Thursday, February 15, 2007

D e m o c r a c y O f A r t

On a Sunday, I walk into the center of town and see a middle-aged man playing accordion. It is a romantic instrument - the accordion. As he plays the music, joy wraps itself unconsciously around me. What a sunny day ! There could even be little fairies dancing here, hiding in the soft glow. I walk upto the man and drop in a euro in his tin on the ground. He smiles graciously. I feel elated.

Art is a divine message. It needs to be propagated for its own sake. By dropping a coin, did I have any claims to the music ? No, because art belongs to everybody. And yes, because it belongs to me too.

We are stepping into an epoch where the economic relations that bind the artist and the audience are going to be revolutionized. The pace of change that is happening now is extremely rapid, and it requires a complete overhauling of existing economic paradigms. However, the tidings of this change will not be music to many ears.

The corporations which will suffer immediately are the Times-Warner company (hollywood production house, owner of the CNN, the Times magazine etc), Virgin records, Paramount and the like. Most of the global media industry is in the hands of these few mega corporations which are currently facing nightmares on how to cope with this change. The truth is becoming increasingly clear - these mega-corporations do not hold a right to existence any longer. Irrespective of how much they try to distort the facts, or to fool the people, or to contort the markets (DRM), they stand to lose the battle with technology.

Elton John cursed in the middle of his New York concert that his recording label are a bunch of bastards. George Lucas almost gave up in despair when his script for Star Wars was rejected for 3 years consecutively by production houses. Kurt Cobain commited suicide when he was unable to cope with the marketization of his music. What do all these incidants have in common ? The servitude of art to the brokers of the industry,

What characterizes these companies ? They control the means of distribution between the producers (artists) and the consumers (audience). The trade that they specialize in is art. The phenomenal thing that happens to go unnoticed is that such a trade has never existed in the history of mankind, except in our own age spanning about 150 years. And it is going to end mercifully soon.

Trade has been the reason for prosperity ever since the dawn of civilization. Markets offer an efficient means of distribution for products (goods) and services. Every time a person purchases a product, he is effectively casting a vote about whether the product should survive. Thus, markets are an indispensible form of economic democracy.

The trouble with art is that it cannot be categorized into either as a product or as a service. Thus, it has never been part of the market in the conventional sense.

So, how did the artists of the past earn their livelihood ? They are provided for by the society. In pastoral age, the bards were provided for food by everyone. Honoring artists was considered to be an opportunity unmatchable. It is considered to be the same as donating money to God, both being creators.

In the feudal age, artists were provided for by the kings. But since the kings themselves were living off the working class, it is in effect the working class that provided for the artists. When they donated money to the artists, the kings did not expect to confine the art to themselves. At best, they could expect a dedication of the material to their name, but even that is not usually forthcoming. It has to be noted that, the really great of the artists did not even court the favor of the kings.

Here in the capitalist age, a new form of transformation has imposed itself on art. This is the diabolical transformation of art into a product. Since this transformation is so unnatural, it does not deliver justice to the product in question. The people who make money are usually the people who don't deserve to make it.

Art is created for the sake of itself. It is created for the sake of self expression and self discovery. When I say art, I mean it to include mathematics, science, philosophy, painting, literature, music and so on. Seasoned computer programmers also consider themselves as artists. None of the great masters of the past worked on art for the sake of earning money. An artist uses his creation as a means of communicating with the society, with the universe and with himself. Who can quote the price for art ? It is priceless.

The transformation of art into a product is a diabolical violation against nature. In Sanskrit, it is termed as the sale of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. In Christianity, it is akin to selling one's soul to the devil. It is a fact no artist would be proud of. But, the mega-corporations I was talking about achieved the unthinkable , this by brainwashing people that they are providing for the artists.

How many people are aware of the fact that out of the 10 dollars they pay for a CD, less than 50 cents go to the artist in question ? How many people are aware of the enormous number of talented artists driven to suicide in a state of rejection and despair after failing to court the recording elite ? How many of us even do consider exploring our creativity as a possible way to earn livelihood ? The thought of swimming through the mafia of the big production houses is debilitating to say the least. In the process of selling their souls to the devil, many artists are forced to sell their bodies as well, in forced prostitution to the power-brokers.

In any case, how much of the output of these production houses (Hollywood or pop music) classifies for being considered as art ? As expected, these situations are much worse in India. What we have now is a complete lack of democracy of art. Markets, in their conventional form, do not provide the required economic democracy for artists.

Can the brokers be dispensed with completely ? Can the audience patronize art directly ? The answer to these questions is "yes". In the current age, one need not be a king to patronize art. One can provide money directly to the artists of one's choice via the internet.

In fact, these type of donations have always been the means for sustenance for most of the artists during their budding stages. It is usually friends and fans who donate money so that the budding artists can pursue their interests. Most of the best work ever done by artists has been done in this stage, when they are independent of the wishes and whims of the mega-corporations.

What we need now is a new means of banking - a simple means of disseminating money to the artists. Like Google helps in searching for websites, a similar service is needed for transfering money by search. For people who do not have access to internet, a similar service could be provided at physical locations. This service can even deduct some charges for the transfer. If you want to be the next big internet millionaire, take my advice and start this service. This is going to be the next revolutionary thing after free email.

You might question me that this form of service will never raise as much money as done by recording companies. Maybe yes, but it will definitely raise sufficient money and provide immensely greater freedom for the artists.

What about making a movie such as the Lord of the Rings ? It would be impossible, right ? To sceptics of my economic model, I would like to counter this by relating the story of the biggest emblem of freedom - the statue of liberty. When the architects decided to build the statue, they realized they needed a lot of money. So. they did first build a part of the statue - the hand holding the torch. They put that piece up on a truck and showed it at several cities for fundraising. To their own surprise, they could raise the necessary funds much earlier than they expected to.

In fact, a similar thing does happen in the movie industry. First, a director has to build his credibility before attempting a mega movie. George Lucas had to prove himself with American Graffiti before he could dare mention about Star Wars (though he had written the script for Star Wars much earlier). Peter Jackson had to earn his credibility with a bunch of movies before he could broach about the Lord of the Rings.

What the new economic model would do is to connect the artists directly to the audience. Instead of courting a filthy rich power-broker in closed doors, the artist would directly court the public.

Irrespective of any viable new economic model, the existing model is bound to fail. With the reach of the internet, the mega-corporations can no longer control their assets from being pirated. No amount of digital rights management (DRM) will suffice. In the end, these corporations will be forced to demand a tax from the government to sustain their businesses. Ironically, these corporations will be soon demanding the socialist answer (centralized planning) to save their assets.

Instead, we can dispense with the mega-corporations altogether, thereby realizing the much cherished economic democracy of art.

3 comments:

Mischord said...

I saw a number of artists - singers, guitarists, saxophonists, drummers etc playing in the London Underground stations. Each one was fantastic. I had thoughts very similar to urs and cursed the human society which makes them pick pennies.

I think ur idea is wonderful. Extremely good. My concern is that a majority of these real artists may not be aware of the world of internet and their creations maybe easily stolen. Never the less, I think u've hit upon a great idea.

Ray Lightning said...

[As part of my email communication with Mischord and other friends]

... I understand the concern you have raised about the intellectual property of the budding artists. But I think it is not your problem. As a private company, you can do nothing to ensure this. This is primarily a legal issue. The mechanism for guarding IP rights that we have right now is through patents. As you might know, it has some problems in itself. My personal opinion is that - artists are becoming more aware of the Creative Commons license (and the importance of publishing their stuff along with the license). The internet provides them with a time stamp when the material is published, which will help them fight any legal battles if they face problems.

Secondly, you have to decouple the problem of marketing & sale of the contents. I was arguing about the inefficiency of the markets in the "sale" of artistic property. My business model concerns primarily with this aspect. You seem to be more concerned about the marketing bit. The internet currently provides free avenues of marketing for everyone. However, it is still a difficult problem to grab the spotlight. Primarily, your website/venture has to be already very popular if it has to provided any added value to the artists. Assuming that you have already built a reputation for being a connoiseur of music, I can suggest you an economic model of earning revenue. Demand a price from the artists for advertising on your website. Make your website free to all the audience. ...

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Akhil said...

That was a really nice read. Your idea sounds great. No wonder the old world media housed are finding it tough to survive in the new internet age.