The Writing of William Deresiewicz – The Death of the Artist

We imagine artists as pure beings, in some ways above the forces of the market or the capitalistic imperatives of our society. Those who seek to make money from art are sell outs. By contrast, true artists, the theory goes, are above making money.

A real artist starves for their work. If they are suffering, then they are merely gaining inspiration for their art. If they work for free, then they are merely answering the call of the muse. “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out,” wrote George Orwell, living alongside the tramps of London in the 1930s.

In The Death of the Artist, William ‘Bill’ Deresiewicz strips back these myths to look at the cold hard truth beneath that dried paint. In over two hundred interviews with successful artists, from painters and musicians to writers and novelists, Deresiewicz asks the hard questions about what it takes to survive as an artist today. This includes the one question no artist likes to answer; how do you make money?

Spoilers: You don’t.

With the rise of Napster, Instagram, Facebook, WordPress and other free online platforms, the very idea of making money from art has become outdated.

Deresiewicz blames the big tech companies. Silicon Valley has, for years, sold the dream that anyone can become an artist. We are all creative. With a little luck anyone can go viral, the thought goes. With new technology, anyone can do what they love from home and make money while doing it. The result is a gradual devaluation of real artistic production, in exchange for fluff.

If you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a recording studio. If you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera.

Self-help books from Stanford-grads rally the faithful. Monetize your hobbies. Be agile. Hustle. Meanwhile, the real artists are being drowned out in a sea of junk food. Every time we upload a photo, a sketch or a broken-hearted love poem to a social platform for free, we lead our friends -and the public at large- to register that all kinds of art should be free. We create an expectation that, in turn, creates a social norm of not paying for art.

Is everyone an artist?

‘Everyone is not an artist,’ Deresiewicz writes in an opening chapter. Artists are artists. Real artists are people who have spent years honing their craft, perfecting their techniques, creating a work that is a perfect combination of form and function. It is they who deserve our praise, our celebration and most crucially, our money. And yet, it is those same artists who are struggling today.

We have come to expect even professional artists to work for free.

Deresiewicz relates the story of a fantasy author who priced his e-books at $3.99 on Smashwords, the self-publishing platform. The author soon received a nasty email from a reader, who said he would stop buying the author’s books unless they were put up for free. In which case, he would not really be buying them at all.

The Death of the Artist is grim, to put it nicely. Deresiewicz interviewed a folk musician who played over fifty gigs a year and still made no money. He interviewed Rosanne Cash, whose six hundred thousand plays on Spotify netted her $104, at a rate of 0.017 cents per play. He interviewed dozens of authors, most living on advances, outside of which making only $15, 000 a year.

The starving artist

We are giving new definition to the term starving artist. The kind of brutality at work has left most artists scrambling for new sources of revenue. The end result is a form of entrenched privilege, where only the rich or supported can make art.

Most of the artists Deresiewicz interviewed survived on some combination of privilege or patronage if not living on, or near, the poverty line. ‘You can also just lie. If artists don’t talk about money, that’s often because they’d rather not discuss their own, especially if it has come from parents or spouses. There’s a great deal of privilege, financial and otherwise, across the arts, as well as a strong desire to conceal it.’

Deresiewicz recommends three steps for the struggling artist today. The first idea is to move to a ‘hub’ city like New York or London, where it’s more likely that you’ll accidentally bump into a publisher or a patron at a party. Accidents happen, Deresiewicz suggests, but they are only going to happen if you are in the right place. ‘The centres are the places where you find collaborators.’ The second idea is to network and make as many contacts in the art world as possible, with similar limitations in terms of geography. The third and final idea is for artists to leverage new platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter to build communities of subscribers or supporters, outside of traditional publishing models.

Art and privilege

To the book’s detriment, the recommendations it gives to aspiring artists can likewise only be exercised by those with privilege.

Deresiewicz sees hope in subscription-based services. The Golden Age of television has led to the hiring artists across the spectrum, from writers and filmmakers to concept artists. What’s more, we are still paying for the services. “Every time you pay your subscription to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, ESPN+, and so forth – not to mention your cable bill – you’re adding your drops to the mighty river of cash that continues to sluice through the system.

If there is one major takeaway it’s this. If you are an aspiring artist; you need to build community. Either vertically with those in the know, or horizontally with other artists and supporters. Without connections to other people, the doors of success will stay closed. True, they might stay closed anyway, but connections make it slightly, only so slightly, less likely.

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