Crowdfunding Saved Artistic Endeavor from the Brink of Collapse

Methods of the Renaissance era are now back in full swing.

Historians have made themselves a habit of disagreeing on what exactly constituted the Renaissance. If we were to fully hinge our understanding of it based on commonly accepted facts, the Renaissance would be an era where Europe — still troubled and war-ravaged — started moving forth a direction of artistic and literary enrichment that the plight of the Middle Ages hadn’t whence allowed to flourish. But what the era is perhaps most commonly recognized for, is the patronage of the arts, and more appropriately, what came out of late 15th century Florence, to spread across the European continent — northward especially — in the coming decades. That period was marked by considerable wages being pledged to the benefit of artists in trying to legitimize their wealth in the eyes of the Church. And while we retain a rosy memory of that era, it’s important to note that art thrived for reasons completely insular from scarcity, or the purest intention to satisfy an artistic urge. The paintings, statues, and edifices are gorgeous to look at, but they remain the born consequence of circumstances unique to the Church’s role in European society at the time. Today, patronage has made a comeback, and it’s all but for an abundance of wealth.

Since the height of the industrial revolution, questions have been incessantly posed about humans’ role in the current labor market. It was once thought that about the only work we could do would be either in agriculture, manufacturing weapons of war, or work on massive structures financed by colonial powers’ stolen riches from the New World, and later on Africa; but once that era has passed and hot metal typesetting completely reshaped how we produce information for the masses, it only became a question of time until our lust for vanity would become not only a desire in search for self-fulfillment, but also the way by which a great portion of our daily lives is led and defined.

Today’s world is now filled with media we can all access for negligible amounts of money — if any — within a pocket’s reach. To have moved from a time where the quest to creating great art was only granted through the privilege of the wealthy minority to the benefit of a skilled few, to now it being a massively-sourced well-calculated plan of careful marketing and efficient asset management, is quite a leap.

If you look at some of the incredible work artists are able to do with a sixty-dollar Wacom drawing tablet and a laptop, you’d almost not believe that the only barrier between getting art done, and the artist, is merely one of financial and mental motivation. In some unforeseen way, the development of the mass-manufacturing industries has allowed a new generation of artists to flourish under new tools and completely new paradigms in which the art that once used to be of rare quality, is now available in great abundance.

One wouldn’t instinctively think to bring up industry as an important part of why this revolution has happened, but it’s important to bare in mind that even though our material conditions of living have merely changed by nature rather than volume, it remains quite a miracle that tools of art creation have now come down so drastically in price, and are made in such great numbers, that many are able to make incredible art with as little as a smartphone. The co-existence of democratized means of consuming and creating media, along with an all-time high record of human interest in the consumption and creation of art, tells us a great deal about what has changed since the time of antiquity when humans used drawings on cave walls to catalogue their daily happenings and trepidations, to something as seemingly meaningless as abstract art being able to tell more intricate stories than the illustrative primitive scribbles we used to jot now serving mere archeological and epistemological purposes.

An important component in the resurgence of the arts hasn’t been made entirely mainstream until the age of the internet. Unceremoniously so, as artists started to realize they could subject their trade to market value, self-published art was no longer something you drew and sent off into the obscured annals of the internet where it might find its way into the hands of a content aggregator and get exploited for millions of impressions — it was rather a new way to make an honest living from what has largely been considered a hobby, or unworthy of conforming the usual regiment of a regularly-paying job. You didn’t have to be a comic book artist or an illustrator to do what you love and still get paid for it, you just had to find an audience, and tailor your artistic sensibilities to their preferences and turning it into a complimentary, or solitary source of income as demand and availability is naturally gauged.

There’s not a well-documented history of what allowed this revolution in artistic creation to occur in the first place, but a cursory understanding of late 2000s internet culture as the Web 2.0 revolution rose ashore, reveals that crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter were crucially instrumental in making that financing model more commonly acceptable, if not mainstream at this current stage.

Rob Walker of the New York Times described the usual process most of us go through when trying to pursue an artistic endeavor that we know for sure we can’t afford in a familiar anecdote:

We had this idea, some friends and I, for a small public art project in New Orleans last year. The problem was, it involved some professional printing that would cost a few thousand dollars, which none of us had. Usually that’s where such conversations end: it would be cool if we could do X, but we’re not going to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, even if we knew how to pursue such a thing. So let’s get another round of beers.

It’s not a dilemma all too unfamiliar in situations similar. Shelling out a few thousand dollars without a moment’s notice is a luxury only the privileged few can afford. The counter to such an idea in past times has been just to give up, or work long hours a job that you not even enjoy just to supplement your income until this incredible of a dent in your finances could be recovered. But now that Kickstarter and many other crowdfunding platforms exist, that concern is at least conceptually, a worry of the past.

State funding for art projects is a hard sell to commoners. It was the case back then, and it still is the case now. Art is largely viewed by the populace as unnecessary, and completely antithetical to the great pursuit of economic prosperity. Sinking any amount of money on art by a government whose chief concern is feeding its people is still considered a cardinal sin by many, as is selling the hopes of a growing nation on a culture of art sponsorship and increased arts funding for public schools and art institutions — you simply can’t expect a presidential candidate to barge into a public speaking stage and lay out a comprehensive plan to move away funds from public infrastructure maintenance, healthcare, or even the defense budget without some considerable amount of backlash. Politicians’ reticence to indulge in such a discourse is the greatest indicator we have of public disinterest in the topic as of this moment, but as the government seemed unwilling to study the ramifications of its hands-off approach on arts funding, the rush to create a company filling that need may have inadvertently ended up turning the market inside out; and now, it seems like lacking funds for an art project is only a matter of social virality.

Before we’ve gotten to that point, Kickstarter didn’t only have to get created to permit the existence of independent art projects, but a major attitude shift was required for artists to perceive their work as being worthy of financial backing in the first place.

Times cannot be recounted where a viral tweet urging artists not to be shy about asking for a reasonable commission on a piece of art, because it’d seemed like those who were asking for such creations to exist haven’t yet accustomed themselves to the changing landscape of art creation online, or on the flipside, artists simply thought of themselves too little to assert dominance over a conversation they should be the chief of, considering they’re the ones making the art in the first place.

That rise in self-assertion of artistic capabilities did not-so-subtly coincide with a growing interest in Marxist ideals — or at the very least, a growing wary concern of capitalism’s effects both on the industries allowing artists’ work to exist, and the very conditions it put them in the minute they started asking money for something a great majority thought would be fair game to spread online without proper credit or compensation.

Artists now see themselves as the singularity of far-left economic aspirations combined. They’re the means of production, the produce itself, and they’re also financial contributors to the economy through sheer activity. Essentially, they’re people who make art, and are now also able to buy art using the very money they earned by making art in the first place — it’s as if Sandro Botticelli self-erected means to pursue art through art itself, forgoing the Medici family altogether.

Of course, the realities of such a politically progressive fantasy can quickly break down at the sight of our antiquated means of dealing with self-bred wealth in Western societies where legislature has not yet devised a comprehensive plan for these newly-developed ideas around the pursuit of wealth. No longer does it mean you have to enroll in a big corporation, or work dreadful 9-to-5’s just to have food on the table — it is now fully within the realm of possibility to sit your ass down in front of a computer screen, effectively create a product with value that did not exist before, nor is universally recognized by everyone as having said value, and order your goods to come to you rather than you coming to them.

Patreon has especially made that the more valuable a proposition by twisting Kickstarter’s premise and centering it on a brand of content creation and a subscription model rather than a one-time payment with dreadful wait times and the sometimes-inevitable train wreck ensuing thereafter.

You’ve a creator body who produces content of literary or artistic value, and patrons pay for that through tiers that the Patreon page holder dictates. It’s basically a self-curated collection of Netflix-like possessions where the artist exerts greater control over their finances by dictating the pace at which content will be created. It requires a certain amount of entrepreneurship and literacy for the way online commercialization operates, but once that hurdle is cleared, the sky's the limit.

That disruption however, has resurfaced some new questions about our inability as a society to clear the taboo of self-employment so we may talk about it as an honorable way to earn a living. Ask anyone who depends on Patreon how they talk about their craft in public, and mentioning the platform’s name would not come up as an instinct.

Furthermore, the gravity of the situation is further exacerbated by an increasing number of individuals for whom artistic creation is not only a matter of quenching an artistic thirst, but it’s also their longest lasting lifeline short of them becoming homeless as rent continues to reach historic highs on a near-constant steady basis. Folk’re becoming more creative about ways to earn money in an increasingly demanding economy, but legislators significantly are lagging behind to accommodate for the radical change the economy has seen since the most recent financial crisis.

Vivek Wadhwa, technology entrepreneur and noted academic, made a great point on the MIT Technology Review about the accelerating pace at which technology pushes our laws to conform. He essentially explained the phenomena by grounding our common understanding of law, in known truths and facts about law’s longest-held belief in intangible persistence and consistency:

These regulatory gaps exist because laws have not kept up with advances in technology. The gaps are getting wider as technology advances ever more rapidly. And it’s not just in employment and lending — the same is happening in every domain that technology touches.

“That is how it must be, because law is, at its best and most legitimate — in the words of Gandhi — ‘codified ethics,’ ” says Preeta Bansal, a former general counsel in the White House. She explains that effective laws and standards of ethics are guidelines accepted by members of a society, and that these require the development of a social consensus.

It’s not only the case that artists aren’t able to create because they simply can’t justify it — it’s also very apparent that political messaging around self-employment — especially for artists — is taking a major backseat to more pressing concerns of the Democratic platform for the upcoming elections. After Obama was given eight years to come up with a sensible framework around big tech’s reconstruction of work as was commonly known, he ended up throwing the bulk of his political capital on a half-botched healthcare plan, as artists in the most lucrative market for content creation have to wonder in what world will their concerns be eventually tended to — Bernie Sanders is focusing a uniform theory of social change to define the disparities in the American demographic on pure basis of class; Elizabeth Warren has spoken ill of tech and her plans so far involve a poorly premeditated effort to break up major companies and invoke antitrust law at every chance possible; Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden’s policy positions remain largely unknown; and the only candidates with an explicit plan for strengthened social security are Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, but they seem to be largely unfavored by the Democratic establishment and a great majority of the electorate.

The idea of greater social security isn’t completely new, in fact, it’s been propped up as part of a larger collective American shift towards ideals of Socialism. Universal basic income basically being a financial lifeboat amid unforeseen expenses for artists is not all that unorthodox a concept. While applying bandages on a massive hole seems as appropriate a metaphor for this solution as any, it’s still a welcome change in cultural attitudes towards freelancers not as sole welfare beneficiaries, but active members of society just as traditional workers are.

At this point, it’s very clear that the age of art patronage is back in full swing, and with crowd-funding and subscription platforms being now the norm and allowing artists greater control of their destiny, the question of whether their most basic needs will be accounted for by a new-found love for small government from the Trump administration remains a great unknown.

What’s clear to have proven benefits however, is contributing to your favorite creators’ financial stability. And I know some in the ether are screaming at me “Why are you shifting blame for income inequality from systemic circumstances, to individual ones” and I know full well that this analysis is valid, if not the more tacit approach — however, we’re in no full measure of overthrowing the current presiding skepticism of the government’s role in Western society as the right-wing economic conservative movement is undergoing a resurgence.

What can work in the here and now, is not leaving self-employed artists without a month’s worth of rent, and basic healthcare needs. And for that, the remedy is perhaps disappointingly, a greater care by the larger populace for the importance of art, and a stern consideration for the trials and difficulties artists go through to make the magic happen in the first place.