Arts Commentary: “The Death of the Artist” — Culture Workers Unite!

By Debra Cash

The shared baseline of these conversations is that there are no good old days to go back to. If the cultural sector in the United States returns to the ways things were organized in February 2020, with all the inequity and unsustainability that implies, we will have failed.

The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz. Henry Holt and Company, $27.99, pp 368.

Click here to order from Bookshop

Not a month goes by when I do not have a conversation with a young artist about how a career in the arts seems unsustainable. As the executive director of an arts service organization, Boston Dance Allliance, which provides information and resources for dancers across genres, I recognize their precarity: the hustle of piecing together a portfolio of gigs, writing replicative grant and residency applications, the time spent wondering wistfully whether they would be more successful if they pulled up stakes and moved somewhere else. As one choreographer recently told me, living from grant to grant and gig to gig turns into a cycle of “produce, rinse, and repeat.” The shiny, celebrity-heavy top of the arts pyramid reveals itself as the place where First Ladies pen bestsellers, where pop stars have their grocery shopping reported on in the years between hits, and where Oscar winners tell billions of people watching a telecast not to give up on their dreams. Yet even as artists throw in the towel or, in this pandemic time, are laid off from even endowment-rich, stable institutions such as museums and orchestras, there is no scarcity of aspiring, well-trained, and gifted artists to line up behind them. A livelihood in the arts resembles a lottery with particularly dismal odds.

William Deresiewicz has been listening to those conversations, aware that this is more than a crisis about building and sustaining the pipeline for young people entering the field. Current economic structures in the American cultural sector manifest an ever-receding horizon for artists of every age and in every discipline. Late 20th- and early 21st-century corporate consolidation and the ideology that “information must be free” on the internet – an argument made primarily by software developers who were cushioned by comfortable “knowledge work” salaries – has dislodged any expectation of security, even for people who were previously able to make a living in the cultural sector. Changing expectation fuels Deresiewicz’s alternating fury and discouragement, and a certain amount of snark. He wrote this book to understand what happened.

Early on in his volume, Deresiewicz tells a rhetorical lie. “Art is work. The fact that people do it out of love, or self-expression, or political commitment doesn’t make it any less so. Nor does the fact that it isn’t a job, a matter of formal employment. Chefs often do what they do out of love, but no one expects to eat for free.… Even if you do not have a boss, it’s work. If art is work, then artists are workers. No one likes to hear this.” [italics mine]

Art is Work is stenciled on the doorway of the late I {heart} NY designer Milton Glaser. Photo: magCULTURE.

This statement is a rhetorical lie – or maybe a plea to “please read my book, I have another 300+ pages to go” — because Deresiewicz will spend much of The Death of the Artist describing how many artists have been clear for decades that they are cultural workers. (The phrase, with its proletarian perfume, is coming back into vogue.)

Artists are workers and want to be paid for their work. They are tired of being told that artists will find a way to do what they love no matter what conditions they find themselves in, and that they should be grateful for “exposure.” Exposure doesn’t pay the bills and frankly, it rarely translates into paid work, despite what you may have read about YouTube sensations being scooped up for HBO specials or to join sit-com writers’ rooms. (Ok, I love Randy Rainbow’s fabulous anti-Trump musical theater parodies too, but getting that famous and being able to parlay it into a living is the exception that proves the rule.)

Many artists are burdened with loans for art school or conservatory educations that did not adequately equip them to be self-employed businesspeople, although this is changing. A number of outside foundations and arts service organizations like mine have tried to fill the breach with technical assistance and encouragement. While some young artists have their sights set on becoming Oscar winners or Patti Smith, I’ll wager that most of them want to be able to do their work and live in coastal cities on middle-class incomes and even support a child or two. That version of the American dream increasingly looks delusional.

No one “deserves” to be paid to make art. Working for oneself, on projects one determines, is a luxury and a privilege. But Deresiewicz makes the salient point that in a market economy, artists should be able to get paid for doing things other people love. (That’s the way it worked when Michaelangelo labored for Pope Julius II.)

The money being made in the cultural sector isn’t being made by artists. It is being made by digital platforms and corporate conglomerates. These are deliberate transfers of wealth, not unintended consequences. Deresiewicz describes these extractive structural realignments in a series of case studies of musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers. (He leaves out theater and dance professionals, perhaps because the impact of corporate consolidation and the impact of the internet are harder to ascertain in these resolutely ephemeral – and outside commercial theater and Broadway, not particularly remunerative — activities.)

Music in the 20th century, especially the world of pop music, was dominated by exploitative and often racist studios where artists traded contracts with labels for marketing and distribution clout. Now, Deresiewicz argues, “streaming is a protection racket: if the labels didn’t make their music available for free, people would steal it anyway.” Spotify and YouTube streams don’t add up to much income, with streams paying the artists from pennies to fractions of pennies. “A paltry million streams will only get you between $300 and $6,000,” he writes. To make matters even more unbalanced, the top 0.1 percent of artists were responsible for more than 50 percent of analog and digital sales. Touring might have made up for some of the losses, even in a more crowded field, but during the pandemic that is impossible. Almost no one has figured out how to monetize virtual shows in a way that makes up for ticket and merch revenues that a musician would earn in a club, theater, or stadium. He doesn’t say so, but Gofundme and other crowdsourcing strategies are just the current virtual incarnation of rent parties and getting by with help from your friends.

Amazon is the publishing sector villain. If you didn’t know the word monopsony before reading this book, you will by the time you close its covers. Because Amazon had investors willing to let the company run at a loss for 20 years, Jeff Bezos was able to undercut prices, first to publishers and then to suppliers in every other retail category. Then Amazon delivered the Kindle and cut the royalties even deeper for ebooks. What authors and publishers realized too late was that creating the “infinite bookshelf” was never the point: collecting data on “a customer base of affluent, well-educated customers (the Whole Foods demographic, we might call them),” was.

The impact on publishing has been immense. Where in an earlier era blockbusters might pay for mid-list literary fiction, the ability for publishers to take chances is curtailed. Add to that outright piracy (read: Google books). In a painful bit of irony, authors routinely discover that their in-copyright books and articles are being offered online for free without their permission when they receive a Google alert. The Authors’ Guild, of which I am a member, surveyed its members – by definition, all published writers – and between 2009 and 2015 saw writing-related income decline by an average of 30 percent.

In the world of galleries and museums, visual artists can make a killing, but it’s winner-take-all. In 2018 just 20 individuals accounted for 64 percent of total sales by living artists. The activist group BFAMFAPhD noted that art school graduates in New York who work full time at their craft have median incomes of $25,000. The art world may have “climbed aboard the roller coaster of finance capitalism” with canvases and sculptures being bought as tangible investments and put aside in storage for the time when a promising talent is recognized as a master and generates a return, but galleries, and the curation they represent, have consolidated. No wonder you can go to any contemporary art museum in this country and see the same “hot” talents on rotation.

Film and television, the most systematically “commercial” of the cultural forms The Death of the Artist considers, encompasses a number of business models and opportunities for artists – actors, directors, writers and the allied technical staff that support this industry – and so is harder for Deresiewicz to pin down. Still, the numbers of people who want to participate in the field and those who make it, even to film festivals or niche distribution is incredibly small. SXSW receives 3,000 feature films annually, of which the festival takes 130. While the explosion of channels and platforms create demands for more and more content – which is why A List actors now find themselves competing for Emmys – visibility through companies such as Netflix, Amazon, or HBO becomes more important than ever.

So making a living in the arts is hard. The squeeze is not just bad for the artists and for their publics; it reinforces social inequity. The dirty secret of the arts sector is that we are moving toward – or already in — a situation where the only people who have the time and space to commit themselves to making art are the young, who tend to be willing to live with roommates and forgo any number of material comforts, and people of independent means, who are supported by trust funds or family members.

Arts endeavors can – and typically are — supplemented by separate income-producing work. Despite what Deresiewicz writes, most artists in the US know this will be necessary, and that there is nothing shameful about it. The nature of that other work ranges widely. It can be related employment, such as working in a gallery, doing literacy training, teaching private piano lessons, or chasing the brass ring of a position at a university. (Don’t get me started on the adjunctification of the academy.) An artist’s day job could be working as a restaurant server (famously flexible for those who want to take time off to go to dance classes or auditions), walking dogs, or holding down a second, simultaneous career in an unrelated sector. That’s what I did before I went all in for nonprofit arts administration almost six years ago.  But that does take time away from art-making, and for some artists, that is a bridge too far.

The good news is that artists, and people who care about them, are not sitting back wringing their ink-and-paint stained hands. The Death of the Artist was readied for publication before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Just as the pandemic pulled back the curtain on endemic injustices against people of color, the fragility of both full-time and gig employment, and the cruelty of linking human needs such as access to health care to employment status, the fact that the cultural sector was the first to close and, for the performing arts at least, will be the last to reopen has occasioned soul searching, cross-disciplinary conversations, and creative reimaginings. It has to.

As a Brookings Institute study reported, “we estimate [covid-related] losses of 2.7 million [jobs in the creative industry, which here includes fashion and design] and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide, representing nearly a third of all jobs in those industries and 9% of annual sales. The fine and performing arts industries will be hit hardest, suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales. These estimated losses represent 50% of all jobs in those industries and more than a quarter of all lost sales nationwide.”

And this is just the people who were being paid enough for their work in 2019 to report the numbers.

Does this matter? It sure does.

As Brookings notes, “arts, culture, and creativity are one of three key sectors (along with science and technology as well as business and management) that drive regional economies. Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being, and quality of life.”

You don’t have to believe in Richard Florida’s urban planning exhortations –  which many believe supplied the popular arguments for hipster gentrification and the displacement of low-income communities of color in many big cities – to understand that the arts and culture act as an economic multiplier. In the hard-to-remember, maskless world of 2019, Arts/Boston’s The Arts Factor noted that Greater Boston’s arts and culture sector directly and indirectly generated $2 billion in annual revenues, and provided as many paying jobs as the retail industry.

Artists, arts administrators, philanthropic foundations, trade unions, and even progressive legislators are all stepping into the breach, suggesting ways forward. Collectively, these represent a radical reimagining of the infrastructure and priorities of the sector. A significant amount of today’s conversations center on issues of racial equity and support for art-making and the visibility of underrepresented artists and organizations that serve BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. But it all comes down to how the sector is structured, and how money flows among its component parts.

W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy),  an organization Deresiewicz mentions, updated their Recommended Best Practice Protocols for Institutions and Funders in April to deal with the issue of how artists and cultural workers, such as museum staff, would be compensated fairly for the move to virtual platforms and to establish transparency around furloughs. (80 nonprofit organizations have been certified by W.A.G.E. as paying artist fees that meet minimum payment standards.) Creative Time in New York is establishing a 10-month virtual “artist think tank” for “reflection, dismantling, and action…to create the critical shifts required to build equitable and sustainable approaches to cultural production,” with the artists participating earning $10,000 for their efforts.

Groups of artists have organized and fought for new ways to divide royalties for work among an ensemble, so that the original cast of Hamilton is slated to earn 1 percent of the Broadway show’s net profits, and 0.33 percent of profits from future US productions. During the pandemic, this model looks more appealing than ever. Musicians have opted for the “radical payment transparency” of Bandcamp, which some people are calling the “anti-Spotify.” American visual artists continue to argue for droit de suite, residuals when a work is resold. The Ford Foundation asked 40 well-known cultural figures to offer “provocations” to reimagine the arts, documentary film, and journalism, introducing their effort by quoting abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities.” The first installment explores “new cooperative models of resource-sharing and community ownership,” with other issues slated for later reveal.

Most ambitious is the call for what some have called a “21st Century WPA,” a 25-point plan put forth by the cultural advocates at Americans for the Arts and endorsed by close to 800 other creative workers and cultural organizations. Some of the plan’s demands directly address Deresiewicz’s laments, such as the call to “Adjust Existing Policies to Recognize Creative Workers as Workers,” so that, for instance, artists and other gig workers can collect unemployment not only under the pandemic relief CARES Act but long after we have a vaccine. Other demands, such as “prioritize and incentivize public and private sector support, access to capital, and equitable funding of arts producing organizations, small creative businesses, community cultural centers, and collectives” don’t say much about how that might be implemented, but would surely be a welcome change.

The shared baseline of these conversations is that there are no good old days to go back to. If the cultural sector in the United States returns to the ways things were organized in February 2020, with all the inequity and unsustainability that implies, we will have failed.

Debra Cash, a Founding Contributor to the Arts Fuse and Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance, earned less than minimum wage for the writing of this article. Her uncompensated labor was a choice, and a donation to the Fuse, which produces this valuable, independent resource for serious thinking about the arts and culture on a tiny budget. Please contribute to the Arts Fuse here.


  1. RAY TF on September 25, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    When all the message and all the content in urban art is about anti-capitalism, it turns consumers off and make most audiences yawn 🥱 . And I say this as a creative cultural worker. Arts do not have to be all about destroying the system or implementing social justice by any means necessary. Arts are not this limited. When all the art rhetoric becomes a socialist manifesto adorned with anti-capitalist, ecologically centered ideologies, consumers guess and anticipate this predictably boring message and choose to stay home instead and read a great literary work or listen to a classic album. We have to find diversity in the content of our message instead of using art to impose our own sociopolitical points of view on others at all costs.

  2. […] Arts Commentary: “The Death of the Artist” – Culture Workers Unite! – The Arts Fuse — Read on […]

  3. Geralyn Horton on September 26, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Abstract and polysyllabic “instruction” is not helpful. Personal witness, examples, and anecdotes are.

  4. […] “The Death of the Artist” — Culture Workers Unite! […]

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts