|Out of obstinacy, I shall deck|
this post with my recent books...
Art: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
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.
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.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.
"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."
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?
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.
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.