The platform economy, rise of app stores, and commoditization of the Internet have disrupted, or even (re)invented many industries. New distribution models, global access, flexible payment options - we do business in very different ways than 20 or even 10 years ago. We (in the software craftsmanship community) discuss and analyze those changes all the time, but usually only from a commercial perspective. We rarely take a closer look at their implications on society and culture.

Wrongly so, as there's another silent disruption wave rolling over (mostly) unaware world of art(ists). The changes are inevitable, opportunities are massive, but as the recent public debate (in Poland: the one about so-called copyright levies - link) revealed that many of the artists are completely clueless and ignorant of the environment changing rapidly around them.

It's a huge mistake.

The history of art (in a nutshell)

Art was never truly democratized. Initially, in the vast majority of cases, it had to be consumed nearly 100% directly - you had to have direct access to the performing artist or at least her/his unique (and physical) creations. That was limiting, at least when it came to the most elitist, (presumably) the highest quality art. Being an average human being, what were your chances to experience live Mozart, Paganini, da Vinci, or even Shakespearean The Theatre? The availability of the greatest masterpieces of art was heavily limited by the scarcity of its creators and difficulties in duplication/(re-)distribution.

As a result, the highest quality art was available primarily for wealthy patrons - due to the concept of Maecenate (which takes its name from Gaius Maecenas - a living exemplification of that idea). There were exceptions, of course, many of them of sacral nature - the Catholic Church was a powerful (and very specific) patron as well.

Setting trends

What's really interesting, this regularity has prevailed over the ages, but its "direction" has changed by 180 degrees. Initially, the wealthy were attracting (and "collecting") the skillful and talented, so (in time) the money started dictating what the product of the highest skill and talent is: "if the House of Medici supports Donatello, they know what they are doing - Donatello has to be the best". In other words - the taste of the powerful was setting the fashion, trends, and quality norms for the masses. The few were dictating what is good and what is not.

And ... that was OK (for the time being).

An average art consumer needed help when navigating the scattered & complex world of art - (s)he was too busy making for a living to do her/his own research. Centuries were passing, but this model didn't change that much. Art became much more accessible (reproducible), but (typically) it was still distributed physically. Even the invention and popularization of the printing press did not mean that everyone could reach out for any book at any given moment, right?

The wealthy patrons got replaced (in time) by another sort of "art experts" - music and literary critics, respected academic figures, stars of the grand society (celebrities of the era), and other "authorities". This caste usurped the privilege of "knowing better" - having a better "taste", being able to recognize pearls among swine.  And the masses were grateful because they were told patiently and in simple words: what is good & attention-worthy and what is just a waste of time.

Ahh, I've omitted one interesting phenomenon (which will appear useful at some point of this consideration) - somehow on the way, the art has been divided into "high art" (most valuable, progressive, ambitious, and demanding - from both creators and consumers) and "plebeian art" (whatever makes "unsophisticated" folks happy).

And again - no one seemed to mind this dichotomy: there was space (and need) for both.

Yesterday ...

The relics of such a historic setup had a strong presence in our lives just a few years ago:

  • Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling the whole world what were the best movies (/actors/directors/...) of the year (by awarding them the prize named "Oscar")
  • Nobel Foundation announcing who is the best writer among the living (by awarding the Literature Nobel Prize)
  • zillions of other prizes, awards, and other opinionated reviews brought by the greatest "experts": Hugos, Pulitzers, Emmys, Nebulas, ...
  • global media moguls (music labels, publishing houses, etc.) who have the most to say on what's getting promoted and pushed to mainstream media
  • government-driven school curriculums inherited from the past eras - used to brainwash kids on which are the most outstanding masterpieces of literature

Until ...

Today

The rules of the game have changed. Completely.

The majority of what we used to call 'art' is now classified as the 'experience' business and available online (on the Internet). The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up this trend - the highly restricted physical interactions have been replaced with the digitalized (online) ones.

And those 'digital experiences' are far more democratized than their physical predecessors. Using a single device (your mobile phone), you can listen to virtually any song, read any book, watch any movie, etc. Logistics are not a problem anymore. Neither warehouse nor shelf capacity is a constraint. Scaling out doesn't require more effort from the artist. While global access keeps improving, the inertia has got reduced to nearly zero: global premieres are truly global and can literally happen within the same second across the whole globe.

Wait, there's more.

The patterns of communication have also changed completely. Every individual (artist or art consumer) can now reach much bigger audiences - asynchronously: without a requirement of having direct contact in both: given time and location.

Tomorrow

What are the consequences (that we already started to experience)?

  1. No one cares about the prizes of yesterday anymore. The 'experts' were trying to save their status by various populistic behaviors, but it was hopeless. And it made them look even more caricatural. Have you watched any movie recently because it has got awarded with Oscar? I thought so.
  2. The entry threshold to publish your creations has never been lower. It is now absolutely possible to roll your content out to the global audience and succeed w/o any media/publishing tycoons' support. It just has to be good (aka you need enough people interested).
  3. Platform economics feeds on sharing, virality, and social interactions (upvotes, likes, shares, endorsements) - sources of the 'positive network effects'. Apparently, no one needs the self-declared 'experts' anymore - they have been replaced with algorithms, clickstream aggregates, and social recommendations (at scale).
  4. There are fewer and fewer (valid) excuses for poor 'expert' judgments. Before, some highly esteemed pieces of art were not consumed at all because: "the book is out of print", "sellers save shelf space for popular kitsch",  "the circulations for high art are much smaller", etc. Now it's clear - people just don't care.
  5. Therefore, some forms of art can finally head over to a well-deserved eternal rest - without pretending it'll be a big loss. We can finally stop lying to ourselves that people still read poetry, enjoy opera or ballet. I mean: some still do (very few), but it doesn't mean we all have to support it. Fans of X have the fair choice whether they want to keep it on life support (with their own money) - another expensive hobby (or whim), like yachting.

The message I'm trying to pass here isn't really about "only the popular stuff is valuable". That's a statement I strongly disagree with (more about that here). My point is that we should stop fooling ourselves and start relying on raw facts:

  • art is subjective, perception of it is highly personal - no one has a mandate to declare what is "high" and what is "plebeian"
  • good art should always be able to stand for itself: reach (/build) interested audience, identify correct distribution channels(s), establish an adequate price - if it doesn't happen, there's something very wrong
  • subsidizing art (with public money) is pointless - like reanimating a lifeless corpse; art is supposed to give people joy and pleasure - paying (unsuccessful) "artists" to do something the no one cares about (reads/watches/listens to/...) is actually pretty cruel.

P.S. Yes, there are certainly many examples of currently recognized artists who were not appreciated by their generation(s) - but all for reasons that have been invalidated by the technology trends described in this blog post.

P.S.S. Some people claim that so-called 'cultural heritage' should be getting a different treatment (and dedicated financing) because it's a part of national identity and that we owe it to previous generations. I dare to disagree. Times change. We cannot pretend that the same means of expression that were effective and approachable in the XVIII or XIX century will remain so these days.