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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Role & Importance of Patronage for the Arts in a Post-Revenue Media World

Barring, perhaps, Jiroemon Kimura, the world's oldest living man, born in Kyoto, Japan in April, 1897 and maybe, just maybe, a dozen (or less) other people still walking (or crawling) the face of the earth today, no one that is reading this blog entry right now has any, real, first-hand experience with regard to what our world was like before the advent and mass-distribution of recorded music, starting with the Edison Phonographic Wax Cylinders of 1888 that were soon triumphed by disc recordings, beginning with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901 that would, almost immediately, go on to replace, nearly entirely, the way that people discovered, listened to and "consumed" music, while in the process, morphing music from what it had been for many thousands of years before; a collective and directly-experienced discipline of performance art, into a simple, safe and sanitary trading commodity with monetary value placed upon it according to its physical scarcity - the "law" of "supply and demand". Those days are now over.

Now, in this, the 21st century, with the near-total digitization of information in nearly all of its available forms and its theoretical "immortality" and resultant "worthlessness" in this relatively new and ephemeral concept known as, "the internet", which includes music, film, text, etc. (which are all, at their core, nothing more than "information") the concept of "scarcity" is now non-existent. There is no longer such a thing as "scarcity", in terms of information alone.  The information itself contained within a physical representation of a piece of music, literature, film, or what have you, in the form of a shiny piece of plastic or a stack of paper, in terms of currency, is now, monetarily speaking, nearly worthless. The physical object in and of itself, of course, possesses something more akin to a fetishistic value. However, even that idea of physical scarcity is now somewhat debatable, if one puts into consideration that just about any physical representation or "delivery system" of information, such as a CD or a book, can now be produced under terms of being "print on demand".

The actual intellectual "content" embedded into a physical delivery system in and of itself has a value relative only to its consumer, which means that the monetary value that can be placed upon a piece of intellectual property is now, by and large, a totally democratic decision. It is now up to the "consumer" to decide, maybe ultimately not the long-term "cultural value" of information, but quite definitely the monetary value of information.  

Therefore, speculative monetary value, within the bounds and rules of operation of this, what is essentially a sociological game known as "capitalism", is now holding less and less influence upon what type of content the vast majority or artists (despite what mass-communication outlets may intend to lead one to believe) are producing as time passes by, because the possibility of any real, substantial monetary gain, in terms of "units sold", for an artist's efforts is now basically, these days, negligible. And this, I feel, in more ways than not, is a positive shift.

We artists are no longer bound to fulfilling the expectations of a commercial sponsor or a consumerist public in order to "make a living", because the possibility of "making a living" from the fulfillment of a consumerist public or the honoring of a commercially-contracted sponsor is now a near-impossibility anyhow. It is a goal that is no longer, for us, worth striving for, which is only one reason why we have, absolutely now more than ever, such a wide variety of art, music, literature, etc. But that is not to say, with the possible inclusion of the author's work as well, that all of it is "good" - whatever that may mean.

Most of our cultural artifacts, if someone were to put the suggestion before me, I would agree are garbage - nothing more than desperate attempts by marketing & advertising firms who are hired by corporate interests to construct "pop-culture icons" in order to use them as singing and dancing billboards to spread the gospel of Coca-Cola, Apple, etc. - making paltry and blatantly pandering appeals to the lowest common denominator of a populace to sell their products and to cull the masses underneath an umbrella of homogeny, in order to streamline their marketing campaigns. This is where, I feel, we may be able to, finally, draw the line between the "artist" and the "entertainer". That is not to say that one is more or less "valuable" than the other. That is, simply to say, that these two "entities" do not, necessarily, occupy the same cultural role. And, I feel, that for most of the 20th century, the two were viewed as, roughly, the same thing - with the "musical entertainer" representing the general idea of what is means to achieve "success" and the "musical artist" representing the general idea of person who tries to achieve, roughly, that same level of "success"  that seems to radiate from the "musical entertainer", but always manages to fall short because he or she is, perhaps, "ahead of his or her time", or what have you, without considering that, maybe, the "musical artist" isn't particularly interested in simply entertaining, or manipulating his or her audience into taking part in a marketing agenda. The "musical artist" is, most often, more motivated in making and sharing something with his or her audience out of the joy and celebration of creativity, rather than by the motivation of what sort of "content" is most likely to generate, for example, the most advertising impressions from Google AdWords or the highest possible "Click Through Rates" through paid Facebook advertising campaigns.

If we allow the bulk of our creative output as human beings (not just as "artists") to be dictated by and reliant upon the algorithmic trends of social networking websites and search engines as a last-ditch effort to generate revenue for ourselves, since the sale of physical media is quickly approaching extinction and the value of media in its non-tangible form, in and of itself, being something of a matter of democratic-taste, we will be generating nothing but disposable, toothless and innocuous"entertainment" to be piled up upon the ever-growing heap of forgotten whims and memes.

This is why patronage of the arts is so important today. None of this is a new idea. If anything, the commercial sale of music and media is, relatively speaking, a new idea. For several hundreds of years before the late 19th century, musicians and artisans of all disciplines produced and performed their work in exchange for what people refer to today as, for lack of a better word, "donations" and various other gestures of patronage. As a matter of fact, to give a concrete example of patronage-system precedence, one of the most "important" figures in the history of music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who lived and worked less than five miles away from where I am writing this in my own home right now, was an absolute product of the patronage system under Joseph II (brother of Marie Antoinette) and others - writing, for example, "Don Giovanni", "The Magic Flute", "The Marriage of Figaro". I would like to showcase just this one example, among many, of how successful the patronage system can be to the many critics (and fellow musicians) among us who believe that this is an un-workable model.

I feel much more at ease placing my faith in my listeners, peers and friends as a pool of creative support than I do placing my artistic integrity up for grabs to the highest bidder (which is never often much of a "big spender" in the first place) in the world of audience pandering and anonymous, robot and spider-driven advertising.

- Justin Curfman, April, 22, 2013 - Salzburg, Österreich                                         

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