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Artist: The World’s Third-Oldest Profession?

June 5, 2010

What makes us do those crazy things we do? You know what I mean: the stuff that separates humans from almost every other animal on the planet. Though I’m not sure how safe the latter assertion is, I’m trying to refer to humanity’s possibly unique penchant for higher levels of cognition, creativity, abstraction, and art. Even if humans aren’t the only beings on the planet that could define an instinct for art, the art instinct does seem to have defined us. Because our brains’ ability to recognize and appreciate art is such an evolved function unique to humans, as opposed to say a pig who can enjoy feeding and fucking like the rest of us, Hume called art the most morally worthwhile of our enjoyments.

Dan Pink makes an excellent illustration of behavioral economics in terms of incentives to creation, and why the conventional wisdom is not so rooted in human nature in the 21st Century as it may have been in, say, the neolithic era (and even then, probably not so much for the tool-makers):

Sure, quid pro quo rewards seem to maximize productivity and performance in the physical world when there is a pure, straightforward, mechanical, causally direct, if-then task to be performed. But as soon as you introduce any cognitive requirements, all of a sudden pure monetary rewards seem to undermine better performance.  Feelings of autonomy, mastery, and contribution to a transcendent purpose are much more powerful incentives make better products of the brain.

So on a behavioral level, it seems implausible that good artists–you know, the kind that implicate brain activity–are only in it for the money.  I’ve suggested that artists who are should really just be called whores, since they’re engaged in selling themselves and their dignity for the quickest buck. But wouldn’t it almost be worse if they were just plain bad at whoring as well?  One recently crafted argument described the present impasse between sheer distribution models and extractive transaction models as a situation where artists should look beyond bringing their audience to the courtroom for a venue to gain returns on their works:

This much should be abundantly clear by now: creators must move beyond suing the audience. File-sharers are characterized as shallow thieves, when in reality they’re just fans who are using one of the most efficient technologies for distribution ever invented to explore creative works in the most convenient way possible. The majority of these fans would like to live in a world where there’s an efficient, effective, modern framework for compensating the creators. That framework will be built through innovation and experimentation — not litigation.

Or maybe here’s a more illustrative and descriptive analogy that will pack some punch: for its responsibility in the oil spill, British Petroleum was recently fined the equivalent of the statutorily authorized penalties for sharing 600 songs illegally for expenses incurred in the cleanup so far.

From another economic perspective, it is much more wrong that “superstars” most often enforce their own copyrights, even though it makes less sense to protect against copying those “superstar” artists who are going to make their buck anyway. In terms of the grand copyright bargain, the real goal for copyright enforcement is to insulated emerging and actively creating artists from piracy that might devastate their already minimal returns to creation, thereby undermining the incentives and viability to create in the first place. And the question of whether or not piracy is doing that is now more or less subject to empiric verification, depending on a few key variables:

Our analysis emphasizes three important aspects of artistic markets: the predominance of superstars, the dynamics of talent sorting, and the importance of promotion expenditures. In the short run, piracy reduces superstars’ earnings and market share, and increases the number of niche and young artists. From a dynamic perspective, piracy may help more young artists start their careers, thereby increasing the number of highly talented artists in the long run. The long run impact on artistic creation of levies on copy equipment may crucially depend on whether their yields primarily accrue to superstars or are allocated to help young artists.

Basically, when you’re a new artist, more fans taking and sharing your stuff doesn’t bother you. The point is work first, profits later.  And new artists are doing this with increasing efficiency because they recognize that it doesn’t hurt them that audiences are being exposed to the fruits of their intellectual labors; if anything, that’s the whole point.  What these new and emerging artists are realizing is that the old ownership/extraction model is less effective than playing the odds and getting fan-financing from the people who appreciate your works enough to willingly transfer some of their consumer surplus back to the producer.  That way, everyone is happy and consensual about the artistic endeavors; it’s not cheap and tawdry extraction that leaves either party to the transaction feeling lonely in a motel room and feeling like the other just took advantage of them after the fact.

The problem comes in when a record company pimps out their artists and makes their very existence depend on the ability to extract at each point of transfer, because that’s how they think of creation in light of the 20th Century. But as Tyler Cowen quickly shows, the potential returns to more pervasive works of art undermines the logic of any automatically adverse reaction for superstars as well:

I wonder, though, if piracy doesn’t increase the returns to the most popular market superstars. There are also expressive reasons for purchasing cultural commodities. If you own copies of so many cultural outputs — possibly illegal copies — maybe you shell out for the real thing for the few “must-have” cultural products that everyone else is buying. Imagine for instance a mother who buys her child the new Harry Potter on the first day because it is a “relic” of sorts and everyone else is getting it right away. Or maybe a teenager wishes to “affiliate” with Eminem (in the old days) by actually buying and owning a copy of the best Eminem CD.

The flip-side of the question is just as relevant to good creation: what makes you pay for the digital content you actually pay for? Is it wanting (or feeling somehow obligated) to compensate the artist for a product you have already enjoyed? Or is it a prospective prediction-of-enjoyment that will get you to open your wallet, as might be analogized to going to the movie theater having read a review or seen a preview but not the whole thing?  Artists need to start thinking about how to answer these questions if they want to be good whores; after all, you do need to get down on your knees to service the customer if you want them to pay for the milk they can increasingly get for free.


Author’s Note:

While writing this post, I was considering apologizing for my brief blogging hiatus, and to the readers of this blog who are probably groaning, tired of this same old copyright song and dance, but really this is a conversation about art that is worth having over and over again. We are at a critical inflection point of technology and communication, with one outmoded regime entrenched and powerful enough to swallow up significant amounts of human freedom in its own quest for self-preservation. So maybe a little repetition is warranted.

Besides, arguments–like any art–vary in style and substance, sometimes providing a bit of art or entertainment in and of themselves.  The fact that I’m not trying to make a buck by producing these arguments shows you that I’m not in the “service” aka “extraction” aka “whoring” mold of creation, so I’ll set my own schedule and apologize to no one in the process.  That being said, I do enjoy some good ol’ consensual, intellectual intercourse and hope that what I’m doing is pleasing the audience, so I do appreciate audible feedback at any point.  And hell, as is true within this metaphor, moans and groans aren’t bad either.


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