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May 06, 2014 2:38 PM Does Inequality Help Artists? Not So Much

By Henry Farrell

Matthew Yglesias, responding to Tyler Cowen and my critique of same.

high levels of income inequality lead to high prices for art. A lot of this reflects higher prices for old paintings by dead artists, but the art market exhibits sufficient efficiency that higher prices also benefit new works by living artists. … The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up. When buying power shifts to the middle class they tend to buy more banal things like bigger houses or nicer cars.

Whether these price trends are good for the arts is going to depend on a bunch of other questions that the paper doesn’t address. Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality? Do people shift into painting from more mass market artistic pursuits (music, movies) or from careers outside the arts? Do higher prices make art less accessible to non-rich art lovers? One can imagine a whole range of different outcomes here. But the evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts — largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff — seems compelling.

By coincidence, I’ve recently finished reading The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor’s wonderful new book on culture and the Internet (Amazon, Powells), which gives a much more jaundiced account of what is happening to art in the age of inequality (see here for an interview which gives some flavor of her thinking).

To be clear, I don’t agree with all of Taylor’s arguments. She disagrees sharply with free culture people, sometimes in highly personalized ways that strike me as unfair (n.b. that I’m friends with some of these people). She sometimes extrapolates a bit too broadly from the experience of the artists and culture makers whom she is most sympathetic to, to a more general public. But these are asides; unlike e.g. Evgeny Morozov with his self-congratulatory apercus at others’ expense, she’s clearly not interested in self-promotion but in tearing down arguments that she believes are weak. She poses the sharpest book-length intellectual challenge to technology-optimists that I’ve read.

The People’s Platform does two things surpassingly well. First, it provides a rich account of the experience of a grouping of people who have been surprisingly underrepresented in debates on culture and the Internet – the makers of culture themselves. Taylor herself is a maker of documentary films (Scott has written lots about her work in the past). She’s also a member of the music community (she’s a member of the currently touring incarnation of Neutral Milk Hotel). Hence, she has extensive experience of an important group of artists and makers of culture; people who are able to piece together some kind of a living centered on making good art, but who do stuff that is unlikely ever to be enormously commercially popular.

These communities are suffering badly in the modern economy. Their members never expected to be rich, but would very reasonably like to be modestly self supporting. That’s no longer an option for most of them. The long tail economy is one where the middle drops out. Bands can’t support themselves through selling their music on independent labels. They can tour, but this is both exhausting and not likely to do more than to break even. The economics of independent documentary making are even tougher. Documentaries have always been made more for love than money. Their economic prospects – in an economy where online sharing is ubiquitous – are becoming ever worse. Unlike Hollywood movies, there isn’t any fat to pare off.

This explains Taylor’s impatience with free culture advocates. She’s tired of being told that she ought to work for free. But her impatience isn’t an end – it’s the beginning of analysis. On the one hand, she excoriates free culture advocates for focusing on the problem of distribution at the expense of the problem of production. People like Larry Lessig focus on how to facilitate the dissemination of culture to people without undue restrictions, both so that they can consume it, and (more importantly) put it to new and unexpected uses. Taylor agrees with this up to a point (she’s no fan of the ridiculous excesses of IP and permissions requirements). Her question, though, is straightforward. If there isn’t an economic model for producing culture in some kind of self-sustaining way, will it get produced? Lessig, Benkler and others are big fans of amateurism. Taylor suggests that for some kinds of art, you need semi-pros and pros. More generally, in Taylor’s words:

openness alone does not provide the blueprint for a more equitable social order, in part because the ‘freedom’ promoted by the tech community almost always turns out to be of the Darwinian variety. Openness in this context is ultimately about promoting competition, not protecting equality in any traditional sense; it has little to say about entrenched systems of economic privilege, labor rights, fairness, or economic redistribution. Despite enthusiastic commentators and their hosannas to democratization, inequality is not exclusive to closed systems. Networks reflect and exacerbate imbalances of power as much as they improve them.

Since Taylor very obviously isn’t a shill for Disney and friends, but instead is representing the real experiences of exactly the kind of people whom free culture ought to be setting free, her arguments strike their mark.

This leads into an excellent analysis of the actual political economy of the culture industry. If artistic production isn’t self sustaining, it will have to look to external support of one kind or another. And while it might get such support, it’ll come with a price tag attached. On the one hand are the owners of monopoly platforms like Facebook, Google etc. To the extent that they support artistic production, it’s going to be some kind of sharecropping, where they provide the platform and reap the lion’s share of the profits. Here, think services like YouTube, which simultaneously democratize access, making it possible for anyone with a video camera and Internet access to upload content and share it, but rely on an advertising model where the preponderance of the benefits go to the owner. Taylor has harsh words for tech optimists who identify too closely with the erstwhile ‘insurgents’ like Google. My read is more generous than hers – some technology optimists at least laid their bets on Google, not because they thought that the company was somehow altruistic, but because they reasoned that a company with a business model based on search-engine-plus-advertising would be more likely to preserve a space for open information than proprietary platforms which tried to build walled gardens. This wasn’t a ridiculous argument a few years ago – but (and this favors Taylor), it’s one that is increasingly difficult to sustain now, given Google’s rapidly changing business model.

On the other hand, artists can seek support from marketing companies. They are willing to support artists and even to pay them if they are good, in the hope that their material will go viral. However, the price, obviously, is that the art has to support and spread the brand name.

Taylor stresses that this is driven not so much by technology as such but by the radical inequalities of power that are accentuated by new media. A world in which the owners of a few key platforms – Google, Facebook and their ilk – dominate, will be a world in which previously self-supporting communities of artists will be squeezed ever more. And a world in which artists are increasingly reliant on commercial patrons will be a world of bad, dull art.

the exercise of power is rarely … overt. Instead of directly squelching artistic expression when it’s too brazen – a tactic that can backfire to the artist’s advantage – advertisers and sponsors protect themselves by favoring docile voices in the first place. Thus, they alter the cultural ecology, fostering work that is apolitical and unchallenging, making the innocuously entertaining more plentiful than it would be otherwise.

While Taylor is responding to Internet optimists rather than celebrators of the cultural benefits of inequality like Tyler Cowen, it’s not too hard to extract a clear counter-argument from her ideas. The model for artistic patronage in the new age of inequality is not some munificent and disinterested Maecenas, but businesses, which want to support cultural products that will enhance their brand. Such patrons will not be particularly interested in risky or controversial work, and will certainly not want to support truly challenging art, unless that challenge can be absorbed and appropriately redirected to commercial ends.

Nor does Matt Yglesias’s (admittedly very tentative) “rising tide will lift all art” hypothesis seem to me to be a very plausible one. There’s at least some evidence that the distribution of art prices is highly skewed,1 which suggests that the bulk of the proceeds of increased prices are going to go to a relatively small group of owners of dead artists’ art, and living artists. I would furthermore speculate (and this is speculation, but, I think, grounded speculation) that these tendencies towards skew are going to be substantially accentuated by increased wealth inequality, as very rich people compete over a tiny pool of premier artistic prestige goods, dramatically driving up the prices for this pool and this pool alone, while leaving the middle and the tail of the distribution to languish and stagnate.

This means, as Taylor makes clear in her Post interview, that the relationship is plausibly the reverse of the one that Yglesias postulates. Inequality, rather than benefitting artists, is instead universalizing the artist’s precarious work position, and making it into a general ideology.

In a way artists exemplify the rising inequality of our economy that everyone’s talking about post-Piketty: there are a few art stars and multitudes of starving artists. One must scramble relentlessly against the odds to try to reach the top. … The book examines how more and more of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as artists no matter what our line of work. It’s a way of framing some of the unappealing things about our current economic condition—the lack of stability or of a social safety net—as something desirable and empowering. The ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work with no guarantee of reward, who will sacrifice and self-exploit around the clock— is demanded of people across the board. For example, I mention a story from 2011 in which Apple Store workers inquiring about wages were told, “Money shouldn’t be an issue when you’re employed at Apple. Working at Apple should be viewed as an experience.” There are numerous articles and books that advise freelancers to envision themselves as risk-taking creators.

Buy it and read it. [Also read this piece by Tom Slee, which came out in the interval between drafting this post and publishing it.]


  1. The author claims a power law on the basis of a whiffy-looking log-log relationship, but please let’s not make the baby Cosma cry

  2. [Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

    Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

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