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William Deresiewicz: The New Age of Creativity

About this talk

We’re entering a new age of creativity where we have more chances to get attention, but also less money flowing into the arts. According to Excellent Sheep author William Deresiewicz, “as our lives migrate online, it seems reasonable to assume so will our art,” Deresiewicz says. “The future will favor the art more susceptible to digitization.”

In this talk, Deresiewicz challenges us to look at the history of the art and creative industry as well as its future. “It’s up to you to figure out, with the help of what you’re learning today and tomorrow, how you want to respond to the new age of art and creativity,” he says. “That history will be shaped by you as you shape your careers.”

William Deresiewicz, Author

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent college speaker, and the best-selling author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He taught English at Yale for ten years and at Columbia for five.

Deresiewicz is a Contributing Writer for The Nation and a Contributing Editor for The American Scholar. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and elsewhere. He has won the Hiett Prize in the Humanities and the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and is a three-time National Magazine Award nominee. His work has been translated into 15 languages and anthologized in more than 25 college readers. He has spoken at over 40 colleges, high schools, and educational groups.

Full Transcript

We have this innate image in our mind of the artist as a solitary genius. It’s a very powerful idea. It’s governed the way we think about creativity for a long time, and it still does. But like everything else in culture and society, that genius thing is historically specific. It’s not eternal. Creativity may be eternal, but this thing is not eternal. It had a beginning and not only will have– I think it’s already had an end. I think it’s already decades out of date. In fact, it’s so out of date, that the thing that replaced it is already out of date. So very quickly, to begin with, before we thought of artists as geniuses, we thought of them as artisans. And actually, the two words are etymologically the same word. From the ancient world, Greece and Rome, all the way through the Renaissance, artists were understood as craftspeople. They served apprenticeships, they worked within specific traditions, and they took orders from their patrons. This was even true of the great Renaissance painters. A lot of what they did was at the behest of patron-specific requests and demands that the genius model really emerged.

It was the age of Romanticism as well as the age of revolution. It was the age of Blake, it was the age of Byron, it was the age of Beethoven. It was an age that valued not only individualism and creativity, but also rebelliousness and youth. And all of that is really packed into our idea of genius. Also, as Christianity was discredited as a belief system, art emerged as a new kind of religion, with the artist as priest or prophet. And that’s the thing that we cling to because it’s very seductive, it’s very powerful. But in fact, really starting in the decades after World War II, or even a little bit before World War II, the arts became institutionalized. And artists therefore became professionalized. That’s the third model, that’s the one that’s already superseded the genius model. MFAs, awards, fellowships, residencies. Now you didn’t go off to Paris and hole up in a garret. Like any other professional, you went to graduate school, you tried to find a position, and you slowly climbed the ranks. Even if we still think in terms of the genius, that’s really what the careers looked like for a long time. But now we’ve entered a new transition. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur. Or to be more precise, “the entrepreneur,” because, now I know some of you are actual entrepreneurs or aspire to be actual entrepreneurs. And by an actual entrepreneur, I mean someone who builds a business that will employ hopefully more and more people. But more often, or sometimes even additionally, you are self-employed which is this wonderfully sneaky oxymoron. Like you’re not really employed if you’re the employer. And I think it’s telling that we don’t actually have a word for this new thing.

I’ve thought of self with two Ls, but it’s a little cutesy and also it doesn’t work in conversation, but it does capture the fact that even if you are an actual entrepreneur, in this economy, we always have to sell ourselves, right? We are always the entrepreneur of the self. It’s clearly a new thing. It’s not the genius, it’s not the professional, and it’s clearly also driven by larger, more momentous changes in the economy as a whole. The rise of the internet, the weakening of nonprofit and for profit institutions, the move from full-time employment to a gig economy. So with free online streaming, music sales have collapsed and services like Spotify pay creators a pittance. Bands used to tour to support their albums. Now touring, with its drain on time and energy, is a primary source of income. And a very bad income at that. Amazon has captured the lion’s share of book sales, destroying bookstore chains and independent sellers alike, and all but eliminating the practice of browsing, which is one of the main ways that people find new books. Newspapers, facing ferocious economic headwinds of their own, have slashed arts Full-time university employment, which was a mainstay of arts careers for decades, is drying up. Tenure track positions, the typical academic position, now accounts for about one fourth of all the people who teaches in colleges and universities. Public funding for the arts has cratered since the 1980s as a share of the economy. I’m laughing because I still can’t believe this number. Total public funding for the arts in this country at all levels of government  of one hundredths of 1%. Might as well not exist at all.

A blockbuster model has taken hold in wide areas of culture with a few works in creators, action movie franchises, pop superstars like Beyonce and Adele, publishing juggernauts like the “Da Vinci Code” and “Gone Girl,” monopolizing ever larger shares of the market. Almost everyone else is left to scrape by with less and less. Like the rest of the economy, the arts is becoming a winner take all proposition, with middle class livelihoods and the sustained creativity they make possible increasingly hard to come by. For those who are trying to make a go of it, the squeeze on marketing budgets has meant that creators have to do more and more of the ancillary work themselves. The kind of work that used to be done by publishers, studios, art galleries, labels, performance venues. And with the proliferation of media channels, Facebook, Instagram podcasts blogs, Twitter, there’s always more and more of the ancillary work to do, right? Every time they add a new media channel, you have to attend to that.

So, that’s what it means to be a creative entrepreneur or an entrepreneurial creative. You’re essentially a single person business. To give you an example of what this looks like in practice, let me tell you about someone I spoke to recently. He’s a mid-career painter. He’s been making and exhibiting art his entire adult life. Got his MFA from Yale. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Provincetown. Grants, awards, fellowships. He’s taught at a lot of schools, Rhode Island School of Design among them. He lived abroad in the 90s, and when he came back to the United to secure a faculty position. But what he found is that faculty positions are disappearing. So he was an adjunct for a long time, driving around to half a dozen different schools. It wasn’t working. It was a hopeless way to earn money. So now he pieces together an income teaching workshops, giving private lessons, and writing classes out of his studio. He also keeps a website, writes a blog, maintains a Facebook page, an Instagram feed, and a constant contact list, as well as answering copious emails from students and curators, and managing his relationships with three different galleries. None of which I should say are in New York, because his New York gallery went under during the financial crisis. This is how he put it to me. He said it’s a ton. It’s amazing. It’s like having four jobs.

Because I’m a teacher, and I’m a painter, and each one has its own little publicity, branding, and marketing section. I asked them if this has had an effect on his art, and he said, a friend of mine has a tenured faculty position and she paints big, slow, beautiful paintings. I do some slow paintings, but some of my paintings I have to do quickly. Are they as large as I’d like them to be? Periodically, but not all the time because smaller sells better. Smaller paintings are less expensive and they’re easier to put on your wall. And he also wrote me this in a follow-up e-mail. Generally speaking, the way things work now, the constant stream of email and marketing demands makes it very difficult to carve out the time and quiet I need to settle it and drop into work, to arrive at a place inwardly that allows me to do strong, deep painting. This is, I think, a set of emotions and experiences and sentiments that are probably very familiar to many of you.

Now, I don’t think it’s all bad by any means. The new economy also is generating new opportunities. And after all, that’s what this conference is largely about. New technologies like digital cameras and digital editing tools enable movies and music to be created inexpensively and thus by a much wider range of individuals. Some examples, you’ve probably heard of the movie Tangerine, which was a sensation at Sundance last year. It was shot on the iPhone 5s. Louis C.K. has become famous for releasing his projects through his own website, as he just did with a Chekhovian drama named Horace and Pete. A very idiosyncratic and challenging work. The limitless proliferation of cable channels, which once seemed completely pointless, I don’t know if you remember, if you’re old enough, you remember when they seemed completely pointless, have expanded creative freedom, increased employment opportunities for writers and actors, and ushered in a golden age of television. Talent also has more chance to get attention now. Broad City began as a cheaply produced web series. Lena Dunham first attracted notice when a video she was shot went viral on YouTube. But I don’t want to minimize the difficulties facing creators in many fields and I don’t want to indulge in the kind of happy talk with which these developments are so often greeted in the media. More is not necessarily better. And easier isn’t necessarily better either. There’s something to be said for the writer Primo Levi’s remark, long before there even was an internet, that the arts and sciences should not be encouraged. They should rather be discouraged in order to limit the eruption of self-styled and untalented dilettantes. More importantly, because I’m sure there aren’t any of those in this room, because you wouldn’t be here if you were just one of those people, you wouldn’t make the commitment to this, for every self-publishing success story and viral video breakout star, there are literally, I think it’s safe to say literally thousands of creators who are having an increasingly difficult time keeping body and soul together as the old supports that the arts relied on are being knocked out one by one.

By the same token though, some of the most exciting developments in the arts today involve the attempt to replace those old supports with new ones. Let me give you a few examples of those. Online marketing platforms like Props, launched last year by a guy named Ken Ham. Maker spaces, right? Shared work environments. Like there’s one in Chelsea called Prime Produce that was founded by a guy who describes himself as a carpenter. The New Museum has opened an incubator called NEW INC for design and art related startups. I heard from an art center in Huntsville, Alabama, it’s not a nonprofit art center, it’s a for profit art center. It has something like and other creative businesses. A different model, a new kind of model. I live in Portland now. Portland, Oregon. The two art schools in Portland just recently started a joint MFA program in what they call, applied craft and design teaching students entrepreneurial as well as creative skills. There are people who are working to develop new models of creative property rights on the software model of Bitcoin, the block chain structure that enable creators to retain an equity stake in what they do. Still, I’m concerned with the way the new conditions are affecting creators and especially young creators. I spoke with someone who teaches at the art school at University of Michigan recently, and she told me about her distress at the changes she’s seen among her undergraduates in the dozen or so years she’s taught there. She says, “our students are becoming a lot less weird than they used to be.” I don’t know if that was a laugh of it’s funny or a laugh of recognition, but I’ve said this to a lot of people who work at art schools and there’s always a laugh of recognition. She says, “very rarely now is there a student who presents an unusual thought or an action that is surprising to me, or that stuns me in an interesting way.” And she went on, “whatever pressures our students have, either from parental pressure, or from the economy, or student debt, I think it’s bigger than that. I think it has something to do with their understanding of themselves as unique humans in the world and their capacity to say something very particular. I feel like they have kind of given up on that.” I think we can say in general that the new conditions are requiring creators to be more aware of their audience. And I understand that obviously this is a very practical conference. And a lot of what you’re talking about, maybe all of what you’re talking about, is really premised on the idea that you’re going to be aware of your audience.

But I think it’s possible to be too aware, and too early I’ve heard from people who’ve suggested to me that creators are being forced to do work that is not only immediately appealing, but immediately appealing within the specific context of the screen. And I think there are a few other things we can say about this. One follows directly from this issue of Audience, which is that you’re becoming more and more responsive to your audience not only in anticipation, but in response. Really this is what’s happening to all businesses in the internet age. Customer feedback, customary engagement, tell us what you want and next time we’ll give you more of that. And that sounds great, but I think there is an inherent tension between that idea and the idea that we have of creativity, which is something about finding a unique or a different voice, that kind of voice that that art school teacher doesn’t see in her students anymore. And I think there’s a relationship with that.

If you’re always asking what somebody else wants, you’re losing touch with what you want. I think taken to the logical extent, we’re going to get art, we’re going to get creativity, where we are already doing so, where the audience is actually participating directly in the creation, which is about as far from the solitary genius model as you can possibly imagine. It isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s different. It’s something that we need to think about and adapt to, or resist. And it dovetails with another huge I think, fact and idea today, which is the democratization of creativity. I was talking about that in a positive sense before when I was talking about Tangerine, and other things like that. But you can flip it around and call it the problem of amateurs who threaten to flood the market with substandard productions. I think this is one of the great banes, at least psychologically, of genuine creators like you guys, people who actually are devoting your life to creativity, that everybody’s running around with camera phones, or GarageBand, or Final Cut Pro, or graphic design software, or posting their poems or their comedy online, and calling themselves artists.

I’ve also written about how people see food as an art form today, and my claim is that it’s actually not. I mean, it’s a great thing and it’s very creative, but that doesn’t mean it’s an art form. You have no idea how much blowback I continue to get about this. Everybody wants to be a fucking artist. But it’s not– And if you actually are one, and you try to make some kind of distinction or assertion in that direction, it becomes complicated. OK. I mean would even say that I am not an artist. I proudly say that I’m not an artist. I like to describe my writing as non-creative nonfiction, because I want there to be at least one person in the world who stands up proudly and says, I am not an artist.

Anyway, quickly in the last few minutes, a few other things that I think we’re seeing in creativity in the arts that grow out of the fact that our lives are increasingly digitized and mediated. The first is that we increasingly crave the opposite. Presence, concreteness, uniqueness. I think that’s one of the reasons that food has become a really big cultural thing now, which suggests that the arts that are in the best position to resist disruption are those that produce tangible, and even better, unique objects. Handcrafts, the traditional visual arts of painting and sculpture, but also those that enhance the experience of tangible objects and environments. In other words, the arts of design. But I think it’s also true that as our lives increasingly migrate online, so it seems reasonable to assume, that really, the large picture is that the future will favor precisely those forms of art that are most susceptible to digitization, and will push all the arts in the direction of digitization, whether they are naturally digital or not. This also means– and this is really quite extraordinary, I think we take this for granted, that art making of many different kinds is now being pushed onto a single platform. Right? We used to read novels and books, go to theaters to watch movies, watch television on our television sets, look at images on museum walls or in art books, put an LP on or a CD on a specialized device. But now all those things happen in the same place. And audiences, especially in the age of multitasking and the fragmentation of attention, have a vastly increased ability to switch between different media.

So, one moment you can be listening to a song, and the next moment reading a text, and the third moment looking at a work of art or a work of visual creativity. The truth is, even as I say this now, I realize that’s actually not what happens. What happens is that you’re doing them all in the same moment. My brain fortunately– I consider fortunately, is not adapted to that, but I hear that other people do it quite easily. And this connects to the last thing that I want to point out, which is a phenomenon that I notice everywhere and I suspect is quite widespread in this room. And that is the multi-platform creator. It seems that everyone below a certain age, and I would say that age is closer to 40 than to 30, is doing several things at once. And I don’t mean several different kinds of writing, or music, or visual art. I mean several things that cross those larger boundaries. You’re a poet, and a photographer, and a, you know. One way to look at it is that people are diversifying, which is especially understandable at a time when opportunities must be chased wherever they’re found, but no single opportunity is going to pay very much, and when audiences, because their attention is fragmentary and brief, may have trouble noticing the difference between a work that’s well-crafted and a work that isn’t.

More and more, in other words, creators seem to be thinking of themselves as just that. As creators. Creators as such. Artists as such. Not, I’m a designer, I’m a musician, I’m a writer. Because we increasingly talk about, increasingly value, this generalized quality that we call creativity, it makes good sense that artists and others would think of themselves primarily in terms of that generalized quality. That is also a really new thing, that maybe dates from the last 15 or 20 years. That creativity has become this enormous concept in our culture. It wasn’t even a word that we applied to human activity more than a couple of hundred years ago, because that was just for God, right? And now creativity is this thing that everybody has and everybody cultivates. So you’re a creator primarily. And then how you express that creativity is secondary. Now I know I’ve presented a fairly gloomy picture here. No doubt that that’s because I’m a sour, pessimistic person. And also because I’m old. So I invite you to make the necessary allowances. But I also want to be honest here. I want to look conditions squarely in the face.

And now I simply want to say that it’s up to you to figure out, with the help of what you’re learning today and tomorrow, how you want to respond. If, as I suspect we are, we’re entering a new age of art and creativity, that history will be written by you as you shape your careers. I wish you the best of luck. Thanks.

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