The Death of the Artist

‘When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.’

This essay in the Atlantic traces the evolution of the artist archetype over the last few hundred years in a cogent and thorough way, and makes the case that our cultural understanding of the Artist is transitioning again, toward something called a “creative entrepreneur.”

I remember working on a tiny independent film way back in 2001, which was directed by a guy with a full-time day job working at the prestigious Fallon advertising agency as a “Creative.” That was his job title, and I remember being confused and needing to ask about it. They called the guys who came up with the million-dollar ideas for ad campaigns “Creatives,” as a noun, not an adjective. Which struck me then, and still does today, as bizarre and frankly, silly.

If “creative” describes someone who makes things, and everyone is making things, therefore everyone is a creative, and the special status of the Artist (or Creative) is lost. Okay. And perhaps the only real-world impact of this shift is that it becomes harder to earn a living creating (as a Creative) if everyone is doing it themselves. A world in which everyone builds their own artisanal furniture is a world full of handmade furniture, but a world in which it’s impossible to earn a living selling furniture.

Frankly, this sounds like a better world, to me, in spite of the challenge to the livelihood of the Artist. Does the idea of everyone painting their own pictures, playing their own music, and making their own movies seem kind of utopian to anyone else? And if the overall quality of the art suffers because it’s not made exclusively by full-time geniuses, that seems, in a way, like a small price to pay. And not actually an accurate description of how the business of art has ever really worked, anyway.

The Death of the Artist is maybe just another way to say “De-professionalization” or “De-commodification.” But a few things need to change in the mindset of the populace to catch up with this paradigm shift, and I would argue that “creative entrepreneurship” is just a frantic clinging to an old, now unsustainable professional model.

The people I know who are willing to submit to the highly precarious, contingent, anxiety-inducing pursuit of “creative entrepreneurship” are working themselves to death – if not immediately, they’re at least taking years off of their lives and sacrificing an awful lot to uphold their self-image as professional artists. Art as a business doesn’t actually make sense, in my experience, because it swiftly becomes more business than art, and usually requires outside benefactors anyway, such as corporate spouses or wealthy family friends, if one looks closely enough at the actual financial picture (this recent confessional in Salon is a great peek behind that particular curtain).

Whereas, willingness to paint or sculpt or make movies regardless of its impact on one’s professional identity or one’s income can be a noble pursuit, can lead to brilliance and profound beauty, and can fit into one’s life around a day job or family or other obligations.

What is really non-negotiable, however, is Time – and time seems to be the commodity in shortest supply in the Western world today. With enough Time and a $100 camera (or iPhone), I firmly believe that cinematic greatness is within the reach of any of us. The time-intensive cheap art film may not have a lot of explosions or aliens in it… but neither did Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s “Les Recherches des Temps Perdues.” The James Joyce of cinema is probably out there, antisocial, not getting a lot of attention, not worrying about whether or not s/he qualifies as a professional or an entrepreneur. Just busy doing the actual verb form of “creative” every day with whatever tools are at hand.

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