Capitalism is routinely ridiculed as an enemy of the “true artist,” with much of the finger-pointing bent toward profit and efficiency. Such forces, we are told, inevitably cause creators to drool only for money, care nothing for beauty, and cater exclusively to common consumer tastes.
Yet while free economies introduce a range of unique challenges for artists and consumers alike, economic empowerment has also led to plenty of artistic empowerment as well: putting more time, resources, and creative capacity in the hands of ordinary people.
Indeed, such empowerment has brought us so far that some now fear the “end of art as we know it.” In an age where everyone can be an “artist,” every business strives to be “creative,” and every product claims to be “artisanal,” is there anything left for the pursuit of true beauty and the cultivation of higher art?
In a fascinating essay in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz offers plenty of cause for concern. Tracing our cultural conceptions of the artist over recent centuries, from “hard-working artisan” to “solitary genius” to “credentialed professional,” Deresiewicz worries that our current notion of “creative entrepreneurship” has become so widely applied that it leaves little room for art as a deeper, spiritual pursuit.
“A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium,” he writes, “one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of — even what art is — just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of ‘art’ as such — that sacred spiritual substance — which the older one created.”
Before and beyond each of those conceptions is the market, of course, and whereas the artist as “artisan” was somewhat of a “feudal dependent” (pre-capitalism), “the paradigms of genius and professional were stages in the effort to adjust to it.”
In the former case [artist as genius], the object was to avoid the market and its sullying entanglements, or at least to appear to do so. Spirit stands opposed to flesh, to filthy lucre. Selling was selling out. Artists, like their churchly forebears, were meant to be unworldly…
Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm.
Today, however, we find ourselves entering yet another phase, one that is marked by the rise of the “creative entrepreneur” and the “self-employed.” According to Deresiewicz, our current situation represents “the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation.”
But is that such a bad thing?
The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.
Still, it also is an opportunity. The push of institutional disintegration has coincided with the pull of new technology. The emerging culture of creative entrepreneurship predates the Web—its roots go back to the 1960s—but the Web has brought it an unprecedented salience. The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution. You can reach potential customers at a speed and on a scale that would have been unthinkable when pretty much the only means were word of mouth, the alternative press, and stapling handbills to telephone poles.
Deresiewicz identifies some real risks in our present situation — the replacement of depth with breadth, the degradation of beauty, a preference for “safe” art, a catering to the petty demands of popular patronage, a sweeping “democratization of taste.”
But given the range of new benefits and opportunities, many of which Deresiewicz duly acknowledges, there is also plenty to celebrate. For while the popular perception of “creative entrepreneurship” may indeed lack any meaningful spiritual significance through a modern materialistic lens, the trend of all work becoming seen as “artisanal” actually comports rather well with the Christian view of all work as sacred.
Deresiewicz explains how the artist was once seen “like a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with the unseen, his consciousness bulging into the future.” This may sound like a lofty vision, but it is not so different from our basic calling as Christians in the broader economy.
As workers, creators, craftspeople, and collaborators, we are not just laborers in a materialistic, profit-driven system. We are creators and collaborators, servants called to connect our minds with our spirits and our hearts with our hands. We may not be “solitary geniuses,” but we are called to be prophets in the workplace and everywhere else, asking God for wisdom and truth as we serve our neighbors and cultivate beauty around us — no matter how mundane our activities and efforts may seem.
This is speaking of something far different than the high art of the Renaissance and the Romantic Era. But in democratizing our vision of are, empowering everyday creators, and attributing to the “professional” that which was previously confined to the “artist,” we have actually moved our minds closer to a proper theology of work.
The question, then, is how do we embrace that shift in imagination without losing the distinct goods of high art and the variations that exist before and beyond the marketplace?
Those risks are real, and we should heed Deresiewicz’s concerns about the evaporation of certain standards or conceptions of art, just as we should affirm that such art brings something distinct and valuable to civilization. In an increasingly utilitarian world, cramped in its capacity for mystery and wonder, such art is uniquely enriching — forming and fostering our imaginations in truth and beauty and goodness.
But as we acknowledge those risks, we can do so in a way that retains a wider imagination about the past and the present, as well as a bolder optimism for the future. We can bring an appreciation for high art as well as bottom-up economic and creative empowerment, the convergence of which is sure to bring value to both civilization and the soul.
Image: Prawny, CC0