The Entrepreneurial Artist of the Twenty-First Century

We may be persuaded that “art is for everyone”; the Internet finally democratizing its creation, its distribution, and its valuation. And yet, the democratization of art argument is necessarily laced with issues of means, access and opportunity.

by Manuel Betancourt on October 12th, 2015

Keith Haring’s motto “Art is for everyone” is nowhere more apparent than in today’s world. With the click of a button, art can be shared instantly with millions, who in turn like, share, reblog, repost, retweet, and in some cases, even buy it. Indeed, the advent of social media, so celebrated in democratizing digital spaces and giving rise to new ways of connecting users everywhere, has no doubt exploded what Haring had in mind.

Artists born and raised in an era where everything is shareable content, find in Haring an apt model for the way social media values and creates a sense of exposure. After all, this is an artist who could make anything a canvas and found ways of sharing his work with untold millions in notebook sketches, socially charged murals, and empty subway ads. With the increased use and availability of affordable tablets and laptops, creating and sharing art has become, in many ways, easier than ever before.

Photo of Haring at a gallery.

Photo via the Keith Haring Foundation.

What is Instagram, which now boasts over 400 million users, for example, but a free platform on which to showcase your work? That growing number of users means it’s catching up to another well-known social network that has crafted a niche for itself as a haven for visual artists: Tumblr. But while Tumblr’s user experience encourages user-based curation, at times losing or obscuring attribution (an issue the service is well aware of), Instagram’s infrastructure is centered and premised on creators.

In its Terms of Use, Instagram assumes you own the content you create, and, in agreeing to using the service, “you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service.” In sum, it positions its users as content creators, ones who value such ownership and think of the various digital spaces they control — whether on social media or on a website — as extensions of themselves. That the service doesn’t lend itself to easily reposting other people’s work (in ways Tumblr and Twitter rely on), shows its commitment to content creation over content sharing.

It’s no surprise artists and photographers have flocked to the service, finding in it a way to recreate digitally what have long been the stalwarts of artistic credibility: the gallery and the portfolio. Indeed, every Instagram profile, but especially those of prolific and social media savvy artists, exists as a highly curated gallery, helpfully contextualized by time-stamps and captions. Scrolling down a profile on one’s phone is akin to walking down an exhaustively put together showing, or leafing through a comprehensive portfolio. Even models (long an anonymous and invisible aspect of art unless you count royals or celebrities) are immediately present with helpful tags, which in turn function like opened doors to other artistic spaces. Furthermore, there’s an autonomy to the Instagram profile-as-gallery; just as in a gallery, artists can also make it double as a gift-shop, encouraging those browsing to purchase the original artwork, its reproductions, or even commission new work. It is both calling card and call to action.

It is in this way that we could also look back at another twentieth century figure to find a way to reframe these digital spaces as existing at the intersection of art and commerce. While the long-standing refrain of the digital age was that there was no money to be made in it (why would people pay for something they’ve accustomed themselves to get for free?), the onslaught of content creation, as well as the continued commodification of art and ease of access with sites like Etsy, Artsy, Saatchi Online and Artspace, has made it so that finding the perfect artwork to hang on your wall is a mere click away. Monetizing your artistic skills has never been as simple.

Warhol's painting of a large dollar sign.

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign, 1981. Exhibited at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

This hails back, of course, to Andy Warhol. We could be glib and note that viral images (whether of iconic reworkings of Disney princesses or boundary-pushing photographs) have reframed the pop artist’s dictum that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” but in fact, Warhol’s prescience is more palpable when it comes to imagining how twenty-first century artists are currently leveraging digital tools to become financially sustainable. What had long been (and in many corners continues to be) seen as “selling out” is now another way of understanding the role of the working artist in 2015. Not since the late 60s convergence of advertising and artists, have art and commerce been so irrevocably intertwined. One need not look further than Jeff Koons’ current success; pilloried for his self-merchandising schtick, he has nevertheless become an unqualified success, culminating in his Balloon Dog (Orange) selling at Christie’s for over US$58 million dollars.

Not every artist can be a Haring, a Warhol, or a Koons, but they belong to a line of artists who have long refused to see the overlapping needs of art and commerce as anything but mutually beneficial. While the romanticized notion of the starving artist remains both appealing and current (look at the narratives of rags to riches stories promoted by talent show reality competitions), there’s no denying that there’s an increasingly valid way of looking at art as a viable and profitable endeavor.

That is precisely what is at the heart of Patreon. Funded in 2013 by musician Jack Conte and developer Sam Yam, the crowdfunding service hopes to, in their site’s own words, “help every creator in the world achieve sustainable income.” And while Haring and Warhol emerge as pioneers of the shareable and commodifiable art industry that new digital tools allow, Patreon encourages us to leave the twentieth century altogether and travel back to even earlier times, when the only option for artists who wanted to be financially stable was patronage.

This is exactly how the service bills itself. By signing up and agreeing to patronize an artist on the site (giving money in monthly installments) it asks you to imagine yourself as a patron: “That’s right. Imagine you, in a long frilly white wig, painted on a 10-foot canvas on the wall of a Victorian mansion.” Patreon’s tongue-in-cheek rhetoric nevertheless encourages thinking of patronage as something old. Antiquated, even, entrenched in a relationship that depended and profited off a rigid class-based system. And while one could argue that there are some issues in borrowing this type of language, Patreon pushes the metaphor further and into the twenty-first century. In a helpful video, they explain the model in more depth: “Patreon lets fans become patrons of their favorite artists and content creators.” Here is a decidedly new way of thinking of art funding that apes quite obviously an old way of doing so.

The difference, of course, lies in the conflation of “fan” and “patron.” Or, more pointedly, in the way crowdfunding efforts, best exemplified by Kickstarter and Indiegogo, have begun to rethink the two as necessarily synonymous. But “patron” and “fan” carry with them quite different implications. The former is interested in the final product (and prizes above all the commodity that art engenders and represents; the painting on the Victorian wall) while the latter is fascinated by what exceeds the art: what lies beyond the frame, beyond the screen, behind the curtain. It makes sense that crowdfunding platforms would recruit fans at the outset, promising behind-the-scenes looks and, in some cases, even feedback towards the final product. They are no mere consumers, but they are engaged in the very process of art-making.  Patreon hopes to rethink crowdfunding by supporting artists and not merely projects. This is why the concept of patronage is a helpful shorthand. And yet, Patreon encourages not a one-to-one model, but a one-to-many model; artists are only able to achieve that sustainable income if they’re able to capitalize on their fans; plural. This is what is at the core of their system.

Communicating and engaging with fans may just be the single most important way these digital spaces are changing how artists think of their work. It’s not enough to create the work, you’re also now required to promote it to as wide an audience as you can muster. This hustle is not new, but these new digital platforms amplify your reach and allow you to reach people who may never have otherwise have gotten word of your work. Or, to in turn mobilize this wide-ranging fan community into a market. But that requires work. An artist is no longer required to be her own cheerleader, but also her own accountant, her own marketing manager, her own personal assistant, her own social media intern, her own web designer. In sum, an entrepreneur who is able to maintain an artistic integrity even as rent checks and grocery bills need tending to. In an age where everything is, presumably, at one’s behest with a mere click of a button, we may be persuaded to think that “art is for everyone”; the Internet finally democratizing its creation, its distribution, and its valuation.

And yet, the democratization of art argument is necessarily laced with issues of means, access, and opportunity. To have a conversation about what kind of art circulates as a commodity in social media spheres necessarily closes that discussion within a community of people who have the means to own tablets, phones, and laptops, let alone access to the internet, not to mention the necessary time to create and promote art. Haring, Warhol, and Koons implicitly call into question the capitalist demand to see everything as a commodity even while having created art that depends on such a system, while Patreon’s discourse evokes a decidedly strident class system.

Exhibition poster for Warhol and Basquiat, presented by Tony Shafrazi and Bruno Bischofberger. Both artists are pictured wearing Everlast boxing gear.

Interview, Tony Shafranzi on Basquiat, via Christie’s.

Perhaps we should turn then, to Jean Michel Basquiat, whom The New York Times Magazine profiled in 1985 article titled, aptly, “New Art New Money.” Thirty years on, its framing of Basquiat as an artist epitomizing an art world in flux, enamored with his dazzling pieces which sold for thousands of dollars, paints a similar picture to that current artists find themselves in. His brisk (at times much too brisk) output, as well as his inability to control how and where his pieces circulated (art dealers sold his pieces for, at times, fifty times their original price, with the artist getting no resale profits) speak directly to the type of demands these new digital tools ask of artists today. Not only are you ever as good as your last post, but the ease with which images are lifted and divorced from their own creators, constructs an at times hostile environment for artists who value their work and would like to see it rewarded with more than a thumbs-up. If even the daring, politically-charged work of Basquiat (which remains as timely as ever given his engagement with police brutality on black bodies) was wholly commodified and absorbed into a capitalist endeavor despite its own DIY aesthetic and copyright-flaunting mission, what hope is there for twenty-first century artists who may feel themselves forced to “share” their work for free so as to garner the exposure necessary to make a living?

Of course, Basquiat’s own success as an artist speaks to ways of rethinking art and commerce. And yet, his story, as well as Warhol’s and Haring’s, nevertheless points to established institutions (the art gallery, the auction house), and depends on age-old practices (agents and showings, national press and retrospectives), further stressing that who you know may be as important as what you do, all the while signaling the continued centrality of places like New York City. Digital platforms like Instagram, Patreon and Tumblr no doubt encourage us to think of a flattened (art) world given the ease of circulation of things on the web, but these issues — not to mention larger systemic issues regarding race, gender, and class — remain present, if somewhat obscured in new digital spaces. That this all depends on people’s subjective opinions about what makes good art and what kind of art need and should be paid for makes it all the trickier. Art, of course, has never only ever been about talent, but there’s no denying that in a saturated market, that in itself will take you only so far.

It’s true that the entrepreneurial artist of the twenty-first century has more tools at her disposal (and for that more tasks to attend to) to take her own vocation in her own hands, but one wonders how much this new role radically changes her own approach to her vocation once it becomes, in essence, a job. Art may be for everyone, as Haring reminds us, but at what cost?