The Changing Economics of High Art

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There
are some fascinating economics at play in the structure of the modern
literary world, which is coming under attack as a result of the
drastic reduction in transmission costs created by the Web. In a
former life, I was an aspiring poet while studying for my chemistry
degree. My parents, having a better understanding of economics than
I did, made it explicit that while they were paying for my education
I was studying something that I could use to earn a living.

Before
looking at the Economics of poetry, in specific, and art in general,
you first have to define its purpose. The question to ask is, what
are the motivations of the artist? I see two answers to this question:
The artist creates to communicate or the artist creates for the
sake of creating. Personally, I see the second as both self-defeating
and self-delusional. This formed the basis of an argument I had
with my instructor, William Logan, at the time Head of the Creative
Writing Department at the University of Florida. He contended that
art could exist for its own sake and not be intended for communication.
I disagreed saying that for art to exist implies a desire to communicate
with someone, even a later, older version of yourself, otherwise
you would not spend time creating it. The essence of Mr. Logan’s
assertion is that the creation of this art has no purpose at all,
that the action is purposeless. The extension of this argument,
of course, is that the purity of one’s art exists at the point where
you can destroy it immediately after producing it. Even if this
were true, once produced the memory of the creative process will
communicate itself to you through time, thereby polluting your original
intent.

For
me this seems self-referential and, to be blunt, stupid.

Art is the by-product of human action and therefore can be treated
as an economic commodity, regardless of your intention. Art is,
hopefully, born of a passion for a particular moment, event, thing,
person, etc. The artist will then tend to seek out both the form(s)
(poetry, prose, film, clay, beer!) that best suits his talents and
ways to improve his ability to express those talents. This is his
contribution to the Division of Labor. In addition, like physicists
or engineers or architects (all arguably artists, by the way), the
size of the audience with which you can converse knowledgably is
inversely proportional to the level of expertise of the artist.
This is especially true of poets, whose potential audience beyond
pop music lyrics and greeting cards decreases sharply, as does the
commercial viability of the poetry. Because these are the boundaries
of the market into which they have devoted themselves and, as stated
above, their work is born of a passion for both the form itself
and the subjects of their work, it is easy to see why elitism born
of resentment for the consumer happens. This reaction is akin to
the guy who opens up a pork barbecue restaurant in the middle of
a Jewish neighborhood and blames his customers for not appreciating
his food.

The
natural refuge for the serious aspiring poet is then, of course,
academia. By the early 20th century in America most, if not all,
of the major poets that we still read today were academics, the
notable exception being Wallace Stevens who worked as an insurance
adjustor. Historically, the patronage system was a direct link between
performance and funding. If one did not entertain the Duke who was
footing the bill, one was kicked out. In America, before heavy governmental
subsidization of university level education became the norm, campuses
served as a proxy for the patronage system that preceded it. There
was, at some functional level, a direct link between the performance
of the artists in a college’s employ and the funding it received.
Once tax dollars were used to fund English departments the link
between the funding and the product being produced was broken, and
whatever lethargy or inefficiency evident in the system previously
was now free to flourish. The socialist problem of inadequate pricing
information for poetry was the norm rather than the exception.

All
of this is in service of an art form with limited appeal and commercial
viability.

There
are few outlets for work to be published. Very few, if any, poetry
magazines exist which are not outgrowths of university presses.
There are notable exceptions like Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker
or New Republic. Even they only publish a few pieces amidst the
rest of their content. The very people who stock the English departments
of universities also double as the editors of these journals as
well as being the instructors of aspiring poets attending said universities.
The entire situation is very insular and self-referential.

The
end result is predictable with these established poets acting like
the gatekeepers of the True Art, a classic economic barrier-to-entry
problem. They decide what is and what is not acceptable. The students
must fit that mold if they want to become part of the club. Court
politics and currying personal favor is given far more weight than
the quality of the work. Students waste energy vying for place in
the pack order as opposed to studying their craft. Individuality
is paid lip service, as are concepts like u2018finding your unique voice'
and u2018carving out your own niche,' but all within certain arbitrary
parameters. The student who wants to become a poet must submit to
this system or fail. This is not to say that there is necessarily
malicious intent at work. Quite the contrary, the people who are
in power more often than not think they are upholding the standards
of the form through their passion for it.

The
net effect to this inadvertent monopoly created by government appropriation
of capital is to produce fewer poets of ever decreasing quality
and relevance to the society of which their work is supposed to
be commenting on. Taking a step back, they themselves become a piece
of performance art showcasing the massive economic miscalculation
born of misguided good intentions.

Now,
that's all the bad news I can come up with. The good news is that
this is changing rapidly. Much of this system as described above
is an outgrowth of the cost of publishing the work. This is perfectly
analogous to the recording and film industries. All of these business
models are based on staggering production and distribution costs
being the prime determiner of profitability. Today, with the tools
available to animators, filmmakers, novelists, poets, musicians,
etc., those costs have dropped to nearly zero, or will within the
next five years. If you want to be a poet and have someone read
your work then start a blog, syndicate it, promote it, advertise
it and (most importantly) populate it with your best material. The
same thing goes for being a talk-show host, disk jockey, pundit,
comedian, comic strip writer, what have you.

Nothing
will ever be a substitute for quality. The first rule of blogging
is, "Be interesting or Be ignored," or, at least be prolific.
While I've been prolific in my blog,
I'm unsure as to whether I've been all that interesting considering
that my traffic counter works less than most State Employees. The
proof of your quality shows up everyday in our Inboxes.

Being
a good poet (which I am not) is not born of inspiration alone. There
is craft, and it is a learned craft. Writers should read each other's
work, comment on it and critique it. Removing the ossified gatekeepers
from the situation not only removes them from the equation it stops
the setting of aspiring writers against one another in internecine
squabbles for the instructor's favor.

Creative
Writing Departments are rapidly being replaced by internet writers'
groups. I have a friend who started out writing sci-fi fan pornography
who is now seriously working towards completing her first novel.
She has a group of like-minded friends who she trusts to give her
constructive criticism and who have invested themselves in nurturing
her raw writing talent (which she has) to its current potential
and she does the same for them in return. Her goal is the completion
of the novel itself, not the monetary reward thereof. While she
apprentices herself in this way she is building a fan-base by publishing
her other work. Eventually, she may or may not feel comfortable
with charging money for it. The choice is hers. Her readers may
decide to reward her with a little hint of immortality.

It
is not hard to see a time when it will be the norm that we will
stop by a budding artist's blog and see five songs he's written
and recorded on his computer offered up with a simple, "Hey,
I hope you like what I've done here."

Ta.

March
23, 2005

Thomas
Luongo [send him email]
is a professional chemist, amateur economist, and obstreperous Southerner-in-training
in North Florida. See
his website
.

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