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The Death of the Artist

A new book by William Deresiewicz

The excerpt below is from The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz, a portrait of artists in the digital age. It's about what it means to make art today, and of the specifics of being a “one-man band,” essentially creating content, marketing, branding, and promoting alone all while crowdfunding, networking, and, quite likely, still working a 9-to-5 job.


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 don't 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 of self-definition. In "With Complements," 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, or 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 momentary 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.

Join us for a conversation with our very own Tsilli Pines and William Deresiewicz on Design Portland's Instagram.