Book Review: The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz

A Book Review by Steven Assarian, Business and Career Librarian 

Everyone understands, on some level, that it’s hard to be an artist. It’s hard to write, it’s hard to paint, it’s hard to make music. It’s even harder to make things people want and make a living at it. That’s always been true. 

But few of us understand just how hard it is to be an artist today. 

Before I read The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz, I certainly didn’t. 

In this book, Deresiewicz takes a critical eye to the modern arts economy and finds that we live in an era where the ‘success’ of an artist has been uncoupled from artists making a living. That is, an artist could be a wild success by most metrics, creating work enjoyed by millions, yet still not make a living at their art. All dreams of the tech revolution of the past 30 years - that, thanks to the Internet, artists would finally be free of gatekeepers - were a mirage. 

Deresiewicz does not call for a rollback to the ‘good old days’ of the past because the ‘good old days’ were anything but. An artistic landscape of labels, studios, and the ever present ‘suits’ wasn’t ideal. Artists never liked that system, because it can often lead to exploitation, interference, and yes, poverty. 

But the system we’ve built in its place isn’t good either. It’s easy to ‘get stuff out there’, and the companies that help you ‘get stuff out there’ make money, but the people creating the ‘stuff’ struggle ever-harder to survive. As a result, fewer people are able to make a living at art. The arts have fewer professionals, and, in Deresiewicz’s mind, art gets worse.  

This book is worth its weight in gold, if only because Deresiewicz does an excellent job of actually talking to artists. His writing reminds me a bit of Studs Terkel that way: instead of the stories of artists that have ‘made it’, Deresiewicz finds the middle class of artists that are not wealthy, that can’t command power and prestige, but are still skilled professionals. He relies heavily on interviews that present unvarnished truth in all its complexity. 

And the unvarnished truth is… not great. 

There are stories here of ‘successful’ artists who are struggling, cannot afford anything comparable to a middle class life, and are burdened with massive amounts of student debt. They frequently question if they’ll ever have stable housing and families, or if they shouldn’t quit the arts entirely. 

Monopoly and consolidation play a huge part in this story, and the artists Deresiewicz interviews know it. It’s not only in publishing, where the heavyweights are consolidating just to survive in an Amazon-dominated world. It’s also in music (read: Spotify) and even in the fine arts like painting or dance. 

What does all this mean for us? After all, we’re awash in good art. We can access it at any time, extremely cheap or free. But an argument that Deresiewcz makes, which I found compelling, is when we’re supporting an artist - say, buying an album, book, or painting - we’re not just spending money on the thing itself. We’re buying the next thing. By supporting artists, we give them the financial support to keep going, to take risks, and create their next piece of art. It made me wonder what kind of art we’re giving up in order to have cheap or free (to us) art in the here and now. 

Deresiewcz makes an excellent argument that when paychecks shrink, so do our creative horizons. And it’s a price we don’t even know we’re paying.

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