Culture is future » Financing and economic models

10.10.2011

Always Further - Nightingales and serendipity

On the brink of the 2011 edition of the Forum d’Avignon, in a context of continuing technological revolution that change the creative and cultural industries, the debate about how artists are compensated for their work is more than ever a topical topic.

Each major evolution in art history – technological, conceptual as well as economic innovations – has gone hand in hand with new economic conditions for artists. From the separation between artisans and artists to the invention of arts dealers, from the Renaissance – both Italian and Flemish – to the Internet, innovative art forms appear when the market for cultural goods widens: portraits of Flemish burghers, depictions of daily life, ready-mades, electro music and e-books are a few examples of these.

However, greater artists’ autonomy comes with a growing fragility and underpayment, as Xavier Greffe’s research papers show. Besides, despite uncertain statistics, Vimeo, iTunes and Kickstarter don’t seem to be sufficient yet to increase the number of artists.

The current technological revolution provides aspiring artists with an array of means of production and disseminiation. In terms of production, neither literature nor music nor even cinema, nowadays, is only aimed at educated, co-opted and wealthy elite, backed by distributors, government subsidies, and philanthropists. Cheap or free software, with light and good quality hardware abolish virtually all barriers to practicing any given art, except perhaps skills and genuine talent that producers aspire to spot.

In terms of distribution, social networks, HD video websites and micropayment services offer quick and cheap ways to make works of art easily available and to reach out to a wide audience. Since Duchamp and pop art made reproductions of original works respectable, and physical devices became optional to sell cultural goods, marginal costs of distribution have been decreasing, even though in most cases marketing expenditures are still mandatory to get public attention.

Among such opportunities, the public still has to elbow its way through the overwhelming abundance of the “Long Tail”. Although the concentration on blockbusters is likely to remain a symptom of the inherently social mission of culture, at least the public enjoys a much wider diversity to choose from, whereas intermediaries have hitherto undertaken the function of selecting and promoting a few artists only. Such diversity is particularly adapted to behaviours on the Internet, which is turned into a catalyst of serendipity and discovery.

As a matter of fact the natural process of creation and oblivion prevents many works of art from going down in history or merely reaching any kind of audience. Balzac already referred to this phenomenon in Lost Illusions: “A nightingale, as Lucien afterwards learned, is a bookseller’s name for books that linger on hand, perched out of sight in the loneliest nooks in the shop”. Today, those nightingales, past or current, can rise from the ashes and actually be found and discovered by at least a few readers.

Confronted to an ecosystem allowing artists to maintain a direct relationship with the public, intermediaries must find a new, relevant raison d’être. Music publishers, search engine and subscription streaming services need to address new challenges, and choose either to keep promoting artists the traditional way or to bring content to users in accordance with their individual taste.

We should all acknowledge that technology is an opportunity for innovation in art forms and for broader downstream opportunities in the market for cultural goods. But how artists are compensated in this new world remains a bone of contention. At least we can agree to follow two main principles that comply with both cultural policy guidelines and economic justice: diversity – in art forms, styles and artists – and fair compensation.

There are numerous options to choose from: Dutch subsidies, graduated response or ISP-level music licenses, etc. Their consequences on all stakeholders are far-reaching, and the outcome will define a nation’s cultural policy and the status given to creation in society. Thus this issue deserves a real, open debate in which all citizens and stakeholders could take part, not only members of parliaments and lobbies. Although electoral campaigns in most countries are times when cultural policy and Internet are now often discussed, there is a need for a wider, long-term consensus involving web users, artists and producers in order to collectively sow the seeds of cultural quality and influence for tomorrow.

Credits : Le Caravage, The Fortune Teller, 1594-95, 99 x 131cm, Musee du Louvre, Paris

A contribution of the ESSEC/Vincent Poulain