The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, a deeply researched new book from an award-winning essayist and a leading critic of the arts and of contemporary culture, William Deresiewicz examines the impact of the digital revolution on the creative industries and how its promise of a creative revolution has proved to be a decidedly mixed blessing.
The book which makes for pretty depressing reading, warns about how the digital economy threatens artists’ lives and work—the music, writing, and visual art that sustain our souls and societies.
In it, Deresiewicz contends there are two narratives about the impact of the tech revolution on the lives of artists. By artists, he means anyone engaging in creative practice.
The first story, as told by Big Tech and its evangelists (Silicon Valley), is that it has never been a better time to be an artist. There’s never been a better time to be an artist, it goes. We can all be artists now. If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a recording studio; if you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera. And if production is cheap, distribution is free: it’s called the Internet. Everyone’s an artist; just tap your creativity and put your stuff out there. The old gatekeepers (record labels, publishing houses, etc) have been swept aside, allowing anyone with an urge to create to reach a global audience. Creative software and hardware have massively reduced the cost of production, while social media and the web allow for free, worldwide distribution.
The other narrative comes from the artists themselves. While accepting the undoubted benefits of cheaper tools and processes, and the opportunities provided by digital distribution, it describes a world in which these same forces have destroyed the value of art and the means by which it was possible to sustain a career as a professional creative. Sure, it goes, you can put your stuff out there, but who’s going to pay you for it? It buttresses the notion that we can all be artists, just as long as we don’t expect to make a living doing it. And if we care about quality, that’s a problem for all of us.
Everyone is not an artist, it contended, and seeks to drive home the point that 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.
Based on interviews with artists of all kinds, the book argues that we are amid an epochal transformation. If artists were artisans in the Renaissance, bohemians in the nineteenth century, and professionals in the twentieth, a new paradigm is emerging in the digital age, one that is changing our fundamental ideas about the nature of art and the role of the artist in society.