Last week I read a brief article in the Atlantic magazine that chronicles the history of how artists have been perceived by society, how they’ve worked, and how they have made money through the ages. Several artists have since emailed me with links to the article, and it may, understandably, stir up some conversation in the art world. It should be noted that the article does talk extensively about visual artists, but the author, William Deresiewicz, uses the term “artist” to refer more broadly to anyone engaged in artistic pursuits, including authors, musicians, playwrights, etc.
You should read the article for yourself, but the basic premise is that one can trace an arc in the perception of what constituted an artist. In ancient times the concept of “artist” as we would recognize it didn’t exist, rather there were artisans or craftsmen (and craftswomen) who were makers, working and living very similarly to any other tradespeople.
Slowly, over time, as the skill of these creators increased, and, as societal wealth grew, artists moved away from the functional and merely decorative and began working to create art for its own sake. Through patronage by wealthy individuals and organized religion, some of the greatest artistic works of all time were created.
Eventually, individual and institutional patronage died out, but the desire to create great works of art survived and the concept of a “starving artist” was born – an individual who would sacrifice the comforts of life in order to pursue excellence. These artists often survived on the good graces and charity of friends and family. Eventually the private collector came into being and many artists entered commerce – making a living selling their work. The academic artist also rose up – artists who spent years in school to then turn around and become professors to train up a new generation of academic artists.
The author of the article argues that we are now entering a new age of artists, many of whom, the author argues, wouldn’t necessarily be considered artists in the true sense of the word, but rather, should be considered “creative entrepreneurs”. He argues that the fall of established institutions like the universities and the rise of the internet and social media is ushering in a new age for those who create. He goes on to posit that as the selling of art becomes more democratized, the quality of the work being produced and accepted by society will inevitably fall. Many artists, he argues, will no longer have time to hone their craft, they will be to busy building their network of followers and chasing after likes and dollars.
The article is well-written and summarizes pretty succinctly the rise and fall of the artist over history, but I feel the conclusions of the article are too facile, and that the whole premise generalizes too much to reflect the reality of what it has meant and means to be an artist.
It’s clear that we are indeed in a revolutionary time as the internet allows artists to promote themselves to a broader audience. I would argue, however, that there have always been a wide range of approaches to the creation and marketing of art. Individual artists have approached both the creation and selling of her art according to her personality and disposition.
I would also argue that there have always been artistic individuals who have a natural gift for business. They might not have been called entrepreneurs, but they approached the distribution and dissemination of their art in ways that can only be described as entrepreneurial. I’m thinking of artist like da Vinci, Picasso, and certainly Warhol.
It’s also true that many artists naturally leaned more toward craft than art, and that the number of artists who are creating history-worthy pieces has always been small.
The internet has made it possible for an artist to reach a wide range of potential buyers and patrons, but the internet has also dramatically increased the amount of noise that exists in the marketplace, meaning that it is as hard as ever for an individual artist to get enough attention to make a living through her work.
In short, I disagree that the age of the internet means the end of great art. I believe that the author mistakenly thinks that the creation of art is driven solely by the underlying societal structure that supports (or fails to support) artists. Mr. Deresiewicz fails to realize that the desire to create is as old as mankind, and that as long as humanity exists there will be those among us who strive to create works of art that have the ability to leave the rest of us in absolute wonder.
I suspect that there will always be art that transcends the age in which it is created – present age not excepted
The age of information has transformed the world, but I suspect that there will always be art that transcends the age in which it is created – present age not excepted.
You can read the full text of the original article for free at:
What do You Think?
Is “The Death of the Artist” imminent? Can an artist be a great artist and an entrepreneur at the same time? Do you agree or disagree with the assertions made in the article. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.