The Return of Patronage and Responses to the Economic Crisis of Mass Art

by tigermanifesto

Before reading my commentary below, please read the original article, which is an intriguing read of the current situation in mass art markets.

Whenever I read something about the economics of supporting artists after the online vortex (polar vortex’s seventh cousin) sucked all the profits out of music. So it is with this short post. There are a couple of points I would like to make.

1. The relationship between the capitalist “contract” between artists and corporations before digital tools made mass copying and distribution of information possible has more similarities to the current situation than differences. In both cases, artists get a tiny percentage of what their art is worth in terms of exchange value. Of course, in the age of mass media thinking in terms of a single “artist” being solely responsible for a work is ridiculous. At the same time, I bet if you added up the total wages of all the creative workers at, say, Disney, it wouldn’t amount to much compared to the company built on their work. After all, Disney is a profit-making enterprise in the process of carefully constructing both a legal system and a stable of massively popular media licenses to secure its profits from now to the Rise of the Machines. They don’t operate for the benefit of their creative and industrial workforce. The Internet did not change that. Corporations still fleece artists with exploitative contracts (like all businesses), but the difference is that the revenues they are collecting have contracted. Well, in the case of the music and publishing industries, at least. Buying art, any kind of mass art, is only going to have a limited impact on the welfare of the artist.

2. Piracy is a problem, but its solution is not going to be found in preaching sermons about practicing “love of neighbor” by buying records instead of downloading them or ripping CDs from friends. You can make people feel guilty, but not guilty enough that they won’t act in their own self-interest. And if piracy is easier and higher-quality than legal options (which is generally the case, especially in music).

There are a few plausible solutions, and they all either attempt to restrain access and reestablish corporate control over the scarcity of the art (which is key to the value of easily reproducible products like music files) or attempt to unshackle the welfare of artists from how much stuff they sell. Three of those solutions are what I’ll call the neoliberal approach, the social-democratic approach, and the communist approach.

The neoliberal approach is to use the coercive power of the state to extend copyright terms, crack down harder on offenders, and make it easier for companies to control their product. Disney is at the forefront of this kind of response, being legendary for being militantly litigious and employing colossal lobbying resources to make their ownership of marketable characters and properties almost endless. This is the current policy being pursed by the United States government, giving the corporate masters of mass media almost everything they have asked for. Under this regime, if it works, artists will be paid more because the industry is able to extract more money from audiences.

One social democratic approach would be to establish a basic minimum income. It would be a considerable boon to artists everywhere if all of their basic needs were taken care of and the state played a strong role in ensuring that, no matter what kind of work you are best at, you can be as productive as possible without the overriding fear associated with a free market. I’m not aware of any places where this approach is being taken. Also note that it’s a macroeconomic policy change, rather than a targeted approach. It would benefit all of society’s workers rather than just a single industry. Of course, it is also far less likely because it would require a politically conscious and indefatigable mass movement to enact it. In North America, it would have to defeat a popular distrust in state intervention in the economy, or democratic management of “their” money.

The communist approach would be similar to the social-democratic approach but move beyond welfare state interventions to eliminating the foundations of capitalism and building a truly just society on top of it. Here, artists, and all people, would be able to pursues their own productive work without the restrictions of capital bearing down on them. In a classless society, artistic work can be no different than other forms of work, and the general level of culture in such a society would be greatly advanced because it would unleash creativity and expression without money getting in the way. This is not to say that artists could do anything they dreamt of, and indeed some kinds of art would probably cease to exist, but the world would be overall richer. I support this path, which can only be achieved with the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a dictatorship of the workers transitioning toward fully classless society. It is the widest, most powerful, and most difficult objective to achieve, but to me is the ultimate goal, the only way that artists would truly be valued as intrinsic to social health and not parasites or dispensable, often troublesome elements.