For millennia, societies have tried to solve the problem of getting their artists paid, and for much of this history this has been the domain of the wealthy. At times this power belonged to institutions – the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, for example, or art foundations with large trusts – or newly wealthy merchant classes, as in the Italian Renaissance. Governments use taxpayers’ money to fund public arts, like the Public Works of Art Project as part of FDR’s New Deal or, say, Sesame Street. In the last decade, however, that power has increasingly shifted to a radically different breed of curator: the algorithm.
Artists who make money from social media – and there are a growing number of them – rely on corporate platforms for exposure, sponsorship deals and commissions. However, it’s no secret that the vast majority don’t make enough to survive from their craft, be it fine arts, music, filmmaking, writing, photography, dancing, theater or, if we’re willing to categorize the nebulous term of “content.” Creation” as an art form, affecting. Therein lies a problem: artists and creators most likely to succeed in this system are the ones with the greatest mass appeal, which for an algorithm likely means they appeal to viewers’ lowest, lowest common denominator impulses, which is human Beings want to look. In short, the kind of art that algorithms choose for us is usually not very good.
So what should a society do? Kate Compton, a futurist and computer science professor at Northwestern University, posited a solution earlier this summer: “Someone with a FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] Salary could commission an opera of his own literally once a year, so that’s what we should do,” she began in a now viral twitter thread. “The Renaissance was a remarkable cultural era, not for good marble or new paint, but because a bunch of nouveau riche Florentine wool merchants discovered Spite’s patronage” (more on that in a moment).
The idea that the rich can and should fund art is not new. What’s new is the sheer number of wealthy people that we have. The US has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality of any developed nation; It has more billionaires than any other (735 of them), a class that added $5 trillion to its wealth in the first 18 months of the pandemic — more than the previous 14 years combined. The class of donors, or ultra-one percentiles, who spend a significant portion of their income giving to philanthropic and arts foundations (and often receive massive tax breaks in the process), is growing, and it’s doing so with a political system that’s unlikely to be successful in collecting meaningful levies new taxes for billionaires, the least rich people can do is spend some of it on things that aren’t superyachts.
Many people, ultra-rich or not, are already doing this. In fact, social media and trading platforms like Etsy have enabled many designers, painters, and other crafters, connecting so many people in such a short amount of time, to make a living by selling their wares to their followers. But while older affluents have a long history of donating to large arts foundations that do the legwork of finding artists to donate to them, it’s easy to imagine nouveau riche Millennials and Gen Z tech and finance workers opting for flashier ones Deciding ways to support the art: your name as the executive producer of a film or play, or the ability to create the art yourself.
Perhaps Compton’s most compelling point is that there’s a long history of what she calls “despite patronage,” or rich people paying for artworks that flatter them compared to their professional nemesis. The art doesn’t even have to be that innovative or intrinsically meaningful, it just needs to be seen and exhibited. “One problem is you *pay* all the degenerates for full body furry commissions (good for you!) but keep it private. It’s not a way of making a cultural impact,” she writes. “Rent a gallery and put on an art exhibition; buy a chapel and have a ceiling painted; carve it in marble on your mausoleum. Rich people realizing great artists can be hired for pennies + proudly display both revenge and cringe commissions = world changing art movement.
There are some obvious downsides here. For one thing, it never bodes well when a society relies on the ultra-wealthy to assume a responsibility better suited to an institution accountable to its citizens (such as government). Unfortunately, one of the aftermath of 40 years of corporate tax breaks and government budget cuts is that we’re doing it now. As my colleague Whizy Kim argues, tech billionaires helped vote Joe Biden in the name of democracy and have the potential ability to do the same for abortion rights. Second, without an agent or manager to transact business for artists, artists can easily imagine scenarios where they are unfairly paid or otherwise exploited by inherent power dynamics.
But I’d also argue that wealthy art patrons could commission art that’s at least slightly more interesting than what an algorithm might turn up, while giving artists more freedom to create works that don’t necessarily meet the demands of social media -platforms match. “The winner-takes-all dynamic of this algorithmically optimized stream will produce some winners—superstar influencers whose every post gets served to millions of users,” Cal Newport writes in his post about whether the internet has creative work with “1,000 true fans.” “-Theory.
He speaks of the content creators, or the 7.1 million Americans who made money on social media platforms in 2021. This ever-dense field — it’s at least three times the number of artists, or lawyers, or doctors, or farmers, or military personnel, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — cannot survive if it continues to rely on monthly donations, say, $5 Patreon subscriptions or small brand stores. And if creators have to keep adapting their content to the algorithm’s demands, no one is going to want to pay for it anyway. As told by Don Draper’s second wife’s mother in season five mad Men: “Not every little girl is allowed to do what she wants. The world could not bear so many ballerinas.”
By creating a mass commission culture among affluent young people, it might – or at least might – expand the pool of artists earning viable wages. Inequality is terrible, inflation is bad, and whether or not a recession is coming, it certainly feels like it. But there are winners in this economy, and right now one way the creatively inclined have-nots can use them to our advantage is by getting our rich friends to fund weird art. Also, imagine being a rich guy and having the ability to commission an Off-Broadway show about literally anything you want, whenever you want! Introduce Not make that!
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