This piece was first published February 28, 2009 in UMass Media.
In a controversial decision spurred on by the economic crisis, Brandeis University recently decided it will close its Rose Art Museum and sell its $300 million collection to help with its endowment. Meanwhile in Sweden, the operators of the torrent website The Pirate Bay go on trial in a landmark case about copyright infringement; no doubt the charges are supported by several film studios and media companies seeking lost revenues. Coupled with the new media explosion of the last decade, the current global economic recession certainly spells weird times for the arts, and may yet redefine what it means to be a “starving artist.”
During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal provided jobs for thousands of out-of-work artists through the Federal Art Project, the Public Works of Art Project, and the Section of Painting and Sculpture. F.A.P. alone was reputed to have produced over 200,000 works, many of which became iconic examples of American art from that period. The current stimulus bill has set aside $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, money that will mostly be used for grants and distributed to state/regional arts organizations. It’s a major victory, but it was curiously difficult for arts supporters to convince legislators of the idea that culture is important, and the question of whether actual artists will benefit still stands.
In creative fields such as music, film, and photography, technological advancement has been democratizing. Anyone, regardless of training, can purchase equipment to begin producing art and post it on the internet. In many ways social networking has leveled the playing field between amateurs and professionals. The old methods of distribution are out, CD sales have plummeted, and the power of viral marketing is demonstrated too often in recent history. Instead of seeking a contract with a record label, many bands now look to new media as their business model, counting on word-of-mouth and proliferation over blogs, making sure their content is on YouTube and iTunes. In the past two years we’ve seen major groups like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails release albums as digital downloads.
The internet has made cultural capital accessible to anyone who is interested in finding it, and that accessibility has nearly eliminated the idea of a sub-culture or the existence of “underground” tastes. In times like these, the internet is prized by creative people who want to get their work out there. However, it does have drawbacks — no quality control, and the digital marketplace exposes artists to the threat of having their work copied, redistributed or remixed without permission or royalties. In his recent book “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy,” law professor Lawrence Lessig makes a convincing argument that our copyright law is dated.
We need to think about how to make art profitable for the artist again, bypassing the middle-man or distributor. We are clearly at a turning point, where economic conditions and digital media threaten our past ways of collecting compensation for the use of creative works. Still the ownership of most our films, television, radio, books, magazines, and newspapers is concentrated into a few very powerful media conglomerates. Those corporations often decide what we watch, read or listen to. Therefore, my conclusion is that as a result of this crisis, independent media and the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic are more viable than ever. Seek out alternative sources for your entertainment, and help those artists who are not already established. It was the musician Momus who altered Warhol’s dictum to say: “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.”