In 2014, award-winning essayist William Deresiewicz roiled the placid ponds of academia with his controversial attack on American elite education in his book Excellent Sheep. Prepare yourself, because he’s back. His wide-ranging, vividly written new book focuses on how big tech and big money—the new economy—are devastating artists and the arts.
In The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, one of Deresiewicz’s key points—and the object of much of his diatribe—is that it isn’t necessarily a good thing that the internet allows unmediated access to audiences and artists. Sure, there are benefits, but it also “starves professional production [and] fosters the amateur kind.” Big tech has also convinced us that we can all be artists and has given us the tools (but not the talent) to believe it, with questionable results. He writes, “Have you seen your cousin’s improv troupe? Is that the only kind of art you want to have available, not only for the rest of your life but for the rest of the foreseeable future?”
William Deresiewicz’s wide-ranging, vividly written new book focuses on how big tech and big money—the new economy—are devastating artists and the arts.
How and why we may be on the verge of this eventuality—in music, writing, visual arts, film and television—is the thrust of his inquiry. In his research, Deresiewicz interviews roughly 140 artists, most of whom we might call midlevel, midcareer artists, who make up the broad ecosystem from which great work arises, and the very people likely to disappear in a new economy that favors the few. “Bestselling books have gotten bestier; blockbuster movies have gotten bustier,” Deresiewicz pointedly observes.
In the end, he argues that a new economic paradigm has arisen, and artists must respond to it. Some of his recommendations are oddly old school. For one, artists who are now asked to work for free to build an online audience, a following, must demand to be paid. “I cannot think of another field in which people feel guilty about being paid for their work—and even guiltier for wanting to be paid,” he writes. “Arts and artists must be in the market but not of it,” which is of course easier said than done these days.
But Deresiewicz’s most profound recommendations—a breakup of tech monopolies and the end to extreme inequality—are revolutionary and perhaps impossible to achieve. So there is much to think about and even more to argue with in The Death of the Artist. And that is its point.