at Columbia.) For the first assignment, Tobi didn’t send us to the theater. She sent us into the world, to simply look at people move. Look, and describe. That course changed my life. I learned that I had never seen the world before, because I’d never bothered to, and I also learned that that is what art and loving art are about: not being a snob, not distracting yourself, but seeing what’s in front of you. Finding out the truth.

That course really did change my life. It was the reason I decided, later that year, to go back to graduate school to study English literature, as I had always wanted to do (I had been a science major), and it was also the reason I became a critic: a dance critic in New York for ten years, then a book critic for about the last twenty. For the first ten of those twenty, I was also an English professor. I’ve been thinking about art my entire adult life.

Only once I was well into working on this book did I recognize its continuities with my previous one, about elite college education and the system leading students up to it. Both are about what our brutally unequal economy is forcing young people to do and be. Both are about the survival of the human spirit under the regime of that economy. Yet there is one big difference between the two projects. In my book about college, I largely avoided the question of money, because I wanted my readers to think about what else an education might be for. But money is the only thing that people want to think about when it comes to college these days. This book faces the opposite problem. It is all about money, and money is the last thing people want to think about when it comes to art. Why that is is where we need to start.



2

ART AND MONEY



According to the common way of thinking, a chapter with the title this one carries should be very short. One sentence, really: art has nothing to do with money, must have nothing to do with money, is defiled by contact with money, is degraded by the very thought of money.

These articles of faith are actually of relatively recent birth. In the Renaissance, when artists were still regarded as artisans, no one thought twice about exchanging art for cash. Artists worked to contract, with terms that specified, as the sociologist Alison Gerber puts it in The Work of Art, the particulars of “subject matter, size, pigment, time to delivery, and framing.” It was only in modernity, with the emergence of capital-A Art—art as an autonomous realm of expression—that the notion arose that art and commerce were mutually exclusive. As traditional beliefs were broken down across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—by modern science, by the skeptical critique of the Enlightenment—art inherited the role of faith, becoming a kind of secular religion for the progressive classes, the place where people went to meet their spiritual needs: for meaning, for guidance, for transcendence. Like religion before it, art was regarded as superior to worldly things. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

As with art, so with artists, the new priests and prophets. It was modernity that gave us the bohemian, the starving artist, and the solitary genius—images, respectively, of blissful unconventionality, monkish devotion, and spiritual election. Artistic poverty was seen as glamorous, an outward sign of inner purity.

To these ideas, the twentieth century added an overtly political and specifically anti-capitalist dimension. Art did not just stand outside the market; it was meant to oppose it: to join, if not to lead, the social revolution, which first of all would be a revolution of consciousness. And “the master’s tools,” as Audre Lorde famously wrote, “will never dismantle the master’s house.” To seek acceptance in the market was to be “co-opted”; to chase material rewards, to be a “sellout.”

So the case remains today. Words like “career” and “professional,” to say nothing of “property” (as in “intellectual property”), are widely seen as suspect in the arts. In music, people speak about the “indie code,” which includes disdain for money and success; if you make it as a band, I was told by Martin Bradstreet, you are, by definition, no longer indie. Serious visual art—the art of the “art world”—regards itself as a form of anti-hegemonic critical discourse. In his preface to an anthology of recent writing from the Paris Review, the nation’s flagship literary journal, Lorin Stein, then the publication’s editor in chief, deplored the idea that fledgling writers might be encouraged to think of themselves as professionals; the collection’s title, in fact, is The Unprofessionals. In his study The Gift, Lewis Hyde insists that the work of art belongs within a “gift economy,” not a system of commodity exchange. The book, a modern classic, remains a touchstone for artists nearly forty years after publication.

Such ideas are as fervently held among laypeople as they are among artists—if anything, more so. We don’t want the musicians we love to think about money, as one of my interview subjects remarked, and we don’t want to think about them thinking about it. Works of art do indeed exist in the realm of the spirit. In their purity and immateriality, their intensity of being, they give us a taste of the Garden, that unfallen state in which we believe our souls to have their proper home. And so we want our artists to be as pure as the art they create. We want them to behave as if the market, with its entanglements, does not exist. Or perhaps it is more precise today to say, as if it no longer exists: as if we had reached the condition, after the end of capitalism, of which so many now dream.

* * *

These are beautiful ideals, but they are, precisely, ideals, which must inevitably compromise when entering the world. Art may exist in the realm of the spirit, but artists do not. They have bodies as well as souls, and bodies make their gross demands. In plainer language, artists have to eat. The Gift is inspiring—to stay for a moment with that book, which has shaped so many people’s thinking on the subject—but it is telling that Hyde’s examples come exclusively from folktale, anthropology, poetry, and myth, with scarcely a word about the actual history of the relationship between art and money.

Hyde’s book hides the truth: gift economies are always sustained by underlying systems of support that ultimately depend, at least in modern societies, upon the market. That includes the one of which Hyde is, and I was, a member: academia. Hyde believes that science is a gift economy (as is, by extension, scholarship in general) because scientists do not receive payment for publishing their work. But of course they do: indirectly, from their universities, in the form of the jobs they get to keep, or the raises and promotions they receive, for being academically productive. Prestige is negotiated, under the table, for cold coin: the more prominent a scholar is, the more he or she tends to get paid. Universities, in turn, are funded by tuition, grants, taxes, and other monies, all of which are ultimately generated by the market.

I saw this kind of mystification all the time in academia, especially when graduate students at my institution sought to form a union (because, like artists, they were getting screwed). One tenured professor—he owned a very fancy house, and a very fancy second house—would practically clutch his pearls at any talk of money in relation to the work that academics do. Money: what money? Money: how vulgar! We work for the love of it, the idea was, and the university rewards us out of its own high-minded generosity. Nothing to do with the market at all.

So it is in the arts, another realm replete with left-leaning professionals and the nonprofit institutions through which they earn their livings. Status, accumulated through a system of credentialing, is convertible, at one remove, to cash. A writer may earn nothing from her poetry collection, likely published by a nonprofit press, but it will help her win a faculty position. A museum show pays nothing to the sculptor, but it raises the prices his dealer can charge. Grants, awards, residencies, lectures, commissions: all are ways that institutions launder money—often received from very rich donors, who didn’t make it playing patty-cake—for artists. You aren’t paid for selling anything, God forbid, just for being who you are and doing what you do.

False consciousness, also known as denial, shades over into hypocrisy. Katrina Frye is a young photographer who became a consultant—in effect, a career and life coach—for artists of all kinds in the Los Angeles area. “Stop BS-ing yourself,” she tells her clients. “Don’t pretend you’re selling your soul by trying to make something commercial. Guess what, you already are” making something commercial. The film director Mitchell Johnston (not his real name) told me this about the leading venue where Hollywood scouts for new talent: “Most people at Sundance are independent looking to become dependent.” Such posturing is endemic to the art world, where questions of money are particularly fraught, given the close adjacency of revolutionary rhetoric to small mountains of cash. “It is important to create the illusion that it’s not a business,” says one anonymous contributor in I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette (a pamphlet published by the indie art press Paper Monument), “and that your relationships do not exist to serve your career.” Artists like Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, in naughtily flaunting their interest in money, writes the Dutch economist Hans Abbing in Why Are Artists Poor?, exemplify a common refinement: “By being ironic about what lies at the core of the arts, the art world playfully consolidates the denial of the economy.”

You can also just lie. If artists don’t talk about money, that’s often because they’d rather not discuss their own, especially if it has come to them from parents or spouses. There’s a great deal of privilege, financial and otherwise, across the arts, as well as a strong desire to conceal it. The writer Sarah Nicole Prickett, who grew up middle class in London, Ontario, has talked about the kinds of lives she discovered upon entering the New York literary world, individuals with “secret money” and “calm cool expectations.” In her essay “‘Sponsored’ by My Husband: Why It’s a Problem That Writers Never Talk about Where Their Money Comes From,” the novelist Ann Bauer mentions two acclaimed authors, one “the heir to a mammoth fortune,” one who was raised in the lap of the literary establishment. Both lied by omission—in front of large audiences, and in response to young, impressionable questioners—about the advantages that had helped them achieve their success. Talking about your trust fund or your sweet connections, the feeling seems to be—or about the way you had to hustle, network, and throw a few elbows—would undermine the impression that you earned it all through your own awesome specialness.

In the ultimate form of disingenuousness, images of artistic purity are themselves deployed as marketing strategies. The dodge has been common in music since at least the 1960s. Poverty is authenticity, and authenticity is everything. Bands will take limos to photo shoots where they dress up as bohemian vagabonds. As for the art world, Hans Abbing writes, “It is often commercial to be a-commercial. Expressing anti-market values can add to one’s success in the market.” Money isn’t absent in the arts; it is dissembled.

* * *

The principal victims of this conspiracy of pious make-believe are the artists, typically young ones, who are too ingenuous to spot the double game. If artists are often naïve about money, that’s because they’ve been told not to think about it. If they are often helpless when it comes to managing their careers, that’s because they’ve been instructed to regard “career” as a dirty word. The major thing, Katrina Frye told me, that she needs to teach her clients—who often come to her, still in their twenties, already jaded and burnt out from being shafted for so long—is to lower the psychological barriers to earning their living as artists, to silence the inner voices. “All this judgment about money and art,” she tells them, “it’s all fake. It’s made up.”

I cannot think of another field in which people feel guilty about being paid for their work—and even guiltier for wanting to be. The writer Adelle Waldman, who had a surprise hit with her debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., told me that she felt lazy about living, for the moment, off the proceeds, even though she wasn’t paid a penny for all the years it took her to write the book (and even though she was continuing to write). Sammus is an Afro-futurist MC and rapper in her early thirties. She told me that the first time one of her CDs received any traction (it sold about three hundred copies on the online music platform Bandcamp), she had so much anxiety about asking for money for it that she put it up for free on SoundCloud a week later. Lucy Bellwood took a gap year at the age of sixteen, during which she went to sea on a full-scale replica of a Revolutionary Era sailing vessel; later, she launched her career as a professional cartoonist by documenting the experience in a charming book-length comic called Baggywrinkles: A Lubber’s Guide to Life at Sea. Bellwood has delivered an entire talk about her tormented relationship with money: her fear of lifelong poverty; her shame about having taken food stamps; her hard-won realization—she pronounces the words as if the notion were taboo—that “you’re allowed to want” “the stability of a reasonable income.” You can’t win as an artist, she suggested: either you’re a fraud because you aren’t making enough from your work or you’re greedy because you are making too much. “Too fat, too thin; too tall, too short”: whichever way you turn, the world will bombard you with judgments.

The effects are not just psychological. Bellwood talked about her shame about negotiating for higher fees, and she is hardly alone. The illustrator Andy J. Miller (who goes professionally by Andy J. Pizza) has devoted himself—through his podcast, Creative Pep Talk, as well as through classes, talks, and books—to educating artists about the realities of career. In his own industry, he told me, he sees “all these artists who have all this baggage with money, underselling themselves, while the people that are smart with money are profiting from them.” The indie code in music appears to include being okay with being ripped off—not being paid for a gig, or not as much as you were promised. (Hey, you didn’t do it for the money, right?) Because writers and other artists do create for nonmaterial reasons, I was told by Mark Coker, the founder of the e-book distribution platform Smashwords, “these people are ripe for being exploited.” That exploitation can take many forms: from outright theft; to self-sabotage like Bellwood’s; to the monetization of digital content without appropriate compensation; to the underpayment by arts organizations, including nonprofits, of the artists who work for them. But at its root is the perception that artists shouldn’t ask for money in the first place—that, as another of my subjects put it, “art should just be art.”

* * *

Art is work. The fact that people do it out of love, or self-expression, or political commitment doesn’t make it any less so. Nor does the fact that it isn’t a job, a matter of formal employment. Chefs often do what they do out of love, but no one expects to eat for free. Organizers do it from political commitment, but they are compensated for their time. Self-employment is still employment. Even if you do not have a boss, it’s work.

If art is work, then artists are workers. No one likes to hear this. Nonartists don’t, because it shatters their romantic ideas about the creative life. Artists don’t either, as people who have tried to organize them as workers have told me. They also buy into the myths; they also want to think they’re special. To be a worker is to be like everybody else. Yet to accept that art is work—in the specific sense that it deserves remuneration—can be a crucial act of self-empowerment, as well as self-definition. In “With Compliments,” her contribution to the volume Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, the journalist-turned-carpenter-turned-memoirist Nina MacLaughlin speaks of learning to reject the idea that praise, opportunity, and exposure are adequate forms of compensation for writing, any more than they would be for building a house. “People wonder when you’re allowed to call yourself a writer,” she concludes. “I think maybe the answer is when you recognize that it is work.”

Art is hard. It never just comes to you. The idea of effortless inspiration is another romantic myth. For amateurs, making art may be a form of recreation, but no one, amateur or professional, who has tried to do it with any degree of seriousness is under the illusion that it’s easy. “A writer,” said Thomas Mann, “is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” More difficult, because there is more for you to do, more that you know how to do, and because you hold yourself to higher standards. It would be very easy for me to draw you a picture, because I don’t know how to draw. It also wouldn’t be any good, and I wouldn’t expect you to pay me for it. Sammus, the Afro-futurist rapper, changed her mind about charging for her music as she put more and more into it. “The idea of valuing my art—that became real,” she told me: “putting a price on the things that I’ve created,” finding a monetary equivalent for “sleepless nights and anxiety and all of the relationships that working on music for that amount of time had cost me. Now I absolutely feel comfortable putting a dollar amount on my work.”

Art has value. It ought to have financial value. No, people don’t deserve to get paid for doing something they love—an argument you often hear in connection with issues like piracy—but they do deserve to get paid for doing something you love, something other people love. That’s how markets work, by putting a price on other forms of value. Wanting to get paid does not mean that you’re a capitalist. It doesn’t even mean that you assent to capitalism. It only means that you live in a capitalist society. No one could be a better leftist than Lise Soskolne, the head of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy), which organizes for the fair compensation of artists, studio assistants, and other workers in the art world, but the group’s manifesto calls for “the remuneration of cultural value in capital value.” The writer and visual artist Molly Crabapple, another exemplary leftist, puts it like this in her essay “Filthy Lucre”: “Not talking about money is a tool of class war.” Being a leftist is not about pretending that the market does not exist; it’s about working within it, as long as it exists, for economic justice—for people to be paid, not as little as their bosses or their audience can get away with, but as much as their work is worth.

Artists are not in it to get rich. (And if they were, so what? Since when are someone’s motives a reason to decide how much to pay them?) The only artists who fantasize about getting rich are newbies and wannabes. The rest know the truth: becoming an artist is usually a choice to make less than you otherwise could. Artists persevere, despite financial hardship, because autonomy and fulfillment are worth more to them than wealth. (Which is also not a reason not to pay them.) Even within their careers, they often make decisions not to maximize their income—to forgo opportunities that might be lucrative, at least compared to others, but don’t seem very interesting. When artists assert that they ought to get paid, and paid fairly, it’s because they want to make a living, not a killing. They want enough to keep doing it. Artists are like other professionals who work from a sense of commitment—teachers, social workers—and who opt for satisfaction over wealth. They still have bills to pay. You don’t have to be doing something for the money to want to get money for doing it. You just have to be alive.

* * *

But artists, or some of them, are wrong about one thing. A number of the people I spoke with said that artists (that is, all of them) should be supported by the public: as a practical matter, to address the economic crisis in the arts, and because they deserve it. But they don’t deserve it—not just for being artists. Monica Byrne is an award-winning dramatist and science fiction writer whose works include What Every Girl Should Know, a play about the fight for legal birth control, and The Girl in the Road, a near-future novel set in India, Africa, and the Arabian Sea. “We just take it for granted,” she told me, that “nobody makes a living writing short stories. Why not? It’s a full-time job.” But it’s not a job, not in the sense that anybody asked you to do it. People should get paid for writing stories others want to read, not just for writing them at all. Artists work on spec. You write a story, and then you hope that someone will pay you to publish it. Or you publish it yourself, today, and hope that your readers will pay you directly. You are satisfying a demand that you can’t be sure exists, and if it doesn’t exist, you’re out of luck. Nobody deserves support, public or otherwise, for making something no one wants. Artists, in that respect, are not any different from people who open restaurants or shops, many of which also fail. Being an artist is not a job. In economic terms, it is a business.

With a job, you are paid for your time: daily or weekly or monthly, as the case may be, according to a rate that’s calculated by the hour or the year. Your expenses relative to work, with the probable exception of commuting costs, are typically modest. And if you work on commission, or as an independent contractor, you do so under terms that are agreed to in advance, and payment is guaranteed assuming successful performance.

Making art is different. It begins with an investment—often large, often borne entirely by the artist. It is, first of all, an investment of time: a month to complete a painting; two or three years to write and produce an album; three, four, five years to finish a novel. Time, of course, is money—the money it takes to support yourself (and maybe your family) during that time. The investment is also usually financial in a stricter sense, as well. Remember that even a “micro-budget” movie might cost on the order of $40,000 (and often, in fact, a great deal more). Recording an album in any serious way means paying for studio time and personnel, session players, the cost of mastering; one of the musicians I spoke with put her typical total at $20,000. In the visual arts, you pay for tools and materials, which cost a lot, as well as for studio space, which costs even more. And all of this before you know if your investment will produce returns.

Where does that money—that capital—come from? That is always the question. Furnishing an answer, by acting as a source of outside investment, is the most important thing the culture industry does. Publishers offer advances in exchange for a share of future profits, as do record labels. Film and television studios sign development deals. All of them also defray production costs—editors and book designers; recording studios and engineers; actors, cameras, crew—as well as paying for marketing and publicity. Yes, the culture industry has problems, the main one being that it shuts so many people out. The major labels can sign only a very small percentage of all the musical acts that are out there. Throw in the indies, where advances are tiny in any case, and you still exclude the vast majority of musicians. Before the Internet, such people had nowhere to go. Now we have crowdfunding sites, especially Kickstarter, which focuses exclusively on creative projects and is designed to provide the seed money, the venture capital, that would otherwise arrive as an advance.

But there is one more crucial source of start-up funds for art: art. Working artists float their current projects, at least in part, with the money they made from their previous ones. In music, they call this the album cycle: write, record, release, tour; rest, rinse, repeat. Each album finances the next: the next two or three years of living, including the time where you get to explore and experiment, reflect and grow, take the next step in your journey of development as a songwriter and instrumentalist. Successful musicians aren’t “sitting back and collecting royalties,” as the anti-copyright cliché would have it. They are working on new material. If they really are getting rich, they are also likely engaged in various forms of pro bono work: playing benefits, engaging in activism, providing mentorship to younger artists, even funding other people’s work.

Except that if music is free, or indie films get pirated to death, or book advances shrivel up because of Amazon, the funding cycle breaks. If a project makes nothing, or next to nothing, it isn’t going to finance anything. When you buy a CD, you aren’t “paying for plastic”—another anti-copyright cliché, one that implies that with digital music there’s nothing to pay for. You are paying for the next CD, the next download, the next album—the one that doesn’t exist yet. Amy Whitaker is a writer and educator who works at the intersection of art and business. “When I teach business to artists,” she says in Art Thinking, “I often tell them that they are asked to be generous, to put something out there before they get something back.” As members of the audience in the age of free content, we are asked to be generous, too. If you give an artist money, they will turn it into art.

* * *

Putting something out there before you get something back: that is not a description of a gift economy. (The whole idea of a gift is that you don’t get something back.) It is a description of a market economy. It is what all restaurant owners do when they buy food in the morning and prepare it in the afternoon before they know how many people will arrive to eat it in the evening. It’s what the farmer did, when he grew the food. Yes, art is part of the market economy, the cycle of investment and return. We need to stop being childish about this. We need to stop recoiling in horror at the mention, in connection with art, of the terms “promotion,” “cash flow,” “business model,” “lawyer.” I have had to learn this lesson myself. I was also a purist, when I started this project. I was also in denial. But how else do we think that art gets made in a society where that’s how nearly everything gets made? Do we think the stork just brings it? It’s time for us to lose our innocence.

Markets are not evil. They are one of the ways we get our needs met. They are also not synonymous with capitalism, which they predate by several millennia. (Neither is money, ditto.) But you probably aren’t against capitalism, either, even if you think you are. (Another lesson I have had to learn about myself.) If you are a Berniecrat, or a New Dealer, or what people usually mean today by a socialist, you are not against capitalism. (That is what Elizabeth Warren had in mind when she called herself “a capitalist to my bones.”) You are against unbridled capitalism. You’re against greed, and obscene inequality, and piglike profits and incomes, and the control of government by billionaires and corporations, and the reduction of all values to the money value. You think the market needs to be contained and controlled: through legislation, regulation, litigation; by activists and unions and the generous provision of public services. Me too. But you cannot tame the market if you don’t acknowledge its existence.

None of what I’m saying here is intended to imply that the relationship between art and money is anything less than fraught, or ever could be. Hyde was not wrong to suggest, in The Gift, that the two are fundamentally incongruous—metaphysically, as it were, incommensurate. It isn’t so much that they shouldn’t touch as that they can’t. Works of art can never be commodities, even if we sometimes must treat them as such. They are vessels of spirit; we can buy the vessel, but the spirit we can never buy. To say that art belongs to the market is not to say that it should, only that, given the world as it is, it must.

And even Hyde at last acknowledges as much. “It has been the implication of much of this book,” he writes in his conclusion, “that there is an irreconcilable conflict between gift exchange and the market.” But in the course of working out his ideas, he continues, “my position has changed.” He has come to see that the two “need not be wholly separate spheres. There are ways in which they may be reconciled, and … it is the reconciliation we must seek.” Art must enter the market, Hyde says, but it cannot begin in the market—that is, with an eye to the market, an eye to what sells. Artists must realize their gifts according to their gifts; then and only then can they exchange the fruits of their creative labor for the money that enables them to keep creating.

That is my position, as well. Art and artists must be in the market but not of it. And in that consists a tension that cannot be resolved; it can only be endured. Ambivalence about the market is not a temporary or remediable condition. It is the way we function in the market. Or, at least, it is the way we should. Purity is not an option, and the only other choice is purity’s antithesis, the cynicism—typically garnished, these days, with a wink of self-reflexive irony—that counsels a happy surrender. Down that road lies Jeff Koons putting images of the Mona Lisa on tote bags for Louis Vuitton. Yet the challenge today—as content is demonetized; as rent and student debt explode; as the institutions of culture, nonprofit and for-profit alike, decline and fall—is that it grows increasingly untenable for artists to maintain that necessary tension: to be “in” but not “of,” to not have an eye on what sells, to not capitulate. The documentarian Lisanne Pajot put the matter to me like this: “I think what you’re exploring in this book is really the center of this whole dilemma—can you make works that are just from you, just from your soul, just something that you need to make,” and survive as an artist today?

* * *

It is no coincidence that artists, more and more, are recognizing the importance of talking about money, especially with one another. A number of my subjects spoke of having suffered, early on, because they had swallowed the myths about starving artists who never think about money and would rather die than compromise their vision for the suits. Many more were willing to reveal the intimate details of their financial lives, they explained, because they believe that it’s vital for younger artists, in particular, to hear the truth.

More broadly, the financial crisis of 2008 appears to have become a watershed in discussions about, and activism around, the question of money in the arts. W.A.G.E., Lise Soskolne’s group, was founded that year. The Occupy moment in 2011 gave rise to Occupy Museums, which organizes around student debt and other economic issues in the art world. In 2012, John McCrea, frontman of the alternative rock band Cake, founded the Content Creators Coalition (now the Artist Rights Alliance), a musicians’ advocacy group. In 2013, the author and editor Manjula Martin founded the website Scratch, from which the anthology of the same name was later drawn, as a place for conversations about writing and money, and the artist and educator Sharon Louden published Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, the first in an ongoing series of volumes of personal essays by visual artists. In 2014, a coalition of media companies, labor groups, and individual artists launched CreativeFuture as an advocacy group for the film and television industry (it now includes members from other creative fields). In 2015, the arts journalist Scott Timberg published Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, a book that documents the cataclysmic effect of the digital economy on musicians, journalists, bookstores, record shops, and other individuals and institutions.

My project here builds on these efforts and others like them. Art may be defined as an attempt to make visible that which is invisible. What this book attempts to make visible are the two things that the arts have long concealed about themselves: work and money. The work that isn’t supposed to be work, and the money that isn’t supposed to be there.


Copyright © 2020 by William Deresiewicz.