The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 3: Artists Themselves)

“And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.” –  Hesiod, Works and Days, ll. 25-26

Hesiod thought this jealousy between peers was “wholesome for men.”  It encouraged “even the shiftless to toil” in hopes of gaining wealth.  Jealousy, rightly understood, was a positive force spurring farmers to produce better work and so attain better houses than their neighbors, and competing minstrels to grace the city-state with ever better music.  It even inspired beggars to outdo each other in the quality of their beggary.

Maybe it actually worked that way in Hellenic city-states in 700 BCE.  If so, cool, we got Homer out of it. (My example weakens if you accept the theory that “Homer” was actually several poets, but my point stands.)  It’s clear that it doesn’t work that way now.

That is because the creative industries (publishing, music, film, etc.) put far more value on “platform” and how many people (dollars) an individual can “bring in” than they do on quality.  Actually, they are utterly disinterested in quality.  So the competition today is not so much which minstrel creates better, more compelling, mind-blowing work than the next minstrel, but which minstrel is better at self-promotion.  As a result of this corporate colonization of the creative arts, which in many respects resembles the corporate colonization of higher education (see Part 2) artists find themselves competing not on the basis of what insights and critiques their work can grace the culture with, but on how effectively they can advertise themselves as viable businesses.  Scholars, intellectuals, and scientists are also forced to compete on the basis of their ability to generate money rather than intellectual capital.

And of course the culture has taken a hit.  Instead of artist-shamans using the imagination to create a sacred space in which to explore the human heart, which is what art is, we have desperately compromised “personal brands” trying to move product.

Some people defend this system.  “There’s nothing wrong with making money.”  No, there isn’t.  I rather enjoy making money myself.  The fact that certain entertainment conglomerates make their profits through calculated schlock movies and books designed to titillate the worst emotions and discourage critical thinking by reifying majority opinion is nothing to me. There’s a place for fast food chains and junk food.  And there is interesting stuff out there, although the majority is derivative and obviously sanitized of intellectual content for maximum profit.

It’s the second defense that I have a problem with – because this is where the third front in the war on the humanities begins to gather force.  Every truly talented, creative person I have ever known has been clobbered with some variation of this argument.  It goes like this:  “If your work had any value your self-promotion efforts would draw thousands of people and the corporations would beat a path to your door to monetize your success.  But if you can’t show you’re a money maker by promoting yourself, well, consider yourself a hobbyist or go do something else, because that’s a sign you aren’t very good.  Every great artist was also a great businessperson.  Get used to it or get out.”

In other words, in the arts, self-marketing ability is now a proxy for artistic excellence. (Miss Dickinson, please stand aside.  Introverts need not apply.)

Let’s parse this out. 

The way to amass large numbers of consumers is not to create serious art that challenges thought and emotions.  It’s to put out the sort of art-like “products” that titillate the dullest majority.  That’s where the most dollars are.  Everybody knows this.

If your goal is to get signed to an established book publisher or record label, you need to put far more hours into getting your Klout score up there and amassing Twitter followers and Facebook friends than in producing excellent work.  Actually, skip the excellent work.  Nobody cares.  Just focus on that Klout score.  I’m not exaggerating.

I’m only stating the obvious for background here.  My point is that the obvious has exploded the natural, social good type  jealousy that peers in all endeavors have always experienced, the wholesome “Strife” Hesiod writes about, into an internecine war between all creative types, artists, thinkers, and “public intellectuals” that does at least as much damage to the humanities as the right wing, MOOCs, (see Part 1) and the corporate takeover of higher education  (see Part 2).

It isn’t that artists hate the humanities.  What they hate is other artists.  Particularly other artists who happen or threaten to get more recognition than themselves.  This is true at every level, and results in an unintentionally tragic assault on all creative endeavors that bruises and scars serious humanities studies in the public eye.

To support my claims regarding the general tone between and among creative types, here’s some examples of the sort of thing I’m talking about.  These are not isolated incidents.  I do not know these people.  I have no stake in their personal and public quarrels.  But given what I have observed about the behavior and insecurities and exquisite narcissism of artists, thinkers, and creative individuals in general, I have to say, “Yup, this sounds about right.”

There’s the book reviewer who got so angry at the publishing industry’s constant rejection of his novels that he trashed other writers in his reviews.   Here.

There’s the novelist/editor who used his position on Wikipedia to make unflattering alterations to the entries of rival writers he doesn’t like.  Here and here.

There’s the historian who trashed his rivals’ books on line and praised his own.  When caught he blamed his wife.  Here.

Literary agent Richard Curtis has observed how nasty the publishing industry has become lately and how difficult it has become to deal with writers.   More so than ever, according to Curtis, and that’s going a ways.  Here.

The sciences are not immune.   Here’s a social scientist who felt it necessary to fake data for years to keep up his funding and reputation.   Here.

And the number of blog posts on writers and envy, which used to be a taboo subject right up there with politics and religion, has exploded.   Nobody feels it necessary to disguise what everyone knows anyway.  Apparently the vice that dare not speak its name has now become the publicly acknowledged irritant that won’t shut up.   Here.

Even though the reported behavior is appalling, it’s entirely possible that the emotion fueling it is justified.  I’m not blaming external forces for the decisions these individuals made, but it’s clear to me that the creative industries have worked very hard to create conditions under which these kinds of responses are inevitable.  A lot of people are angry, a few are going to act on that anger, and more than a few are quietly sympathetic.   It’s telling that a number of people posted on the poisonous book reviewer’s Facebook page that he was “brave” for being honest about his actions.  Me?  I honestly don’t know what I feel about his decision to write that article.  I’ve been trying for weeks to figure that out.  I suppose I’m glad to see someone publicly own up to what many other reviewers don’t feel is in their interest to admit.  Maybe people will read negative reviews with more awareness of the kinds of ugly agendas reviewers often carry.  Then again, I thought most readers of book reviews already had that kind of awareness, so the article felt a touch unnecessary, and I hate to say it, like the author was being weirdly self-promoting.

The more important point is that there is a tsunami of rage out there, and it’s worth examining why.   Because even though the humanities encompass more than the critical study of the creative arts, that study is such a vital part of the humanities that the public easily equates the humanities in general with the arts in particular, and throws the creative arts into the current maelstrom of popular contempt for humanities studies.   That’s why I chose examples from history and from the sciences.  It isn’t just artists – it’s everybody who works with their mind.

Why are people acting like this?   Partly it’s the culture.  Rivalry and sabotage happen everywhere, and happen with great gusto when resources are scarce.  And in the arts, resources are scarce.  There are many many more talented artists out there than the industries have budgets to promote. 

Of course, artists have always been a catty, jealous bunch.  But now that artistic recognition has been severed from artistic ability (an Orwellian feat that took tons of corporate money to accomplish), and artists are told to put far more time into self-promotion efforts than art, things are much much worse.

Specifically, it’s the “winner takes all” credo that the corporations who own publishing, music, and (increasingly) universities are foisting on an ignorant public.  You see, under “winner takes all” the only artists/ thinkers/scholars that matter to the public are the ones in the media.  And increasingly, the only ones who are in the media are there because they are better self-marketers, not better artists.

Marketing is like anything else.  To get really good at it, you have to do a lot of it.  So the winners are those who put the majority of their time into self-promotion and whatever gets left into creating something . . . anything, no matter how poorly put together, to act as a prop for bringing people in. The results are predictable, as the generally dismal products of popular culture show.  It’s why so many popular songs and movies are covers, remakes or recycled from other popular songs or movies.  Not only does nobody want to take a chance on funding something original, but nobody who devotes every waking minute to creating a platform has time to create anything else.

This is where I get goat-footed.  I’m not claiming everything in popular culture sucks, or that there aren’t talented deserving people who manage to get recognition.  I’m saying there’s a lot more junk out there than there was 20, 30, 40 years ago.  Reality TV.  Endless prequels and sequels and more sequels to franchise movies, nearly unreadable books that only got a traditional publisher because the author was able to spend every waking hour flagging an ebook version online.

You see, the thing with artists, real artists, is that the creative experience comes first.  But then, they learn quickly that under “winner takes all” there is no room, no recognition in the culture for highly talented individuals who take years to learn to write or play or paint compellingly.  These individuals are good at art, not marketing.  But they are discounted and often looked down on by a public that’s told every day that only corporate art matters.  “Don’t read indie-published ebooks, they aren’t vetted.”  “If that guy was talented, he’d be signed, so why waste your time with his stuff?”  Millions of people write and play music – many of those millions do both, and a large number of those millions do both really well.   And out of those millions, magically, every truly awesome artist gets signed?  And aren’t the emperor’s clothes lovely this season?  The only people who actually believe this are trying to justify their jobs on the backs of our broken culture or being duped.   Because how could the major publishers and labels maintain a monopoly if they admitted that there are indie artists out there competitive with their products and in many cases, better?

So these poor souls get sick of trotting around the edges of the industry (“Just write one more book review and it will help your career.  Really it will.”)  while seeing self-promoters of often barely mediocre work get rewarded.  But that isn’t the cause of rage – most accept that’s how markets work.  And if corporations were honest about this to the public, it would be tolerable.  “Here’s Jane Doe’s first novel – you’ll love it – because she has 500,000 friends on Facebook!”

Instead, because the public likes to be told that the books they buy are quality, the publisher gets someone to blurb over-the-top praise for shit work.

Years of this scam means that even friends and family are now conditioned to only think corporate stuff is quality.  You might blow them away with your artwork, but the conditioned response is always – “you should be signed” (as if that’s an emotional response to a work of art) and/or (silently) “I like his work but he can’t be that good or he’d be signed.”

The public response to increasingly badly done corporate art is another assault on the humanities.  Because if that’s what the humanities are all about (in the public mind) – if Snookie is a writer and Shades of Grey is literature, than “anybody can do that” and the poor sap that devotes years to his art is well, a fool to be laughed at.  And job market aside, people increasingly don’t want their children to study this useless, silly stuff in college.  (“What, you want a music degree?  Go study accounting.”)

So, in desperation to make their work and life matter in the context of their culture, artists get hyper-cutthroat.  There’s more at stake than ego – although for many people that’s quite enough to bring out ugliness – there’s a sense of whether one’s life, one’s creative force – matters to one’s culture.

And so novelists, historians, scientists, and anyone else who is compelled to live the life of the mind go to war with each other, not over ideas, but over who has the most effective marketing plan.

Perhaps the Internet is a way out.  There’s too much independently produced stuff out there for corporations to continue to effectively scare people off that it isn’t good enough.   You can read samples and listen to music on line, and after being exposed to enough stuff, make your own choices.  That’s how real markets are supposed to work.

And yet, the public has been bamboozled into buying whatever is heavily promoted.   And artists feel they have to put more time into sabotaging each other than in perfecting their craft.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if creative people – all creative people – just decided that art is what you do, not a “product” that some bean counter gets to vet based on what he thinks will make him enough money to keep his job?  And if corporate-produced money- making schlock had the decency to call itself that?  (I suspect the large audience for that sort of thing wouldn’t mind, and would probably feel reassured.)   And that the public understood the difference between the two?

Minstrels would still be jealous of each other, but it would be the “good kind” that spurs everyone to create better work than the next guy, not get the most Twitter followers.

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2 Responses to The War on the Humanities has Three Fronts (Part 3: Artists Themselves)

  1. […] happens when instead the afflicted parties begin believing what their opponents say about them? Michalson’s post about artists is full of virtuosic […]

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