Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

G.R.E.E.D.: Internet Spyware as Art

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

I found this little tidbit of Internet art very clever. I am curious about the outcome as well as if anyone will really install it?

“G.R.E.E.D.” is a browser extension, a small piece of software, by Greg Leuch that acts as a parasite to its voluntary audience, monitoring the browsing history and identity information of users. Should a user attempt to deactivate it, “G.R.E.E.D.” will publish their stored (and presumably private) data. This is only preventable by paying a licensing fee to Leuch through Art Micro Patronage. It’s aggressive spyware as art, a work that blackmails its own bounty from collectors.

And from the creator of the project, Greg Leuch,

Greed powers our economy through restrictive licensing deals and claims of copyright. What enables this demand is the ability to control access or demand incentives as compensation for their work. The Internet, built without these restrictions, is being threatened to include protections for licensed and copyrighted content.

G.R.E.E.D. (Glom & Restrict Entities on Existing Domains) demonstrates how a web user’s browsing experience and anonymity can be threatened through restrictions, take-downs, censorship, and monetary blackmail if such license and copyright restrictions are imposed on the Internet.


Detroit Hip Hop Artists Capitalize on Social Networks

Monday, January 31st, 2011

You have heard from Hubert Sawyers III on this blog before and this time he is telling the story about a hip hop artist he is working with personally to build a grassroots campaign to fund his debut album via Kickstarter. From “Progress Report: Using Social Capital to Generate Startup Capital,”

When I first met David Allie Strauss aka D. Allie, I was not aware that he would become someone that I would be in constant contact with years down the road. Back then, D. was just another dude that I would share the occasional microphone. I have since retired my dreams of hip hop supremacy, but I am glad to see Dave still at it. He has impressed me with his growing cachet from years of performing, bartending and overall hustle to make his dream a reality. As a former brother-in-the-struggle in the realm of music, I realize music is mainly seen as just entertainment to the end-user and most artists aka entertainers rarely have the end-user in mind. These days, me and D. are on the verge of becoming business partners, mainly because he understands the end-user aka YOU are his boss(es). (Emphasis mine.)

Ah, if only every artist thought like this. It is important to embrace the fact that your audience is your customer, and your customer is your boss. Your job is to make them feel special, wanted, needed, (and if you are Justin Bieber), loved.

I met Dallie a year or two ago at a Tweetup as well as seeing him around town and I remember him distinctly, mostly because he was a nice person. He remembered me and bothered to take time to chat. Maybe he was thinking ahead, maybe he knew, two years ago, the importance of social capital, maybe the fact that he did not blow me off like a lot of cooler-than-though artists do is the reason I donated to his Kickstarter campaign and genuinely want to see him succeed.

Maybe? Absolutely.

A common theme I see creeping up in arts blogs as well as conversations “in the field” is a very us vs. them mentality. From the tone of the writing to the ideas expressed, there is very little that makes me want to be a part of the arts community online, despite the fact that I have every reason in the world to be wholly invested: I consider myself an artist, I come from a family of fine artists, musicians, composers, dancers, and actresses, and uh, I write a blog dedicated to the arts. And to be perfectly honest, most art blogs turn me off. There is so much complaining, so much name-calling, so much blaming for the state of affairs the arts are in, and little responsibility, little genuine community-building, and little problem-solving. (I may be missing something – so please, leave links in the comments.)

So, when I see this project, from someone I’ve met, who was nice to me, who isn’t a complainer…but a doer…I’m all about it, and you should be too.

Old Arts, New Audiences, and Why Artists Are Not Snobs

Friday, January 14th, 2011
Natalie Dessay - Amina, La Sonnambula MET
Image by dapertuttotrubadur via Flickr

What New Audiences are Expecting

Via Andrew Taylor at The Artful Manager,

During the ‘lightening round’ session at the Arts Presenters conference, performing arts facility consultant David Taylor pointed us to the challenge of traditionally designed and constructed performing arts spaces, particularly in the face of evolving consumer trends. At the heart of his presentation was the ‘Ten Trends of 20-Somethings” identified by Marian Salzman in the Huffington Post last year…they are:

1. Real-time expectations
2. More intensely local lives
3. Radical transparency
4. Expecting cheap or free everything
5. Demanding entertainment
6. Worrying about the planet
7. Seeing luxuries as standard
8. Pro-business, anti-multinational stance
9. Wanting to regulate the heck out of media bias
10. Naturally Me but aspiring to We

Among the most compelling for the performing arts are 1, 3, and 4, that challenge the traditional professional performing arts organization — which is highly scheduled, opaque in administration and process, and costly to run.

Reading this, I immediately thought of two performing arts experiences that I thought fit the “What a 20-Something Wants” bill. The first was a 2009 Met live broadcast of La Sonnambula featuring Natalie Dessay (with brilliant Mary Zimmerman direction, I might add), the second was an interactive modern dance performance choreographed by Peter Sparling, where dancers performed via live feed from a remote studio, “controlled” by Sparling’s hands manipulating them from the live stage. (By the way, it seems Sparling has evolved this concept over the years and fully embraces new technology and its interplay with his art and audiences.)

What both had in common was “live feed” and a “behind the scenes” feel. As an audience member, I felt more intensely connected to the stage action than if the third wall was more rigidly constructed such as during a more “traditional” opera or dance performance. Philistine that I am, I actually prefer the Met broadcasts to being at the Met. Not only is the price tag cheaper, you can see more stage details, to the point you feel like you might just be a lucky chorus member participating in the action. Close-ups revealed the labored breathing and singing of what sounded like a vocally struggling Dessay (my fellow audience members mused about whether an understudy would take over after intermission.) During the Sparling performance, an all-black clad videographer was on stage, shooting the choreographer’s hands, which appeared on the walls of the Kresge Auditorium in Ann Arbor, inspiring the remote dancer’s movements from afar. In short – the effect was super cool, conceptually, and artistically. Again, I was reminded of the days of being behind the scenes myself, and the prototypical “tech guys” who always wore all-black to blend in with the darkened stage during scene changes.

Why Connecting with Audiences Is Critically Important, and Why (I think) Artists are Bad at It

Audiences do not want to be treated as somehow beneath the artists. Indeed, we do not want to get the impression we actually are philistines, which artists could do a much better job at. Is it just me, or do artists often-times appear remote and snobbish? I say appear because it is so rarely the case that they are (with the exception of the primi donne e uomini who are amusingly full of themselves). I believe that more often than not, artists are not narcissists, parading on stages to self-glorify, but to glorify the art. They may seem remote off-stage because they may have just spent every ounce of their energy, and post-performance have very little left to give, or because their on-stage personality is truly pretend, an outlet, and they could be quite shy in real life.

I am focusing on this no-really-artists-aren’t-snobs issue, because I know that I usually wanted nothing more than to duck out the back door after a performance, rather than do the requisite meet-and-greet of the audience. I was usually experiencing an exhausted kind of buzz, you know the kind, like when you’ve had too much caffeine? My body would feel like it was on fire, my mind would be completely blank, and I would have to plaster a smile on my face, turn back into Milena, and somehow muster charm? Not only that, I would begin to feel guilty accepting any compliments that came my way because I never really felt responsible for whatever talent I happened to be acknowledged for, and I think many artists would share this opinion with me – we feel inspired by something greater, and that our talents are just a gift, our bodies simply the receptacle through which that talent is miraculously allowed to flow.

So, What Can Artists Do?

As always, I try to emphasize that if you hope to make a living in the arts – business must come first, and you should not harbor any delusions that your talent alone can carry you. Artists need to recognize the above issues and find a way to overcome the challenges of performing in the 21st century, particularly if they practice old world arts. Often times, the way to stay relevant is to stay connected, and for today’s audiences, that might mean reaching beyond your limitations as well as your personal autonomous zone. You need to let audiences in, in a way that will likely make you very uncomfortable. You may have to take this quite literally and reveal far more personal aspects of yourself than you would like: start a blog, post YouTube videos of your practice sessions, accept all the friend requests you can on Facebook and Twitter, admit your faults, your fears. Audiences respond to this like a child might if their favorite doll came to life, with enthusiasm and eager for more.

If this all sounds exhausting, well, it is. If it sounds largely unnecessary, well, it’s not. It’s just what people are demanding these days. You have to muster all the energy you can, not only for your art, but for the longevity of the business side of your career or for the organization you represent.

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The Detroit Symphony Orchestra to Be Funded Via Taxpayers?

Friday, November 26th, 2010

A state representative in Michigan, and former professional singer proposes a tri-county (Oakland, Wayne, Macomb) vote to use taxes to support the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

[Vicki] Barnett said the DSO is an endangered cultural gem that adds to the region’s quality of life and can help attract new businesses.

She said she was asked by DSO musicians who live in her district to consider a public tax to keep the orchestra viable and competitive with other major U.S. symphony orchestras.

I’m just curious, how many other orchestras are funded with tax dollars? I’m assuming this is not uncommon.

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Art and Family Life: Can a Creative Career Survive Marriage and Children?

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

My father and me

I recently stumbled across this article in the Guardian, “The parent trap: art after children” by author Frank Cottrell Boyce, father of seven. I was intrigued and inspired seeing as I am very (as in, post due date) pregnant and have been wondering to myself, “What is going to happen to my life after this baby is born?” More specifically, “Will I have to give up singing?”

Of course this sense of despair is unfounded, but it feels legitimate. I would venture to guess anyone who has a child on the way mourns their loss of independence. But for the artist, the unknown could be a bit more frightening. We know how unstable the life of an artist is, believing it requires a singular devotion. We worry that the introduction of a commitment like marriage or parenthood could easily topple what we’ve been building. We may believe that in order to maintain a certain way of life for our art, we must sacrifice family, or if we want family, we must sacrifice art.

Boyce shares he once had similar feelings,

We were still students when we got married and had our first baby. It must have been hard work…Friends were mostly delighted, but also slightly appalled. From the first they’d take me aside and commiserate. “That’s it now, Frank, the pram is in the hallway.”

The full quote – from Cyril Connolly – is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” In fact, we didn’t have a pram or a hallway, but in the dark watches of the night I would sometimes look at the Maclaren Dreamer buggy in the corner of the tiny kitchen and think, is that it then? Will I have to go and get a proper job and never write again?

Fathers and artists: my father, dancer; my grandfather, painter

Fathers and artists: my father, dancer; my grandfather, painter

After graduating college, I had arranged a voice lesson with a famous soprano. At the end of our lesson she had some encouraging things to say about my voice and grilled me on why I was not yet in graduate school and “just what was I doing with my life.” I feebly explained I needed to make some money first, was just testing the waters with different teachers, and was not ready for grad school yet.

Exasperated, she asked, “Do you want to get married? Have children?” As if these would be the only reasons someone like me would not follow the same career path every other “serious” music school undergrad was following. She said, “You know the divorce rate among opera singers is over 50%? I have seen a lot of cheating in my day. You will have to make tremendous sacrifices and a solid marriage is possible, but not easy. I’m married, but may not see my husband for months while on tour. We decided we could never have children, given the traveling schedules we have as performers. We don’t have 401Ks, so you’ll also have to figure out how to save for retirement.”

37 weeks pregnant

37 weeks pregnant

Today, 8 years later, 9 months pregnant, just two weeks shy of my 30th birthday, having sacrificed a possible career dedicated solely to music (maybe, who knows, really) I believe my life and my career and far are more rich and wonderful than I could have ever planned for myself after that voice lesson, had I taken the soprano’s warnings seriously. In fact, I am grateful for the series of events that kept me in Michigan. I am grateful that I doubted there was one way to becoming the artist I was, and am, meant to become.

Boyce touches on the reasons why I believe committing to family life can be so much more frightening, challenging, and rewarding than (exclusively) committing to one’s work as an artist,

It’s very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctuations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

I love this insight. I have noticed that sometimes family members may not be interested in or may not understand my artistic endeavors. This is not to say they are unsupportive, but they cannot inhabit my world. It is not only selfish of me to expect them to, but unnecessary.

Boyce continues,

Jonathan Franzen has said that “it is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection in his workplace is writing good fiction”. Family is, of course, the most potent distraction, and probably the only distraction that makes you feel virtuous when you surrender to it.

My heart aches reading that last statement because I have experienced  it. Why is surrendering to one’s family so difficult and so rewarding? Is it because the rewards are often so private? Is it because they cannot be measured in an artist’s preferred currency: money or fame? You don’t build any artistic street cred by advertising on your blog, “I loved someone with all my heart today.” It won’t get you a job, make a sale, or win an audition. And while the distraction of family can be tiresome, draining, and in some cases, something you legitimately need to distance yourself from, what Boyce says next struck a chord with me,

There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.

In fact, if you go back to Connolly’s terrific book, you’ll see that the pram is only one of the many Enemies of Promise. Others include a public school education (so emotionally overwhelming you can’t move on) and success, surely the greatest enemy of all. But no one warns you about these. It’s just the pram.

Why does it retain its power to chill? I don’t think it’s about fear of distraction or domesticity. I think it’s a fear of babies. Being a parent – or really loving someone other than yourself, whether that’s your children, parents or your lover – forces you to confront a horrible truth: the fact that we get older. The amazing boy who was born when I was still a student is a man now. There is no way that I can still think of myself as “quite young, really” or “a child at heart”. Parenthood confronts us with our own mortality, every day.

To me, the pram is a metaphor for “all family life” and I might extend Boyce’s analysis to include “all family life confronts us with our own mortality, every day.”

It was not until I met my now-husband, was planning my wedding, and my father was dying of cancer, that I realized just how little I cared for a Great Big Career in music. How grateful I was that I never followed the soprano’s advice about my career path. How little I cared that my “creativity” was put on hold because I was growing my family and losing it at the same time.

I think what I am getting at, is that artists need to be open to life. They need to be open to the possibility that family life need not be sacrificed for art’s sake. That in fact, it can make you the artist you are meant to be.

Last dance with my father, at my wedding

Last dance with my father before his death

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The Clash of Morals and Money in the Arts

Friday, July 2nd, 2010
Boycott BP
Image by Rusty Boxcars via Flickr

(I really got a good snicker coming up with this alternative blog post title, so I just had to share it: Oil-Based Art Protests. Har har har.)

Moving on…

A recent article came out in the Telegraph about artists protesting a Tate Britain event due to the Tate’s involvement with BP,

…oil and art came together in a clumsily choreographed pageant of comic absurdity this week at Tate Britain’s Summer Party. A group of spittle-flecked wing-nut demonstrators poured oil down the gallery’s steps as a “protest” against BP’s financial support of the gallery. A hi-vis mop-up army immediately replicated the Louisiana shore in Pimlico, but cleared up to better effect. The party continued.

While it’s easy to see the appeal for staging such a protest and equally easy to see the appeal of making fun of the protesters, author Stephen Bayley brings up a panoply of scenarios in which artists have (more or less happily, or at least ignorantly) been funded by arguably despicable people, companies, and governments,

That anyone should express outrage at BP’s involvement with the Tate is evidence of cringe-making naivety, not to say burping, thigh-slapping and howling ignorance. Artists have always gone where the money is. You either have the Holy See or you have BP. Art and ethics do not have a straightforward relationship, they have a grubbily convoluted one: the great art of the Renaissance was paid for by usury, vice and corruption. Pope Alexander VI was the father of Cesare Borgia, a poisoner, sadist, sexual deviant, intriguer and mercenary syphilitic. The Borgias created the culture in which Bramante and Michelangelo flourished.

Great art has always been involved with great fortunes: it was only a temporary distortion of history, a hangover from the Romantic idea that artists need be poor and tormented, that insisted art must be uncontaminated by trade. Patronage may well be a non-negotiable part of artistic activity. For a while, this principle was blurred when the interventionist economist J M Keynes helped found the Arts Council after the Second World War. Keynes simply made the state a patron. Do the oily protesters advocate refusal of the Arts Council’s “government” money supporting the Tate because the same government money funded an illegal war in Iraq and a tragic war in Afghanistan? Of course they don’t.

That artists always go (must go?) where the money is, is often lamented as the “sad reality” of being an artist…because art is supposed to transcend the meanness of money-making to achieve the sublime goal of inspiring and enlightening. Art and artists seem to be stuck because not only are they encouraged not to think of their art as products, but the act of displaying and disseminating art is not a mere business transaction, but something sacred. It is because art is treated this way that higher standards have ostensibly been set (even if subconsciously) for its funding sources. But Bayley provides more examples of what could be considered the inevitable clash of morals in the arts.

Any inflated posturing about the relationship of art to ethics and to money is bound to end in an embarrassing collision of principles. Teeth-rotting sugar, mother’s ruin booze and blood diamonds have funded great galleries around the world. Profits from the slaves’ torment of the Middle Passage made Liverpool and Bristol great cities of art. The Guggenheims became philanthropists only after polluting Philadelphia and running some mining interests that would, perhaps, today be criminal. Never mind if commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright was an after-the-event expiation of corporate sins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum is a benefit to us all.

Throughout the Twenties, The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by Henry Ford, frequently published articles about the menace of “The International Jew”. Ford sponsored the vicious, spurious and anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The same Ford also mobilised poor Americans with his Model-T, paid his workers with fabulous generosity and commissioned the Communist Mexican painter Diego Rivera to create epic murals about the proletariat’s struggles in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Right now, London’s Frieze Art Fair is one of the most successful art fairs in the world. It’s the creation of Matthew Slotover, whose parents, full declaration, are friends of mine. And Jewish. Slotover, more sensible than the howling pack who emptied their sump of resentment over the Tate, is quite comfortable that the Frieze Art Fair is sponsored by Deutsche Bank which, in 1999 agreed to contribute to a fund of several billion pounds for Holocaust survivors who could still remember that it financed IG Farben, producer of Zyklon-B, the murderous gas used in Auschwitz.

Another Frieze sponsor is BMW, whose owners made their fortune from producing the batteries that powered U-boats and the V2 missile that pounded London. BMW is also sponsoring our bomb-site Olympics. We move on.

These examples abound. Artists, it seems, cannot be too picky about their customers. But why should this really be a dilemma? Do we boycott the local hardware store because a serial murderer paid for the rope and plastic sheets he used to kill his latest victim? I know that is a horribly crude analogy, but I’m trying to illustrate that the stain of the profit can perhaps be removed, cleansed so to speak, when it is cycled through an artist’s hands, transformed into something else…then again, maybe not.

What is the solution? How can artists reconcile these moral and fiscal dilemmas? Just as many artists find no hypocrisy in monetarily supporting and praising the art of a child rapist, perhaps they can similarly continue to take money from gulf-destroying corporations without feeling any moral incongruity?

I suppose one argument is that the artist is never beholden to take funding from BP, Ford, BMW, or any government in particular – but it does seem the list of despicable offenders that have enough cash to pay for art are greater in number than the squeaky-clean philanthropists and good samaritans.

Bayley concludes,

These are not so much conflicts as inevitabilities. And they arise not from any disingenuousness of clients nor from any cynical opportunism by patrons, rather from the confused nature of our understanding of “art” in the contemporary world. An art that requires to be institutionalised and displayed in expensive galleries is inevitably going to cost someone a lot of money.

And if it is BP’s money rather than ours, then that’s to our common good…And while I am not the person to exonerate a dirty and dangerous energy company, who has the methodology to calculate whether an oil spill causes more damage to civilisation than mendacious and greedy bankers? Perhaps the misery caused by the wicked speculations of Lehman Brothers was, in the long run, more injurious to human dignity and well-being than a dirty-and-dangerous oil platform. Lehman Brothers supported the Lincoln Center, the American Ballet School and Kathleen, wife of the notorious CEO Richard Fuld, was vice-chair of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the long run we are all dead, declared Keynes. In the meantime, let’s do what we can with what we have got. Frieze Art Fair is a very good thing, even if Deutsche Bank funded the Gestapo. Tate Britain is a very good thing, which is made even better by oil money, although we do all wish BP were a little more fastidious about its day job. Only a peevish hypocrite would deny these things.

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Mob Rule and An Art Collection

Sunday, June 13th, 2010
After The Bath, 1910, Barnes Foundation, Merio...
Image via Wikipedia

I found this article about a famous private art collection housed in Philadelphia to be a fascinating case – again involving the issues of art and private property. We had recently explored this topic in my post about Bansky’s art in Detroit, and this time the issue is no less complex and no less mired in legal and political battles.

A bit of background from the article,

The Barnes Foundation, founded in 1922 by the late multimillionaire Dr. Albert C. Barnes, is a rambling two-story granite structure centered on a plot of rolling, carefully sculpted arboretum grounds – and it is home to the most fantastically impressive collection of post-Impressionist and early Modern art masterpieces still in private hands.

As the inventor of a medical compound useful in combating venereal disease, the Philadelphia-born Barnes amassed a staggering fortune and invested in artists that the city’s art and high society crowd, in the 1920s, regarded as vulgar and unworthy of serious critical attention. But as tastes changed, and Barnes’s Renoirs, Matisses, and Picassos accrued in value – his collection today is conservatively estimated as being worth $25 to $35 billion – the city’s elders began expressing interest in relocating his collection to a spot closer to the downtown Philadelphia Museum of Art. Barnes resisted such moves, and laid out specific wishes in his estate papers specifying that his collection should never be broken up or moved – unless it became financially unsustainable for the collection to remain in his house.

While it is clear what Dr. Barnes’ wishes were – what is unclear is how truly “financially unsustainble” the current state of the collection is in. Curiously, it does not seem that Philadelphia advocates of the move (both private and public “donors”) care much about a final verdict in the matter and have already begun breaking ground on a new site and are quick to assure those against the move that the new home of the artworks will be as true to Barnes’ intentions as possible.

A series of court battles, internal struggles, and public relations campaigns over the decades has resulted in the wheels being set in motion for the Barnes Foundation to relocate to a site within city limits. Amid a welter of claims and counter-claims, the original 1925 structure has been declared financially unsustainable, and the Barnes Foundation’s board of directors is now controlled by individuals who favor the relocation of its founder’s prized holdings. Groundbreaking has thus begun, and a concrete foundation has been laid, for a new Barnes Foundation building that will sit along the city’s tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Barnes detested.

A small but determined band of Lower Merion [the original city where the Barnes collection is located] activists, known as the Friends of Barnes, is still trying to halt the move, but a state court has already ruled that they lack “standing” to bring legal action to achieve their goal. Undaunted, they are exploring other legal avenues and hoping to draw attention to the multimillion-dollar costs of moving the Barnes collection to Philadelphia. Politicians, educators, art lovers and others influential in Philadelphia are meanwhile excited to see access to the collection expanded, and tourism revenues boosted. They have tapped an initial fund of roughly $200 million – some $30 million of which was provided by the state of Pennsylvania, the rest from private donations – to bankroll construction of the new facility, to complete the transfer of Barnes’s holdings, and to start an ongoing endowment. And they vow to preserve, in their new presentation of his artworks, the precise configuration and overall spirit of Barnes’s house.

While I do not know enough of the details about this case and there is a documentary, The Art of the Steal, which further describes how this situation has come to pass- it seems that moves like this do much to erode the perceived value of private property rights in the sense that there is a sense of celebration in destroying the original collector’s wishes as well as entitlement to the works he privately curated, which most ironically, many people found to be worthless and abhorrent at the time he collected them.

It should be clear why the issue of one’s art or one’s art collection and private property rights should be considered of utmost importance, but so many people are content with lazy “So what?” thinking. They say, “Uh, like, so what? Who cares if some old dude’s paintings are moved? It’s, like, probably good for the collection and good for the city and good so more people can see the art.” Sure, if you only consider what is happening in what might even be an arguable improvement in the situation. However, this simplistic rationale only considers what is seen.

What is unseen is the application of this kind of thinking to all art at all times. Think about it this way, when the intentions are not so magnanimous…you are a controversial artist. You made your art, own your art. Your government or some private individual believes your art is troublesome or just plain unworthy of being sold or displayed. They take your art and do what they please. In this case, they do not move it to a “better” location or build a “better” monument to the work – but they destroy it.

This type of scenario is also a logical outcome of the “so what” thinking above. This scenario is no less likely than the Barnes case. However, in both cases, the rights of the art owners should be protected above the interests of all other individuals. This is what artistic freedom is all about.

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Hollywood’s Love-Hate Relationship with Capitalism

Friday, June 11th, 2010
Hollywood Sign
Image via Wikipedia

I think it is fairly obvious that Hollywood is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the blend of free markets and free speech. I also think it is amazing that movies are routinely made demonizing recent Presidentstrashing the very economic mechanism that allows a director to successfully produce his film, and glorifying racists, genocidal maniacs, and homophobes without even the slightest apology or hint of irony. No one associated with these films gets jailed, stoned, or hung and the only form of censorship (to my knowledge*) is a role played freely by individual market actors by withholding their entertainment dollars, or having freedom to speak out against movies they disapprove of. (*Although, the history of the NEA clearly demonstrates the government actively censors art of all kinds when public dollars are allocated for their creation and consumption.)

Of course, many artists are not likely to share my rosy view of artistic freedom for a variety of reasons, but I maintain we have it pretty good in the free world compared to many other countries.

Economist Alex Tabarrok wrote a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal about how often Big Business is cast as the villian in movies and rarely are entrepreneurs and businessmen shown in a positive light,

Capitalism hasn’t had much good press lately, and when it comes to the movies capitalism never seems to get a fair shake. In the movies, capitalists are almost invariably cast as villains. Has someone been murdered? Are the residents of a small town dying of cancer? Is an environment being despoiled? Look no further than the CEO of some large corporation. Quick, name as many movies as you can that feature capitalists as heroes. “Batman Forever” and “Iron Man” do not count. There are a few (“The Edge,” “You’ve Got Mail”), but it’s a short list. Now name as many movies as you can that feature mass-murdering corporations and corporate villains? That one is easy: “The Fugitive,” “Syriana,” “Mission Impossible II,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The China Syndrome” and “Avatar,” to name only a few.

Most moviegoers can’t get enough of these storylines, but they are so hackneyed for my taste that I have a hard time keeping from laughing out loud in otherwise serious films where the villian is revealed as some Big Business operator where the scandal goes “all the way to the top” sometimes to the White House for extra added punch, depending on which party is portrayed in office.

Tabarrok correctly points out that,

In the big picture, art and capitalism work well together. The greatest periods of art history were often times of relative wealth and economic growth, as economist Tyler Cowen discusses in his book “In Praise of Commercial Culture.” It’s capitalism that creates the wealth that supports artistic creation, and it’s capitalism that provides artists with new technologies and media to work with. But when it comes to making particular movies, capitalism and art stand in conflict.

I find artists are often loathe to admit the benefits of the free market, though are happy to silently reap those benefits to line their pockets when their particular art is in favor with mass culture. In my opinion, this truth is one of life’s little ironies that deserves being uncovered and made fun of a bit, to shake artists from their holier-than-thou attitudes about art and business. The fact of the matter is, all successful artists (defined for purposes of this post as those who are able to earn a decent living off their art), whether they like to admit it or not, are successful business people and that means being part of the capitalistic mechanism.

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Making a Profit in Music: The Mick Jagger Meme and More

Friday, May 28th, 2010
Mick Jagger - The Rolling Stones live at San S...
Image via Wikipedia

I saw this quote from Mick Jagger at least 5 times in different blogs in my Google Reader,

…people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.

So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

I think people are fascinated about what Jagger has to say since he is one of the most wildly successful and no doubt wealthy recording musicians of all time with career longevity most artists envy. Plus, he’s rich, right? Is he saying it was just good timing? (Nah, I’m certain some of that musical genius and epic charisma had something to do with it.) However, despite Tyler Cowen’s friendly rib that Jagger is no economist, the phenomenon Jagger is talking about is no less true and is explained further by Daniel Wolf of Renewable Music,

That date [Jagger is referring to] in the late 90′s coincides rather precisely with the mass introduction of cheap digital recording equipment and media as well as the widespread use of portable digital players.  The old model of radio advertising paying royalties for recorded music which was licensed cheaply for broadcast with the idea that randomly-heard broadcasts of songs were advertisements for the purchase of albums — which allowed the listener to select particular songs on their own — pretty much collapsed at that point in time.  The technological innovations leading to ever-cheaper and ever-more accurate recording and storage capacity were inevitable but the whole thing gets ugly when one considers that the firms selling the new recording technologies were, in many cases, also publishers of the music that was inevitably going to be recorded.

The “gets ugly” Wolf is referring to is the loss of revenue to individual artists. (Check out this scary graphic re: distribution of profits in the music world via NewsObserver TechJunkie.) This is admittedly a problem for most artists aiming to have a recording and performing career. Wolf further notes, and correctly in my opinion,

Although recordings and webcasts may have some advertising function, in the end, the grand experiment [of commodifying music] may leave us back where we started, with live performance the most important — and in many cases, only — opportunity for a musician to earn money.

While I will only mention the can of worms that is the issue of Baumol’s cost disease in live performance, I think Wolf is correct in that performance is likely to be the most lucrative way to make money. It is undeniable that the business model for artists is subject to rapid change, in particular when technology is introduced and dramatically alters the landscape artists have to work with.

However, I find it curious that despite the fact that individual artists are likely to have low(er?) chances of making it big financially in music, introduction of technology has helped achieve what has long been considered one of the most troubling aspects of becoming and artist and disseminating work: access to distribution channels. Never before in history have so many people been able to access A) ways to make and distribute their own music cheaply B) ways to hear music of all kinds cheaply. This is an undoubted improvement, as far as egalitarian ideals of access to the arts are concerned.

So, are we dealing with trade-offs (sacrifices) between access and profitability? Are there other business models that could evolve to put even more control of revenues into individual artist’s hands? Is what is “wrong” with the music industry the big labels in charge promoting watered down music, or the poor tastes (and thus, demands) of mass consumer culture?

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Art and Embezzlement

Friday, May 28th, 2010

disturbing complaint from a site called ComplaintsBoard popped up in my Google Reader because it was arts-related in nature. The complaint was regarding a Philadelphia-based art studio catering to the disabled where the director is being accused of funneling money from the studio to build a new home.

Clearly, without any evidence and just this single accusation, there is no way to determine what is really happening. However, it struck me as sad that this person decided to write what seems like a rather earnest plea for help on an internet message board. With that, here is the complaint,

Members are observing that director is using funding for disabled artists to build a new home. Also is paying for services only to friends and family members. Studio is not growing. All disabled members are volunteers. Director is laughing on the way to the bank on our cause. What can we do to stop this?

This complaint brings up an interesting point for would-be whistleblowers in any organization. What could this person legally do to investigate the issue further in a reasonable, cost-effective manner? What is the most effective way to stop real or perceived fraud while protecting one’s own interests and not being accused of libel, for instance?

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