Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rise of the Creative Class and the New Value of Art

As others have noted, we have in a sense, moved from the era of the MBA to the age of the MFA. The creative classes are no longer starving in garrets, but changing the way you see and hear the world, beginning with the iPod you're listening to right now. Never mind that the baby boomers who popularized rock are now retirees. Everybody who was once an anti-establishment outsider, today is a representative of the (culturally) ruling classes.

Interesting, too, to note that with the rise of the creative class there has been a noticeable decline in the value of art. Sure, Van Goghs and Picassos will continue to fetch millions of dollars at auction, but what about commercial art? Or more to the point: What is the real value of reproducible works?

Similarly, if you can carry a thousand songs (or more) around with you, then really, how valuable is each individual song going to be to the listener? Songs, like singers, as the saying goes, have become a dime a dozen. And actually, they're worth even less than that – I mean, whose paying for music these days, anyway, but adults of a certain age?

In light of that, it's simply practical to consider, that if you're an artist, who is the real client/customer? Is it the individual who enjoys the free entertainment? Or is the person or company who funds its production? Every band knows the promoter is the real client. In this regard, the audience can be viewed simply as a way to measure value any given band has to a given promoter. In other words, a sold out house means very good Nielsen ratings and your band stands a good chance of being renewed, so to speak.

Network television has always had to deal with this balancing act (between art and commerce). The content is ostensibly created for the enjoyment of non-paying masses. But the customer is actually the advertiser who makes the programming possible. Producing content within such a model isn't necessarily selling out, if you're working on projects that don't compromise your ethics. But you may have to work within certain limitations regarding format and style and whether or not such content is appropriate for a given demographic. Does this make it less art? I don't know. Tex Avery and Chuck Jones gave their best years to Warner Bros., and I don't think of either of them sell outs.

Outside poets and painters, I can't think of any art form that isn't in some way collaborative, and therefore subject to compromise.

The question is not whether you must do one thing or the other, but are you clever enough to do both?

Can I re-contextualize my relationship with my clients in the way an athlete frames his or her relationship with a sponsor? Will doing so compromise my artistic integrity? Does Tiger Woods alter his swing on behalf of his sponsors? Absolutely not (except in so far as he always tries his best), and yet his sponsors are all too happy to associate themselves with Tiger, even on a losing day.

The interesting thing here is that you don't have to pay to see Tiger's 'performance'. If you catch him on TV, you can watch him for free. His appearance on your Television is complimentary, offered by advertisers who hope you'll consider this act of charity the next time you make a purchase. And yet Tiger appears to be making a healthy living without compromising his ideals. Granted he might lose sponsors if he suddenly started stitching in political statements next to the sports logos on his apparel, but he might also attract others for just the same reason.

As an artist, I wonder, what would happen if I started thinking about myself as a brand with mission? How would my life change if I actually conceived a personal vision statement? Would any of that negate my self perception as an artist? Why aren't more artists thinking the same way?

As it happens, in 2008, a lot of artists –and individuals– certainly are.

In their book Born Digital, authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser call children who were born into and raised in the digital world 'digital natives'. The tag makes sense now, but I suspect when historians look back at our age, they will also note how post Gen X generations were also perceptibly Branded @ Birth.

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