books and the man, part III: the new patronage 09.23.2007, 10:00 AM
posted by sebastian mary
In the first 'Books and the man' post I took the example of Alexander Pope to argue that the idea of 'high' literature is inseparable from economic conditions that enable a writer to turn himself into a brand and sell copyrighted material to his readership. In this post I want to look at what happens to creative work in a medium whose very nature militates against copyright.
The internet encourages artists to give stuff away for free, and to capitalise (somehow) on abundance and reproducibility. Ben's recent roundup of copyright-related readings quotes Jeff Jarvis to this effect: "It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for." So the answer, says Jay Rosen, is advertising: "Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users". But while this works just fine for regularly-updated information-type content, how are works of imagination to be funded? As media professor Tim Jackson pointed out some years ago in Towards A New Media Aesthetic, the infinite reproducibility of content on the web threatens the livelihood of artists and writers to a degree that critics such as Keen believe will bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Keen's wrong. There were artists before there was copyright, and there will be afterwards. Leaving aside my speculations about experiments such as Meta-Markets, cultural forms are starting to emerge online that make use of the internet's mutability, endlessness, unreliability and infinitely-reproducible nature. But they're not 'high art', in the sense that Pope pioneered. Rather, they hark back to an earlier period of literature when aristocratic patronage was the norm, and there was little distinction between 'high' and 'low' art except in the sense of being calibrated to the tastes of the target audience.
I've written here previously about the ways in which alternate reality gaming is the first genuinely net-native storytelling form. I complained that this exciting form was emerging and was already being colonised by the advertising industry, through sponsorship and similar. Where and how, I wondered, would the 'independent' ARGs emerge?
I'd like to eat my words. Calling for 'independent' ARGs invoked the perspective of those cultural assumptions of 'independence' that both created and were created by the scarcity business model of copyright. In doing so, I ignored the fact that the internet doesn't use a scarcity model - and hence that the concept of 'independence' doesn't work in the same way. And internet users don't seem to care that much about it.
I asked Perplex City creator Dan Hon whether he thought there was a bias, or any qualitative difference, between 'independent' and sponsored ARGs. He told me that ARG enthusiasts don't reall care: "It's normally the execution of the game that will have the most impact."
So for enthusiasts of the internet's first native storytelling form, the issue of whether corporate sponsorship is acceptable (an idea which would beanathema to anyone raised in the modernist tradition of authorship) is completely meaningless. If anything, Dan reckons 'independence' counts against you: "There absolutely isn't any value-laden bias towards indie-ARGs - in fact, if anything there's a negative bias against them. Many players [...] are quite happy to give warnings that the indie args are liable to spontaneously implode just because the people behind them are "too indie". A quick nose around the 'ARGs with Potential' section on the Unfiction boards turns up enough 'This looks like a dodgy indie affair' style remarks to back up this statement.
So while the arts world "was divided between shock and hilarity" when Fay Weldon got jewellers Bulgari to pay an undisclosed amount for frequent mentions in a 2001 novel, there are no anxieties in the ARG community about seeing advertising converge with the arts. Perhaps one could argue that ARGers are typically computer gaming enthusiasts too, and if they can cope with expensive Playstation games they can cope with Playstation-sponsored stories.
But. Take a look at Where Are The Joneses?, a collaboratively-written, professionally-filmed and Creative Commons-licenced online sitcom devised by former Channel 4 new media schemer David Bausola. Not an ARG; but a near-perfect instance of bottom-up culture. Written by its community, quality-checked by the production team, funny, absorbing, released on open licence - and an advert for Ford Motors.
If you catch him in an expansive mood, David will tell you that the marketing industry will survive only if it stops trying to influence culture and just starts making it. The flip side of that is that vested interests will, increasingly, explicitly find their way into creative works produced online. And, in my view, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
A glance at some of the scions of the pre-eighteenth-century canon gives a hint at the role that aristocratic patronage played in the arts. To hear some of the anti-internet rearguard speak, one might think that To Penshurst was written independently of the relation between Sir Robert Sidney and Ben Jonson; one might think that the arts has always been unsullied by power; that the encroachment of the the latter (in the form of commerce) on the former is a sign of our imminent cultural disintegration.
But contrary to Keen's assertion that the mechanisms of copyright are indispensable to cultural dynamism, the English cultural renaissance that gave us Shakespeare, Bacon, Sidney, Donne, Marvell et al was largely driven by aristocratic patronage. Copyright hadn't been invented yet. And if the world of art and culture is to survive in a post-copyright environment, it may be time to look furthe back in the past than the eighteenth century, and re-examine previous models. Which means looking again at patronage, which in turn, today, makes a strong case for embracing the advert. With the distinctions between brand patronage and creative culture already collapsing, it may be time for artists to wake up to the power they could wield by embracing and negotiating with the vested interests of corporate sponsors. If they do, the result may yet be a digital Renaissance.
John Maxwell on September 24, 2007 3:28 PM:
Of course, the problem with aristocratic patronage is that it requires an aristocracy. Hrmmm.
bowerbird on September 24, 2007 3:34 PM:
corporate greed is killing the planet, dude.
what artists want to collaborate with that?
we now have access to a world-wide audience,
without _any_ compromise. take advantage...
don't worry about getting paid; impact life,
and the money will then make its way to you.
Jay Rosen on September 25, 2007 8:42 AM:
"So the answer, says Jay Rosen, is advertising: 'Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users'..."
Not really. I didn't say in the post that snippet comes from, that advertising was the answer to anything, like how are journalists going to get paid for what they do.
I said that the direction the New York Times had chosen was advertising tied to search rather than charging dollars for content, and that means open gates for all users.
sebastian mary on September 25, 2007 10:01 AM:
@ Jay Rosen: fair enough - certainly don't want to misquote! Looking back, there's a connecting sentence missing. To clarify why I picked up on your remarks about advertising: the free content + advertising model work naturally with the economic and structural flow of the internet. And while this is already being used in news media with some success, it has drastic consequences for the economic models - and, beyond that, the aesthetic criteria - that underpin the arts. Or to put it another way: I can see how free content + advertising can work for the NYT without radically changing what that publication is: you have to move the goalposts a whole lot further when it comes to storytelling. Thence follows the rest of the article...
@ bowerbird: 'Without any compromise?' Hmmm. I'd argue that the very idea of 'independent' art is a self-justificatory strategy of capitalism (I'll argue this in full by email if you wish), and its ascendancy relies on the existence of a consumer class. Further, this imaginary independence comes at a price.
By refusing to engage with the corporations that create your (non-compromising) internet, manufacture your (non-compromising) computer, keep your language in (non-compromising) ascendancy and help make your voice one that has the potential (without any compromise) to 'impact life', you are perpetuating cultural structures that help give corporate greed permission to continue killing the planet. The only way to challenge this is to return the arts to the position they have always (with the exception of the last three centuries, non-coincidentally also the era of consumer capitalism) inhabited: as the uneasy mistress of power. I don't like it either, but I see no way round it.
PS: I'm not a dude, I'm a dudette. :)
bowerbird on September 25, 2007 5:55 PM:
i don't understand all those fancy words. sorry.
all i know is that i don't have to ask permission,
or act as "the uneasy mistress of power" to some
"patron of the arts", to speak my mind to people,
like artists had to do before we had internet tubes.
am i afraid of the republicans -- and democrats --
who seem to have no compunction about destroying
the civil liberties on which this country was built?
darn right i am. but i'm gonna speak out anyway.
am i pestered by the miniature fascists who will
censor the truth when i speak it on their blogs?
not really, because there are lots and lots of
soapboxes out here in cyberspace, thank you...
but do i feel a need to cozy up with corporations?
absolutely not. indeed, the idea is abhorrent.
> and its ascendancy relies on
> the existence of a consumer class.
are you talking about what i call the audience?
because i don't think of them as "customers"...
> PS: I'm not a dude, I'm a dudette. :)
yeah, but that didn't go
with the tenor of my post. ;+)
McKenzie Wark on September 26, 2007 1:53 PM:
That culture has to be made within the division of labor, by professionals who do nothing else still seems to me to be the basic assumption here. All that changes is the model for supporting them. But what if what was becoming possible was more interesting than that? "poetry should be made by all", as Lautreamont said. And perhaps it has been neither sales, advertising or patronage that has kept writers going, but day jobs.
bowerbird on September 26, 2007 7:12 PM:
mr. wark has called "bingo".
question: what do you call a poet
without a girlfriend/boyfriend?
sebastian mary on September 27, 2007 11:24 AM:
That basic assumption (the division of labour one) is precisely the one I've been chipping at.
What I'm trying to say is that the (historically specific) assumption McKenzie Wark is picking up on - that 'culture' is somehow professionalised and that's the One True Way - goes hand in hand with the vision (that bowerbird's last sums up so neatly) of poets valiantly starving, sponging off partners or doing day jobs so as to keep their art 'pure'. They're part of the same ecosystem.
I'm interested in the idea of patronage because to me it muddies both the 'starving artist' model and the professionalisation of 'pure' culture, in a way that challenges some of the unwritten assumptions of both. It's not just about changing the support system for an entrenched class of 'culture creators'. By suggesting that amazing, inspiring, beautiful work can be produced in explicit rather than tacit collusion with vested interests it offers an entirely different conception of what 'culture' is.
Plutocrats, made good, start buying art by these starving-or-professionalised artists; in this ecology, art is little more than something to beautify a humming industrial machine. What I'm arguing for is a vision of creative culture as intricately implicated in that machine, and capable of major leverage within it. But to be explicit about, and involved in, the relation between art and power is to abandon the comfortable illusion of independence in favour of the messy reality of agency - and I can understand why some would find this unappealing.
bowerbird on September 28, 2007 4:22 PM:
a lot of my fellow performance poets are
making a job out of their art, because
they can now actually make enough money
to support themselves from their poetry...
i think they're making a big mistake
when they do that, because they are
putting their art at the mercy of
the people who do the hiring...
they're sacrificing their independence,
and i think it will bite them in the butt
in the long run (and maybe even sooner)...
artistic motivation is an elusive entity.
and once you start making art for money,
you're putting that motivation in jeopardy.
i might be wrong. but that's my opinion.