For millennia, societies have tried to solve the problem of how to pay their artists, and for much of that history, this was the province of the wealthy. Sometimes that power belonged to institutions – the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, for example, or art foundations with large trusts — or from new money making merchant classesas in the Italian Renaissance. Governments use taxpayers’ money to fund public art, such as the Public art project as part of FDR’s New Deal, or, say, Sesame Street. Over the past decade, however, that power has increasingly been handed over to a radically different kind of curator: the algorithm.
Artists making money on social media – and there is one growing number of them — Relying on corporate-owned platforms for exposure, sponsorship deals and commissions. It’s no secret, however, that the vast majority don’t earn enough to make a living from their craft alone, be it fine arts, music, filmmaking, writing, photography, dance, theater or, if we’re willing to use the vague notion of ‘content creation’. ‘ as an art form. Therein lies a problem: artists and creators most likely to succeed in this system are the ones with the most appeal, which for an algorithm probably means that they rely on the lowest, lowest common denominator impulses of what human creatures to watch. In short, the kind of art that algorithms choose for us is usually not very good.
So what should a society do? Kate Compton, a futurist and computer science professor at Northwestern University, came up with a solution earlier this summer: “Someone with a FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] salary could literally commission their own opera once a year, so we should,” she began in a now-viral Twitter thread. “The Renaissance was a remarkable cultural era, not because of good marble or new paint, but because a bunch of new wealthy Florentine wool merchants discovered Spite Patronage” (more on that later).
The idea that the rich can and should fund the arts is not new. What’s new is the sheer number of rich people we have. The US has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality of all developed countries; it has more billionaires than any other (735 of them), a class that $5 trillion added to its wealth – more than the previous 14 years combined – during the first 18 months of the pandemic. The donor class, or ultra-percent people who spend a significant portion of their income on donations to philanthropic and art foundations (often receiving huge tax breaks in the process), is growing, and with a political system that seems unlikely to successfully levy meaningful new taxes on billionaires, the least rich people can do is spend some of it on things that aren’t superyachts.
Many people, ultra-rich or otherwise, are already doing this. By exposing so many people to each other in such a short period of time, social media and commerce platforms like Etsy have enabled many designers, painters and other artisans to earn a living through their were to sell to their followers. But while older wealthy people have a long history of donating to major art foundations that do the work of finding artists to donate money for them, it’s easy to imagine new wealthy millennials and Gen Z opting for tech and finance workers. flashier ways to support the art: Mentioned their name as an executive producer of a movie or play, or the ability to shape the art themselves.
Perhaps Compton’s most compelling point is that there is a long history of what she calls “despite patronage,” of wealthy people paying for artwork that flatters them compared to their professional nemesis. Art in itself does not even have to be so innovative or meaningful, it simply has to be seen and shown. “One problem is you degenerate* pay for full body furry commissions (good for you!) but keep it private. You don’t create a cultural impact that way,” she writes. “Rent a gallery and organize an art exhibition; buy a chapel and have them paint a ceiling; sculpt it in marble on your mausoleum. Wealthy people realizing that great artists can be hired for pennies + proudly displaying both revenge and cringing commissions = world-changing art movement.”
There are some obvious drawbacks here. First, it is never a good sign when a society relies on the ultra-rich to take on a responsibility that is more appropriate for an institution that is accountable to its citizens (such as, say, the government). Unfortunately, one of the consequences of 40 years of corporate tax breaks and government spending cuts is that we’re doing it now. As my colleague Whizy Kim argues, tech billionaires have helped elect Joe Biden in the name of democracy, and have the potential to do the same for abortion rights. Second, for performers without an agent or manager to handle business transactions for them, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where they are unfairly paid or otherwise exploited by the inherent power dynamics at play.
But I would also argue that wealthy art patrons can order art that is at least slightly more interesting than what an algorithm could produce, while also giving artists more freedom to create works that don’t necessarily meet the demands of social media platforms. . “The winner-take-all dynamics of this algorithmically optimized stream will generate a few winners – superstar influencers whose every post will be shown to millions of users,” writes Cal Newport in his piece on whether the internet can support creative work with the “1,000 real fans” theory.
He’s talking about content creators, or the 7.1 million Americans who were making money on social media platforms in 2021. This increasingly crowded field – it is at least three times more than the number of artists or lawyers or doctors or farmers or soldiers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics – cannot survive if it continues to rely on, say, $5 monthly donations from Patreon subscriptions or small brand deals. And if creators keep having to adapt their content to what the algorithm demands of them, no one will want to pay for it anyway. As the mother of Don Draper’s second wife tells her in season five of crazy men: “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world couldn’t support so many ballerinas.”
By creating a mass culture of commissions among wealthy young people, it could perhaps – or at least increase the pool of artists earning a living wage. Inequality is terrible, inflation is bad, and whether or not we’re in a recession, it sure feels like we are. But there are winners in this economy, and for now the creative have-nots can use it to our advantage by bullying our wealthy friends into funding weird art. And imagine being a rich guy and having the opportunity to have an off-Broadway show made about literally anything you want, whenever you want! Imagine not to do that!
This column was first published in the Goods Newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one, and receive exclusive newsletters.