Art and the algorithm: A conversation with William Deresiewicz

Saturday, October 17, 2020 - 12:18pm

NOSELL

Aleeza Jill Nussbaum

William Deresiewicz sees a crisis in the arts, and he needs you to stop it. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that simple, because the problem comes from something that is increasingly woven into the fabric of our daily lives: The Algorithm. By “the algorithm,” Deresiewicz means the coding of apps and programs that we use every day to consume content, that show us certain posts or songs at the top of our feed — the invisible hand that, as Deresiewicz said, “picks up things that are already viral and makes them more viral.” 

Any non-Luddite knows that this is how the Internet works, and Deresiewicz himself will acknowledge that in some cases, the algorithm has been good for small artists who make it big seemingly overnight — think Lil Nas X or Rupi Kaur. But these artists are the exception, not the rule. Overwhelmingly, the algorithm swallows small artists whole, forcing them to the margins or completely eclipsing them with viral acts. In terms of seeing new artists, the power tips away from the audience and toward the big tech companies — all the while allowing us to think we are still in control. 

This is an uncomfortable reality for everyone, not just artists. The general public, the consumers of art, don’t want to think about art as something dictated by the market forces of large tech companies. After all, “the artist” is a quasi-mythic figure in our culture — moody, mysterious and Walden-esque. If talking about money in daily life is mildly unpleasant, talking about it in the arts is practically sinful. Artists are supposed to exist outside of the market, unmarred by capitalistic whims. Thinking about art in relation to money thus feels wrong, because we want our art to be above it all — to make commentary about economics, sure, but never participate in it. 

A truth we don’t like to apply to our artists, writes Deresiewicz in his book “The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech,” is that “wanting to get paid does not mean you’re a capitalist. It doesn’t even mean that you assent to capitalism. It only means that you live in a capitalist society.” But as long as artists exist in that capitalist society, and as long as they want to make art, they are part of a fundamental paradox that “cannot be resolved; it can only be endured.” 

Here lies the tension that today’s artists must endure — so how are they doing it? For his book, Deresiewicz interviewed hundreds of artists from a range of mediums, including music, writing, poetry and visual art. He doesn’t downplay the crisis he sees, explaining in his book that a title like “creative entrepreneur” for an artist is simply “sugar for the turd of gig work.” Most full-time artists work paycheck to paycheck, piecing together funding from selling art, doing live events, Patreon (a subscription service for artists’ content) and other assorted income streams. This is because, he told The Michigan Daily, any artist  “who wants to follow their own vision and be interesting and say what they want to say is going to be at odds with a system like that.” This means they probably won’t make much money — “and that’s the problem with the system.” 

Aside from making a compelling argument, Deresiewicz’s book also manages to create a nonfiction work of literary merit. His writing style is direct, just like his interviewing style; he has no time for you to waste, and he won’t waste yours. He writes without mincing words in a straightforward way that makes the reader trust what he has to say. He describes the Ramones, the Talking Heads and Blondie as “the archetypal three-chord punk quartet, a cerebral art-school act, and a disco-scented dance band fronted by a singer with a cotton-candy voice.” A bland, purely informational voice wouldn’t appeal to the bulk of people reading his work, a large percentage of whom are either middle class or upper-middle class people, or are artists themselves. His writing in the book manages to captivate both audiences, which is good, because those are exactly the people he most wants to reach. These are the ones who have been conditioned away from paying for art but who have the means to do so.

One thing that has made it infinitely harder for artists, along with everyone but the billionaires, is the pandemic. Deresiewicz’s book was written in 2019, but he seemed to unfortunately predict the future when he wrote “People don’t make art in isolation, and online interactions are incomparably impoverished relative to those that take place in real life.” This year, to contextualize this new normal, Deresiewicz reached out to all of his interview subjects for the book and completed follow up interviews with ten. What he found was both completely expected and very distressing — “It’s been a disaster for the arts.” 

Deresiewicz’s entire book lays out how the digitization of art, especially music, has led to dramatically decreased revenue streams (think Spotify plays vs. CD sales). This reality has led many artists to rely on live events for money. Without income from those live events, many artists now struggle to make money off of their art, even after adjusting to the digitized art world. 

In addition, arts institutions from museums to theatres have had to close as a result of the pandemic. “A lot of them might not survive,” Deresiewicz said, “especially the smaller ones, the independent ones that produce interesting work and artists that are still getting traction.” Even revenue streams from day jobs like food service or Uber driving have dried up. Deresiewicz and his interviewees acknowledge that this could be a chance to reset the art world, but more likely is the notion that larger institutions will get larger, and smaller ones will get swallowed — the game of the algorithm playing out in real life.

The paradox of art and money is, according to Deresiewicz, inherently unsolvable in the current economy. Like other systemic issues, the power of the individual is limited. There is hope, though, for both consumers of art and for artists themselves. People have already become more conscious consumers of food, clothing, plastic water bottles and more — so, Deresiewicz argues, why not art? Often, he said, at “other end of the arts economy, of the supply chain, from you the consumer, is not a corporation” but rather an individual artist, struggling to make a living. Deresiewicz warned, “If you’re getting something valuable to you and you’re getting it for free, you really need to question that.” 

As consumers of art, we must learn to not expect art to be free (or simply equate exposure with payment). There is hope for artists as well. Young gen z artists, for example, despite having a complicated relationship with self-marketing, have a leg up in terms of pure online experience. They can use that experience to their advantage, says Deresiewicz, if they have good art — which comes from separating the online self from the “authentic” self. 

Deresiewicz’s culminating advice for young artists is simply this: “Instead of starting with the question ‘What can I make that’s going to get attention and make money?’, start with the question ‘What do I want to make?’ and then make it, and then figure out how to get attention and hopefully money for it,” he said. 

Art first, promotion second. We must learn to seek out art that makes us think, that challenges us, that makes us cry or laugh or feel something — and then we have to pay the artist who makes it.

 

Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached at emiliajf@umich.edu 


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