Image Source: The Oatmeal (29 October 2015).
In 2014, Pierre-Michel Menger published a fantastic book, The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement under Uncertainty, which describes the strange social psychology that governs how we assign value to creative products. Artists and other creative thinkers have never been more desperately needed to understand the changes of the new Millennium; but they face industrialized work conditions, corporate business models, and commercialized distribution systems. Over-competition and over-supply create professional hierarchies in which obedience trumps innovation. Worst of all, creative disciplines - from the amateur arts to academia - depend on an idealized belief in genius achievement, which is supposed to ignore money to maintain purity of intention.
Menger argued that the problem of evaluating and supporting creativity should not be framed in terms of employment and work conditions. Rather, the focus should shift to understanding the nature of human invention and how to sustain it. We must rethink how creative people live and work and how they are compensated, because true creativity already depends on what Menger called "self-realization," a non-chaotic engagement with uncertainty. Move to the edges of any society, and you will find people analyzing and radically rethinking how our world works, and how we fit in the world. Thus, imaginative work is, by definition, not a fully programmable activity. It is unpredictable, both in terms of how long it takes and in terms of results. Yet that uncertainty must be managed, or creative people cannot survive, and their cutting-edge visions will be lost.
Before the Internet existed, uncertainty in arenas of creative activity was managed by institutions and professional networks. Cyber-technology and global human capital volumes render these management formats obsolete. The Internet has democratized creative production. Access to online audiences and markets positively undermines some of the more rigid structures which now hamper creativity through stifling work and corporate cultures. The Web has allowed many creative people to gain public attention, when they might otherwise have been blocked by systemic gatekeepers. In 2006, director David Lynch remarked in a Wired interview:
While the Internet democratized creative activities, it has also caused problems by exponentially multiplying creative people's financial and aesthetic uncertainties. Menger confirms that the Technological Revolution has created a changing view of art. Under the old ways, we deified art as the highest human endeavour. Art's best examples became fixed in a static (and later challenged) canon. In this old view, a creative pursuit would be a imaginative individual's biggest and possibly best gamble, because his or her artwork might come to stand among our most enduring achievements. But in the brave new world, brand new art is worthless, both economically and aesthetically. Cultural aficionados want limitless content online for free. And even the greatest new artworks could be lost in the flood of online data, while Fifty Shades of Grey, a slash fiction inspired by Twilight's sparkling vampires, made millions.ST: In your eyes, how has this exponential innovation changed the power structure of the industry?Lynch: We're watching it go away, every day. Look at what's going on in the music industry and you will see what is coming for the film industry. Everyone and their little brother these days has a digital still camera. Some people pay for their music on iTunes -- although a lot get their music for free -- and now TV shows and movies are on iTunes as well. So there are going to be some serious readjustments!ST: Do you think they're ready for them?Lynch: Nobody's ready for them. ...ST: Do you think that, when the industry wakes to these changes, they'll feel they have been having a dream or a nightmare?Lynch: Well, it was a pretty good dream, and now it will be a pretty good nightmare. You can feel it. It's real different.
Without old systems effectively evaluating creative quality, amid a simultaneous flood of creative quantity, creative people are again left at a loss. Aesthetic conflicts rage between cultural products which are popular in a mass global economy - and choice products which still uphold older standards of artistic taste and peer-reviewed judgement. In 2015, author and journalist Joyce Maynard pondered this conflict in an Observer article regarding a master class she took from best-selling writer James Patterson, whose books have sold 300 million copies. Patterson is so breathtakingly big that Stephen King thinks he is a sell-out. Maynard admitted:
In her article, Maynard tacitly distinguished between fine art (still exclusive, if not always comfortably élite) and mass entertainment, without addressing the larger challenge posed by global culture. As the Internet democratizes that culture, the conflicts between old exclusivist arts and new bulk creativity engender a two-tiered and polarized view of the human imagination. Anything that still shelters in the old system is presumed by its adherents to retain canon-like integrity. Anything that rides across the Wild West of the Internet or sells to the masses in the multi-millions must be profitable but artistically compromised. Pierre-Michel Menger similarly struggled with the changing perception of creative work (p. 322):[H]ere’s where another voice piped up in me. Over my many years of publishing my work (novels that may sell 5,000, or 10,000, or if I’m really on a roll, 20,000 copies, to James Patterson’s millions), one thing I’ve acquired is respect for readers. Readers may not be the ultimate arbiters of what makes great art, but they can sense a good story, and even more so, sense when something is inauthentic or written from a place of cynicism or contempt. If a writer approaches his or her story with the simple goal of selling a lot of books, the reader is likely to smell it, and stay away. Something in the work of James Patterson has kept readers ponying up their dollars over the course of a career that now includes 76 best sellers. Maybe I could learn a thing or two about what this quality might be. ...It’s a refreshing aspect to ... [Patterson] that he harbors no illusions about his gifts. “Let’s face it,” he tells us. “I’m not writing War and Peace.”“I’m not that concerned with style. … Don’t think about the sentences,” he advises. Just keep that train roaring along.His stories may be unlike anybody else’s, but his MasterClass is hardly free of clichés: Writing is “a great ride.” A character’s dialogue “fits him like a glove,” and above all else, we should avoid “two-dimensional characters.” A big plot development is “an ‘aha’ moment.”Mr. Patterson possesses an abundance of good, solid common sense and some genuinely valuable wisdom. Not necessarily about the art of writing, mind you. But about storytelling. And at the end of the day, if you ask me (and more importantly, if you ask readers and book buyers), that’s what matters most. A person can write the most beautiful, lyrical sentences (as James Patterson will be the first to tell you, he does not), but if the story doesn’t grab a reader by the throat, and—having grabbed on—hold her there, none of the rest may matter all that much.
"The notion of the artwork is changing. Its classical figure is preserved for us by the immense apparatus of heritage formation and management that has consecrated the artwork and cultural goods as durable goods par excellence, products of a singular imagination raised to the rank of public goods, and ideally candidates for universal and perennial admiration. A whole legal and economic apparatus has supported the construction of the modern figure of the author at the same time that it defined the material and immaterial integrity of the artwork as a commodity, as a vector of symbolic communication, and as the basis for the exercise of a property right attributed to the author and his legal successors. But contemporary technologies for digitizing contents, with their avalanches of innovations, easily inscribe each artwork in a network of transactions, uses, appropriations, and possible transformations that rapidly come to affect the received definition of the artwork. They shatter the architecture of rights and responsibilities in the production and appropriation of the artwork. They announce the advent of another world: In the uncertain horizon outlined by technological innovations, the notion of the artwork is rapidly being transformed."As the shock waves roll through the creative disciplines and imaginative professions, we must return to the original problem. To view the problem as simply a product of unreformed institutional work cultures and inegalitarian employment conditions is to impose old analytical values on unique and novel creative environments. This is evident in doom-filled articles bemoaning how universities are dying. Is the university really dead, or are writers of these pieces simply thinking about how to support research and peer review in 20th century terms?
The 21st century demands a reexamination of the nature of human invention and of how to sustain it, under conditions never seen before in history. An answer may lie in a Millennial reappraisal of creative action. Innovative work is less and less an activity geared toward the production of creative pieces to be evaluated by gatekeepers in a series of static bottleneck choke points. Instead, this torturous game of steeplechase, which depended on slower technologies and limited modes of communication, may eventually be replaced by the notion that creativity becomes a continuous way of life, in an ongoing series of imaginative actions and statements across several media environments and in varied communicative contexts, which together form a coherent and cohesive oeuvre in retrospect. How that oeuvre may be assessed artistically to endure will also require new modes of judgement and scrutiny, which move beyond hierarchical gatekeepers in the old sense, and, in the new sense, beyond the current simplistic online reference to traffic volume and site hits.
Here, from the edges, is one real world solution. I am happy to announce that Histories of Things to Come is one of the featured projects inside the peer-to-peer ProTip application, which allows people to tip their favourite creative websites automatically with Bitcoins as they browse the Internet. Protip finds a Bitcoin address in a creative website (mine is listed in the right hand sidebar) and automatically offers that site a Bitcoin tip when a Protip user visits my site. As Chris put it:
And so ProTip is free and open source. ProTip's Google Chrome store is here. The ProTip website is here and the project's indiegogo campaign is here. I sincerely thank my friend and ProTip founder, Chris Ellis, for this mention, which helped inspire this post. My 2014 interview with Chris is here."I have a small disagreement ... about your remark that ... 'Cultural aficionados want limitless content online for free.' I don't think audiences want things for free, they just don't want to have to think about paying. You have to remember that we all play the role of consumer and producer at different times of the day, during our lunch hours it can be both! This is about giving ourselves the tools to help us treat ourselves better. Nobody wants to pay for a tool that might actually give us a shot at being honest and treating one another with respect."
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