How does one support a creative life in the early 21st C.?

How does one support a creative life in the early 21st C.? How make a living without losing one’s shirt or one’s soul?

Much to my dismay, Lewis Hyde, in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, does not broach these questions because he is concerned, as he states quite explicitly, with writing a “prophetic essay” about the timeless nature of the gift and the creative impulse behind art as gift giving. In the Afterword, “On Being Good Ancestors,” which he writes 25 years after The Gift was first published in 1983, he tries to make up for this absence by sketching a space in which the gift exchange and market transaction can gently overlap, where art and commerce, the song of myself Whitman and the coins in my pocket salesman can gently be reconciled.

Thank God.

It turns out that Hyde’s account is a fairly conventional one, but it’s nevertheless a useful place to start when examining traditional funding models for the creative life. All three models he discusses have in common the goal of finding some middle ground–some Golden Mean, so to say, some Venn Diagram–between the spirit of giving and the principle of exchange. I’ll rename them “self-bifurcation,” “patronage,” and “self-promotion,” respectively.

1. Self-Bifurcation. The artist gets a second job in order to support her creative life. The second job, ideally, is only part-time, but it pays her well enough so that her material needs can be sufficiently met and she can spend much of her time in the space of dignified leisure (otium). The dangers, though obvious, should be stated outright. (In my two-part series “Money Money Money!,” I explore these dangers at further length.) First, the work can be such drudgery that it saps the artist’s creative spirit, consequently transforming work into sheer dread and otium into mere downtime. Second, the work does not pay well enough, thus presenting him with the dilemma of needing to make more money (a third job? a better second job? scrounging about for more gigs?), borrowing from others, or fretting constantly while trying to make life work. Third, the job pays exceptionally well, but it takes up an inordinate amount of time, energy, and mental real estate. (These three problems should be regarded as an interlocking structure, not as a disconnected set of parts. Over her lifetime, the artist may move from one strategy to the next, only to discover that this too is untenable.)

The first conclusion I drew in the “Money Money Money” posts was that self-bifurcation, given world enough and time, was likely to lead to self-disintegration. (On the problem of self-disintegration, see also the middle section of my post on the “great speedup.”) William Carlos Williams the doctor and Wallace Stevens the salesman are the exceptions that in no way prove the rule. A second conclusion I wish to make here is that self-bifurcation, when skillfully managed, can be used as a stepping stone on the path to a better resolution of the creative life problem.

2. Patronage. Narrowly defined, an arts patron would be an agent (e.g., a wealthy individual, an aggregate of individuals, a group, or an institution) who provides financial support to an artist without expectation of financial gain or material benefit in return. (From this, it does not follow that patrons may not expect something in return. Traditionally, the recipient has acknowledged her debts to her patron in the form of a book dedication, on the acknowledgments page, in the name of the building, etc.)

Patronage in the US was a windfall after WWII. During the height of the Cold War, Hyde observes, public institutions doled out money to the arts and sciences in hopes of outdoing the USSR: it was an “anything you can do I can do better” propagandistic approach. The trouble with patronage after the end of the Cold War and during the age of neoliberalism is that public monies have been harder and harder to come by. Additionally, we cannot expect the modern university to continue to be the patron it once was during the Golden Age of higher education (1950-80). Or so I have argued.

In the early 21st C., patronage has gone on holiday. We cannot be like Blanche Dubois, then, “always dependent on the kindness of strangers.”

3. Self-Promotion. Hyde shows that the third art as gift/market as financial support solution was to divide labor between the artist as creator and the agent as dealer. This distinction, however, has since collapsed, having been replaced by the artist as hustler.

Book publishing is a case in point. Time was when a writer contracted a book agent to sell his book to a major publisher. Provided that the book sold well enough, the writer was then able to live off the royalties, speaking engagements, and the like. As I’m sure you’re well aware, that book publishing model is in a state of transition with the result that creative types have been forced to wear both hats: the writer’s hat and the shameless self-promoter’s hat. Sadly, the marketability of the book “infects” the writer’s project from the outset.

Both forces have converged in the concept of branding. Brands do not sell products or push ideas so much as they create “mixed” experiences wherein consuming is “naturally” one exchange among others. Anthropologie’s stores are “mini worlds” of aristocratic decadence in ruin, micro-histories of curiosities and indulgences, places in which one basks and has a look around and then runs a few items through the till on the way out. Increasingly, books and artworks are also brands. One of the more disturbing of these is called “the happiness project,” as if the question of the good life could be repackaged as books, cover art, calendars, blogs, newsletters, podcasts, reading groups, daily challenges, Jeopardy appearances, and on and on. (I shan’t include a hyperlink to the happiness bazaar website.) Purchasing the happy happy book is a credit card swipe made during or after many deep draughts of happiness nectar.

Branding works, therefore, by collapsing crucial distinctions between gifts, markets, convivialities, friendly chitchat, and–in the case above–philosophical considerations. Disneyland, of course, is the paradigm.

Provisional Conclusions

So far, I have provided an indirect proof: Since none of these funding models works particularly well in the early 21st C., all of them can be ruled out. This post, accordingly, should be taken as an exercise in intellectual brush clearing. Our houses are much cleaner, and we now know where not to look. We also know that we cannot turn back.

But how do we go forward? And what now? This is a question I’ll take up tomorrow.