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Lex Brown

In the New Digital Economy, Are Artists Creators?

It’s possible to chart phases of Internet culture by which words are used to describe its main participants. In the 2000s there were “bloggers,” the first public protagonists of the mainstream Internet, then during the early 2010s’ rise of social media notoriety was measured by “friends” and “followers.” In the latter half of the decade, “influencers” were the people everyone alternatively obsessed over and then blamed, the YouTube or Instagram users who amassed enough of an audience to sell ads or sponsored content to them.

Now, in the nascent 2020s, we have “creators,” a term that encompasses vloggers, podcasters, writers, and even visual artists as a catch-all for anyone who makes money from their content online. The money could come from ads, but lately it’s more often from direct payments, like paid newsletter subscriptions via Substack or Patreon; tips via Twitch or Clubhouse; or branded accessories sold via TikTok. The word is nebulous — what are creators creating, exactly? It echoes the buzzword creativity, calling to mind art-making, craft-based hobbies, and dance or performance — the kinds of visual culture that the Internet has embraced as it has become more multimedia.

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Lex Brown

But creator has none of the glamour of artist, nor the appeal of other terms for people who make things: choreographer, DJ, singer, producer, painter. Each of these signify a particular craft or practice, a discipline that takes years to develop, an identity that one doesn’t just become overnight. A painter is supposed to have drafting skills that must be trained, learn color theory and master materials; a DJ must develop a deep knowledge of music and an archive of records to choose from. These terms have meaning because of their established history in culture, a legacy of practice and practitioners. Creator, by contrast, is generic. It is vague and deprofessionalized. Unlike amateur creativity — making pottery as a hobby, for example — it is commodified, because being a creator is defined by the ability to monetize online.

Anyone can be a creator of webcomics, artworks, NFTs, audio documentaries, or tweets. It’s not restricted to a particular kind of content, but rather to who makes it and how it’s distributed. Similar to influencers, creators tend to be big personalities, people who audiences want to feel close to not just because of their content but their presence through the screen. As much as they discuss and promote their art, creators talk about themselves: their apartments, skincare routines, and self-help practices. Cloaked in the guise of a highbrow cultural product, what they really offer is presence and intimacy. “Parasocial” is another increasingly popular term for the kind of one-sided emotional relationships audiences develop with actors or podcasters — the creators who have kept us company during the pandemic.

The four hosts of The Death Panel podcast— from left, Beatrice Adler-Bolton, Philip Rocco, Vince Patti, and Artie Vierkant—speak at the 2019 Creative Time Summit.

The four hosts of The Death Panel podcast— from left, Beatrice Adler-Bolton, Philip Rocco, Vince Patti, and Artie Vierkant—speak at the 2019 Creative Time Summit.
Mike Vitelli/

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Artie Vierkant is a visual artist whose work developed on the Internet as well as the co-founder of Death Panel, a podcast about healthcare and capitalism. Death Panel is funded by a Patreon, where subscribers can support it, but it’s limiting to label the project a podcast when it’s something more like institutional critique in the form of media. Death Panel is community, group therapy, and political organizing at once; Vierkant is a creator because it’s his presence that helps unify these forms. It also reinforces his art practice, as he has previously noted, providing a deeper context for his work.

A less compelling case of artist-as-creator might be Amanda Palmer, the media-savvy musician turned artist and blogger who launched her Patreon in 2015. It now has over 13,000 patrons with donation levels ranging from $1 to $250, charged each time Palmer posts something. The tiers offer content like “photos, musings, voice memos,” as well as art prints, comics, and personal phone calls. She publishes new content multiple times a week, usually headed by a selfie, with blog posts addressed to “My Dear Ones.” Rather than art, it’s about selling the parasocial relationship with the creator, the advertised access to her daily experiences and innermost thoughts.

Brad Troemel, another Internet-fluent artist and the co-creator of the influential blog The Jogging, has become a Patreon creator, too. Rather than art, exactly, his page offers semi-ironic art-world hustle porn, guides to writing artist statements, podcast interviews, virtual studio visits, and a Discord server for real-time chat amongst the community. If this comprises an art practice it gets lost amidst the commodified content.

How Artists Can Be Part of

Judy Linn’s 1969 photograph of Patti Smith.

The rock star Patti Smith, lately perhaps more famous for her memoirs than her music, has similarly launched a newsletter on Substack, where subscribers can pay $7 per month or $70 per year for “The reader is my notebook,” a series of dispatches and jottings like her memories of meeting the novelist Haruki Murakami, with a YouTube video of one of her own songs at the end. The newsletter will also syndicate Smith’s next book, called The Melting, about her experience during quarantine. Monetarily, the Substack will surely be successful, but it’s a parallel track to Smith’s music and books — less a final product than a loose sketch.

The venture-capital investor Li Jin argued that the creator economy needs a middle class in the Harvard Business Review, describing the ideal of making money on a social-media platform as a kind of new American Dream. These platforms often replicate the overall economy in their rampant inequality, however: a very small number of creators earn most of the revenue. Jin lists various strategies for expanding the possibilities of a middle class, like creating passive income streams in the form of content sales; capitalizing on super-fans with expensive products like NFTs; and offering investment for creators.

Yet all of these methods ignore the flawed basic premise of creatordom: that all creativity should be monetizable and monetized. The creator economy leaves little room for the kinds of projects and practices that don’t fit its preexisting digital structures — in other words, anything that doesn’t come out on a daily or weekly basis; creators who aren’t personally charismatic or willing to be parasocial targets; or material that is too challenging or specific to net the immediate embrace of an enthusiastic audience. That is what the art-world system of dealers, galleries, and curators was designed to supply — artists are insulated and able to work alone in their studios because other people are working to contextualize, promote, and sell their work, however challenging it might be. The kind of art that takes decades to understand or become popular is not fit for the creator economy.

Artists are not inherently creators, at least in the context of the new digital economy: The art market is too abstract, too obscure, and too difficult to provide the real rewards of intimacy and connection that creators promise. Certain artists might support themselves as creators, if their work and personality is a fit for the job, but most are likely to find it just as onerous and exhausting as the gallery system.

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