Being An Artist In The 21st Century

In a run-down bungalow in Los Angeles in 1969, an obscure alcoholic writer sat in a kitchen full of old newspapers and tins of bacon grease, working out his daily living expenses with a pen he borrowed from the manager of a Californian office supply company. Rent, booze, child support, food, cigarettes — about $100 a month, the writer figured.

“OK” said the manager of the office supply company, “if I promise you $100 a month, for life, will you quit your job and focus on writing?”

John Martin paid Charles Bukowski $100 a month, initially out of his own salary at the office supply store, in order to give the writer time to work on the waist-high stack of papers in his closet. It was the foundation of Black Sparrow Press, and the start of Charles Bukowski’s career as a full-time writer.

There’s always been middlemen, ever since someone painted their hand on the wall of a cave in France and someone else (presumably) put a rope around it and started charging for admission. They get between artist and audience, handling the day-to-day realities while the sensitive artist gets to focus on their art. But there’s a Faustian aspect to this model. Artists — successful artists, the chosen few who landed a record deal or a publishing contract — were looked after by the companies that profited from their work, but it wasn’t the interests of the artist that were really being served. Hold a séance and ask Elvis’ ghost what happens when you become successful enough that you never have to hear the word “no.” Or take a look at the insurance policy Albert Grossman took out on Janis Joplin’s life. Big corporations will behave as big corporations always have — that is, psychopathically. And over the years and decades of the 20th century, the corporations got bigger and more psychopathic with every book or record or movie sold. Art is big business, and maybe always was. Whether it’s the moneyed nobility who sponsored Mozart or the record companies that kept Led Zeppelin in hotel rooms and heroin, artists have always needed sponsors. Making art requires money, and promoting it takes even more money, and money is something that artists, especially early in their careers, are not known for having a lot of.

But it’s not the sixties anymore. The times, they have a-changed. We live in a shrunken world, a noisy cell bound in copper wire where anyone can talk to anyone else, no matter where they happen to live. What the old gatekeepers of culture — the publishers, the agents, the record labels — used to offer was exposure. Big deal. In a world where a video of a baby biting his older brother’s finger can get over 400 million views, exposure is not the impossible dream it once was. The barbarians have stormed the gate, and those who made a career out of getting between an artist and their audience are struggling, like all agents, to justify a position that suddenly doesn’t seem so necessary anymore.

For the artist, this is a mixed blessing. The days in which an artist got to focus on their art exclusively are, for the most part, over. Those happy accidents of cultural history — a teenaged Elvis walking into Sam Phillips’ studio to record some songs for his mother; Harrison Ford working as a carpenter on George Lucas’ kitchen — may give us all hope in the power of luck, but they were always the exception, never the rule. The reality, especially now, with record labels and publishing companies trying to squeeze every penny out of a collapsing business model, is that no one’s going to come along out of nowhere and pay you to do what you love.

Few people will shed a tear for the demise of the giant corporations who have been foisted one millionaire mediocrity after another on the public (Ke$ha, anyone?) but there’s more to this than a David/ Goliath dichotomy. It’s no secret that great art is often produced by people utterly incapable of having a normal life. Think of poor earless Vincent or haunted Fyodor; true genius tends to struggle in the world, and it’s hard to imagine the old masters setting up Twitter accounts and providing links to their work on Smashwords or Flickr. The middlemen were supposed to nurture talent like this, handling the details artistic genius skips over on its way to the next big idea. Now that we’re all just one hyperlink away from superstardom, the madmen and sinners who used to create the very best art may be left behind.

If you want to be an artist now, being creative isn’t enough. You have to have a web presence, become a social media expert and sell yourself like some pink-shirted corporate slimeball. You need to somehow combine Kurt Cobain with Donald Trump, and this is probably not why you became an artist in the first place. You wanted to write, to sing, to make beautiful music and images, not sit up late in the night grappling with coding and commenting on other people’s blog posts in the hope they’ll comment on yours. You’ll learn skills you never wanted to have, and the time you used to spend making art will now be swallowed up by the endless task of marketing yourself in a world of seven billion voices, all shouting at once.

It seems daunting. Instead of trying to appeal to a publisher or editor or record label and letting them worry about finding an audience, now you have to go out and build your own audience, one person at a time. You worry that your muse is too delicate, that the pressures of day to day life and the rough winds of capitalism will destroy your art. But if that’s true, yours is a sickly art that deserves to die in any case. The pressures of marketing will crush your creativity from coal to diamond, something rare, hard and beautiful. On a level playing field, quality wins out. An independent artist with a borrowed laptop, making a small coffee last all day while they help themselves to free wi-fi can compete head-to-head with the marketing juggernaut of the big corporations. It’s still not a fair fight, but it’s getting fairer.

Many of my favorite musicians — Astronautalis, Rodney DeCroo, Ceschi —  are people I would never have heard on the radio, or through any traditional media. These are people who might not even have got record deals once upon a time, but they’ve been able to build up a fan base by themselves. More importantly, they’ve been able to do exactly what they wanted, without some chart-brandishing executive spouting gibberish about demographics as though there are no people, only targets. This brave new world of artist-as-promoter is the blank spaces on medieval maps, scary but full of promise. And when you start to see people as well-known as Louis CK or Radiohead abandoning the traditional publishing model they have mastered in favor of a DIY approach, you know something big is happening. The technology-driven democratisation of culture we have witnessed in the past decade has ushered in an era of unparalleled freedom for the creative artist. It may mean pursuing money in a direct way many people feel is at odds with the artistic temperament; but as Gilbert K. Chesterton noted, “Artistic temperament is the disease that afflicts amateurs.” Who would choose to go back to the shackles of corporate control over your art and fifteen percent royalties when there’s a whole wide world out there that you can reach from your couch? TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • Des

    Damn. Great article. Don’t let the corporate bloodsuckers know about this, guys.  

  • SM

    This is awesome. Yes, yes, yes.

  • Michelle Chaplin

    Perfectly lovely and well executed.

  • canarywtf

    You’ve stumbled onto a need. There’ll be SEO type businesses all over this in no time. ARK music factory is one example

  • Brian M

    Well done. I really like this. 1 thing though, everyone has a blog. I don’t think ‘web pressence’ is going to lead anyone to fame. The Tao Lin model of having a blog circa 2006 and getting attention seems outdated, already. Working a fulltime job and doing art is cool, and probably the most realistic way. Loved the Bukowski part.

    Like in “Lunar Park” BEE writes about touring for “American Pyscho” and travelling like a infante terrible/rockstar with drug connections and suites at fancy hotels. The only people who can party like a rockstar now are rappers who go to the club and bring home a stripper and write songs about it. #pointless_comment

    • Ryan Frawley

      Thanks for reading. You’re absolutely right; while it’s a popular idea that all you have to do now is have a blog and suddenly everyone in the world will love you, it’s utter nonsense. If your blog’s really good, like David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, you might get a big audience, but there’s a lot of blogs out there. At least 117, last time I counted. Web presence is essential, but it’s just a first step, not a magic bullet.

  • Alex

    This article expressed precisely what I have been feeling lately. Thank you. 

  • Dina Gachman

    AMEN! so well said! Agents and managers are more concerned with how many Twitter followers you have these days than with what you’re actually producing, it’s pathetic. Don’t they know any bozo can literally buy Twitter followers? Thanks for this inspiring DIY post

  • Joana Rizza Bagano

    Great article. It got me thinking, “Wait, does this want to make me cry?” Cause this is the truth, and the truth, cliche as it may be, hurts.

  • Anonymous

    Honeybadger don’t give a shit.  Just give me a beer, and make sure SOPA and PIPA go the way of the cobra.  

  • lou


  • Katrina Tarun

    Best article YET.

  • FrenchCookie

    I’d like some clarification here.  On the one hand you state, very convincingly, that many truly inspired artists can’t handle the outer world, citing the examples of earless Vincent and tormented Fyodor.  The genius of their art and the singularity with which they pursue it precludes their involvement in the more mercantile side of art-as-business.  Yet by the end of your article you’re saying, “Artistic temperament is the disease that affects amateurs”.  I’ll concede that there are many aspiring creative types who affect a feigned “artistic temperament”, hoping perhaps to fake it till they make it as literary figures.  But what of the delicate sensibility, of  the artistic temperament that is fundamental and immutable and so perilous for the likes of the earless and the tormented?  These two ideas you have put forth do not seem to mesh.  Not only would Dostoyevsky, were he transplanted to modern-day St. Petersburgh, be unlikely to spend his time amassing “friends” on Facebook, perhaps he would even be unable to get out of bed in the morning.  Maybe this removal of the middleman, and thus of the only buffer shielding the artist from the outside world, is not merely making his travails more troublesome, but is actually killing him.  In other words: do we live in a world where great art is still possible?  And by “possible”, I mean that it is not only generated, but disseminated, studied, understood, celebrated, and loved.  Can art still be a transformative miracle in a world where all voices are, as you’ve said, talking at once?

    Another concern I had in reading this article was generated from the following sentence: “You worry that your muse is too delicate, that the pressures of day to
    day life and the rough winds of capitalism will destroy your art. But if
    that’s true, yours is a sickly art that deserves to die in any case.”  This actually took me quite by surprise, and seemed to mark a shifting point in your piece where your voice changed from sympathetic to scrappy.  This particular sentence made me think of Marcel Proust, the writer whose muse was as delicate and breakable as a madeleine cake.  He could be blown over by any wind, even an imagined one, which is to say nothing of what “the rough winds of capitalism” would do to him.  His art was indeed a sickly one.  And a beautiful one.  And a compassionate one that had the wisdom to honor that which was most vulnerable.  Your sentence has an almost Social Darwinist ring to it, calling for the downfall of the weak.  I know you were not speaking here with deepest seriousness, but it nonetheless brings up what I think is an interesting point: if we don’t acknowledge the existence (and yes, the value) of that which is weak in our art, in this the 21st Century of buffeting winds and blunted feelings, then where exactly do we turn to keep this integral part of our humanity intact? 

    The pressure of marketing crushing the sensitive artist “from coal to diamond” is an intriguing sort of alchemy, but how exactly do you propose that it happens?  Perhaps it’s worth remembering that diamonds, while brilliant and complex, are also the hardest things in the world, their outer glory impermeable and their rigid edges insensate to the wonders around them.

    • Ryan Frawley


      Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful comment.

      Are we in danger of losing a certain type of artist, the
      archetypal tortured genius so sensitive he can barely get out of bed in the
      morning? Maybe. But weren’t we always? Dostoyevsky, Van Gogh, Proust – these men
      have been dead a long time. None of them went through the meat grinder that the
      entertainment business became in the twentieth century, and I doubt any of them
      would have survived it, assuming they were even accepted for publication in the
      first place. We’re not dealing with a simple comparison between Proust’s time
      and our own; there’s almost a century of race-to-the-bottom commercial
      exploitation between then and now. And the old system of gatekeepers hurt
      artists at least as much as it protected them.

      Do we live in a world where great art is still possible?
      Absolutely. Art remains, at its best, the transformative miracle you speak of,
      and it’s never been easier to access. You don’t have to wait for a publisher to
      decide what you want to read on your behalf, or for a newspaper reviewer to tell
      you what to think. The world is full of incredibly talented people with
      something to say, and the internet gives them at least a chance to be heard.
      Seven billion to one is still better than zero.

      As for my social Darwinism: re-read your Darwin. It is not
      necessarily the strongest that survive, nor the fastest, nor even the smartest;
      it’s those most able to adapt. Learning to move through the world as it is now
      is what an artist must do, not lie in bed in a cork-lined room bewailing their privileged
      lot. Great art can be and is produced by people fully engaged with the world;
      you don’t have to be tortured to make something beautiful and moving. And you
      don’t have to come from a wealthy aristocratic background, as was once the
      case. The miracle is anyone’s now. The decline of professionalism brought about
      by the democratisation of culture at least has the advantage of breaking down

      And the diamond I referred to – that’s the art, not the
      artist. The world may crush an artist into the dust, as it will to us all
      anyway, sooner or later. But the jewel formed under the extreme heat and
      pressure endures. Seen in this context, though Proust himself may have been a
      weak and sickly man, his art was anything but.

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