Well of course, art pays if you’re Damien Hirst, and music plays if you’re Madonna, and acting pays if you’re Brad Pitt. But all of the creative professions have the same system, in which a small number of stars become fabulously wealthy and famous, while the vast majority working in the field barely get by or even have to do unrelated work to subsidize their own creative output.
Of course there’s an awful lot of crappy art out there, but I think most people that know something about the creative arts would agree there’s also a lot of good stuff that really never gets rewarded, as well as some crap that gets richly rewarded indeed.
The fact is the arts have a terrible supply/demand imbalance. I think this applies to all the arts fields – visual arts, literature, and performing arts. There are a great many more creative, talented and dedicated people than our culture has any need of or interest in. Have you ever wondered why this is so?
We know human beings have had painting and music since the time of the Paleolithic “Creative Explosion” around 45,000 years ago at the very latest. For thousands of generations, most people lived in relatively small villages or tribal groups, perhaps five to thirty families. Each one of these communities needed people to fulfill a number of important roles. Every village needed some who could lead and organize others, some who could make and build things, some who could fight and defend, some who could trade and deal with outsiders, some who understood the signs of nature, some who could heal and maintain, some who could prepare food, and so on. Every village needed its brave ones, its clever ones, its wise ones, and its creative ones. Stories, dances, music and images were a vital aspect of community identity and cohesion. Adaptively, humans developed in such a way that every village would have enough people to fulfill all these essential roles, including the creative ones.
These human talents and tendencies still occur in the same proportion of the overall population, and for most of the roles those proportions are still appropriate. A cook can only feed so many people, a doctor can only treat so many, a manager can only organize so many, and a warrior can only defend so many. Thus many are still needed and the ancient distribution of talents works fairly well.
In the arts, alas, it no longer works this way. Mass reproduction and mass marketing have developed over the last couple of centuries to the point that a tiny number of artists can meet the cultural needs of millions of people. In the popular arts, very few artists are truly popular. Who wants to listen to the local singer-songwriter when you can listen to a Bob Dylan record instead? I’m sure Dylan’s better than the local troubadour. Who needs the local sign painter when you can franchise a familiar logo?
Workers in the “fine arts” or “high culture” have experienced something similar with the development of an international system of widely hyped art stars. Mostly, artists have responded by becoming even more elitist and pretentious, as if by making their work less accessible to the uninitiated they can make it more precious to the insular intelligentsia. Of course they succeed in making their work of no interest whatsoever to most people, but still very few succeed in becoming stars. But even with the terrible odds, many artists seem to be motivated more by the specter of stardom than by the everyday rewards of creative practice and human sharing.
Perhaps this is already beginning to change. The kind of mass cultural mainstream that existed twenty or thirty years ago has been terribly fragmented. Probably no musician will ever again reach the mass audience the Beatles reached, and no television show will equal the audiences of “I Love Lucy” or “MASH”. The internet seems to be atomizing the culture into small affinity groups, and maybe this is an opportunity for creative people to return to something like their traditional positions as voices of communities. But the electronic communities lack the intimacy and familial bonds of traditional local communities. Will they have real cohesion? Will they support their artists?
The illustration for this post is, at a price of one hundred million dollars, the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created, by one of the contemporary art world’s biggest stars.