Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, January 23, 2015

Expectations and the Arts

Out of obstinacy, I shall deck
this post with my recent books...
Art: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Sure, I promised that I wouldn't be back until February, but that was before I came down with The Great Crud, The Very Great and Imaginative Crud. Here I am, day 13, hacking and sneezing and lolling in bed to report on the day's reading, despite the hijacking of my brain by little green men. Well, part of the day's reading--I'm also reading David Young's translation of Petrarch's sonnets.

Skybetter at the Fitch Report: Cultural Unraveling
   Such historicizing neatly situates artistic crises as inevitable and inevitably overcome, but it provides little comfort to culture warriors working in today’s artistic trenches. Many feel (as many have felt) that the aesthetic, economic and technological challenges facing them are titanically different from any that came before. It’s hard to escape the feeling that while, yes, perpetual change is a facet of the arts, something big is happening, something major is unraveling. For those of us invested in traditional categories of performance — usually some sort of show on some sort of stage — we find ourselves competing for the attention of audiences against forms of entertainment and edification we believe empirically inferior. That folks would prefer to sink hours into a YouTube rat-hole of free Miley Cyrus music videos rather than pay for live performance is the new state of the art.
   The term frequently ascribed to this economic scenario is “disruption.” Coined and popularized by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the word describes historical innovations that emerge cheaper and of seemingly less quality than the competition, but come to dominate the lower-end of a market nonetheless, and remake entire industries in their image over time. Examples of disrupted industries include the American auto sector (Asian automakers bring cheaper, arguably inferior vehicles to the global market, bankrupting U.S. automakers); computing (micro-computer companies bring cheaper, arguably inferior devices to the global market, bankrupting mainframe makers); and steel (mini-mills bring cheaper, arguably inferior steel to market, bankrupting companies that used integrated steel factories).
   ...Data suggests that audiences are agnostic in their habits of cultural consumption — and increasingly ambivalent about the platform by which they consume that culture. The Innovators Dilemma suggests that those who look with condescension upon the competitive emergence of cheaper, arguably poorer quality cultural products do so at their own peril.
Sydney Skybetter uses live dance performance as his lens here, but it applies to all the arts. Clearly it easily applies to the flood of digital and paperback books pouring into the world. I expect there are a lot of writers who feel a distaste for that Niagara of books. Skybetter would say that it would be a grave mistake to think that they do not matter to an audience that may not really care about traditional and high art.

Back to the Star System and the Vast Sea at the 2014 Jaipur Festival

Skybetter's essay reminded me of last year's Jaipur Festival, and the attack on American and British writers and the lack of translation.
     Lahiri believes that "translation is the key" – that it is what has created "the bridge for so many of us to be able to read across our limitation" – but Franzen wasn't so sure.
    "One of the consequences of globalism, it seems to me, and I think we see it even in the literary world, is that things become less horizontal and more vertical," he said. "If you can imagine everything perfectly translated, that we have massive subsidies for translation, that anyone publishing in Romanian in Romania, that is instantly available in all languages everywhere, you are still faced with the finite amount of reading time that an individual reader has … in a funny way you'd think there'd be greater diversity in what is read, but I worry that the trend in a more global literary marketplace is even more towards a kind of star system and a vast sea of people who can't find an audience."
It was curious to hear famous writers from around the world get together and complain (again! don't writers complain a lot?) at Jaipur (of course we need more translation!), but what's completely unclear in the discussion here is that many of the very American writers tarred by this large, sticky brush (you Americans--and Brits--are all hogging the mainstream!) suffer from exactly this sort of problem--the star system, and the difficulty of getting a toehold in such a large, diverse country where publishers at the major houses choose our big sellers for us.

Many American writers flee or are ejected by the Big 5 of publishing and hope to find warmer homes elsewhere, only to discover that it's even harder to be visible outside the New York machine. As readers, we have no idea of the scope and range of writers in our own country, we have few dedicated literary critics these days, and the problem is only becoming worse with a torrent of new work. I doubt that this is anything we should bother to bemoan, as I see no push toward a new generation of devoted critics or a lessening of the Niagara of books.

As for writers, we must be nimble and adaptable to the current scene. That's what is said. I expect most of us don't really know what that means, except that we know one round of bad Bookscan numbers derails the writer for a long time, maybe forever. I look around at my circle of friends in the arts and see some writers who are retiring from making new books and some painters who are no longer full-time. Living a life as "The Artist of the Beautiful" in the manner of Hawthorne is a high, lonely call, and who can blame anyone who finds it insufficient?

Tabachnick at the Skybetter Business Bureau
   As we have transitioned into the 21st century, the demographic and social milieu has fundamentally shifted. resulting in a gap between the expectation of artists and the expectation of audiences. To put it another way, audiences are increasingly skipping the traditional art forms (often referred to as “high” or “fine” arts) because these art forms, at least as they are traditionally presented, no longer deliver the value they once did. The success of our strategies of the past hundred years in increasing the supply of artists has not been matched with strategies to insure sufficient value and demand for the work of those artists. The result is the gap many funders are now seeking to address.
   It is well documented that our country is in the midst of a major demographic shift from a European-based Caucasian culture to a multiethnic culture. The vast majority of the traditional arts that were professionalized in this country flowed from the former — from aesthetic systems that are not the same as that of other heritages, many of which have different (or additional) cultural artifacts and experiences that they value. As the ethnic and racial balance in our country shifts, so do and will the cultural experiences and artifacts from which audiences will find value, a dynamic that links directly to audience demand.
   At the same time, disruptive digital technologies are eviscerating the underpinnings of many industries, not just the creative industries, and our sector’s business models are being turned upside down. The underlying issue brings us back to expectations: the inability to make a living as an artist today. Nor is this limited to the nonprofit sector. Taylor Swift’s recent withdrawal of her catalog from Spotify and the pitched battle between Amazon and Hachette are indications that the pressures from these shifts are wreaking havoc with the commercial segments of the creative industries.
This guest post from Ken Tabachnick is an interesting comparison to the first two essays, and I'm glad I turned to it third. Clearly, the demographic transformation of society has something consoling to say to the writers at the Jaipur Festival. America is more varied, more interested in a range of modes.

And certainly it gives a kind of answer to Skybetter's discussion of cultural disruption: "this is the real message that more and more are suggesting for our sector: changing expectations are required to continue making art and being satisfied with the return on that work for the artist. Such a change, though, may spell the end of the 'professionalized' arts sector we have come to expect."


You know, I'm tired of pondering these issues. If the writing of poetry and novels ends up being as refined and obscure a pursuit as hand lacemaking, so be it. I will make my lace of words.

Think about this: Blake drew a picture of his wife and sang on his deathbed. On his deathbed! He died full of joy and love and still making art. So beautiful.


  1. Remember that Blake had hardly any audience. Perhaps the only audience that matters for artists is the one that might be there in the future. Ah, that is a bitter pill.

    P.S. I do hope you put the crud into your rear view mirror very, very soon.

    1. All I know in the end is that making things out of words is joy. We don't really have any control over societal and cultural changes...

      Thanks. I'm resting up today.

  2. The world/market out there is truly depressing. What would our world be like without the arts?

    I agree that making things out of words, and may I add, materials is joy. I love the story of Blake on his deathbed.

    Take care of yourself, Marly. I've been sneezing a lot recently so hope to vend off those little green men.

    1. Hi Marja-Leena--

      Shall come by and see what you are up to in a few days...

      Yes, I think making things in general is joyful.

      The old Wellness Formula did not save me this time!

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  4. This is a rather timely post. It certainly illuminates the problem a lot of us making art are having. I'm still looking for the answer, and I think there must be one. Or two. And I hope that the new ways of experiencing, finding, and marketing the arts can hold the key.

    Maybe it's better to ride the tide. I don't know. But it makes much sense to take the arts to the existing audience, wherever it might be, rather than sitting in a cold gallery and hoping that audience will wander by and find us.

    1. Well, I think your new project is definitely a part of that! I'll have to do a post about it soon.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.