William Deresiewicz penned a compelling piece at The Atlantic entitled “The Death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” which chronicles the evolution of creatives from craftsmen to artists to artistic geniuses to professionals and finally to today’s creative entrepreneurs. His thesis suggests that the archetypal artist – that “solitary genius” – no longer exists, and hasn’t for a while.
Artistic geniuses – think Beethoven – were products of a system of patronage. When that economic model ceased, the artist became a professional. Deresiewicz writes:
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. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.
The mediating institutions that arose were movie studios, publishers, newspapers, etc. But as we have seen in the last 20 years, the social contract between these institutions are the professionals they employ has changed for good.
But we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation…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.
This evolution has technology to blame. The rise of the Internet disintermediated traditional forms of media. The newspaper classified – the revenue powerhouse – was rendered obsolete almost overnight by the Internet job board (of which my former company, hotjobs.com, was one). Once the revenue was threatened, these publicly traded publishers had no choice but to layoff full-time journalists and photographers. And as the dissemination of information moved almost entirely online, the value of any piece of content plummeted exacerbating the economic woes of the creative.
Professional photographers are no longer artists (were they ever?). The successful photographer is, as Deresiewicz’s friend explained, now an entrepreneur who values having 10,000 contacts more than having Malcolm Gladwell’s mythic 10,000 hours of professional development. They are creative jacks of all trades (a photographer, musician, UI developer). They sell their “brand” as an authentic look at not only their output, but their creative process (follow me on Instagram and see my behind-the-scenes photos!).
We’ve traded the security of the full-time job for direct access to our audience. We’ve traded insufferable management for an opportunity to lead our own future. We are creator, publisher, PR, and customer service – not necessarily by choice, but by circumstance.
But rather than lament the demise of what once was, we should be opportunistic and consider what could be. We are, for better or for worse, creative entrepreneurs, and we need to acquire skills that will help us succeed in the current and future world. Ironically, a person who only takes pictures nowadays is more likely to be a hobbyist than a professional. We must evolve to survive. This week on the blog we’ll be considering photographer education, and the ways to increase your odds of survival. We hope you join us in sharing your thoughts.