For millennia, societies have attempted to solve the problem of how to pay their artists, and for much of that history, this has been the province of the wealthy. At times, that power has belonged to institutions — the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, for instance, or arts foundations with large trusts — or of newly moneyed merchant classes, as in the Italian Renaissance. Governments use taxpayer dollars to fund public art, such as the Public Works of Art Project as part of FDR’s New Deal, or, say, Sesame Street. Over the past decade, however, that power has increasingly transferred to a radically different kind of curator: the algorithm.
Artists who make money on social media — and there is a growing number of them — rely on corporately owned platforms for exposure, for sponsorship deals, and for commissions. It’s no secret, though, that the vast majority don’t make enough to live on from their craft alone, be it fine art, music, filmmaking, writing, photography, dance, theater, or, if we’re willing to categorize the nebulous designation of “content creation” as an art form, influencing. Therein lies a problem: Artists and creators who are the most likely to succeed in this system are the ones with the most mass appeal, which, to an algorithm, likely means that they appeal to viewers’ basest, lowest common denominator impulses of what human beings want to look at. In short, the kind of art that algorithms pick for us usually isn’t very good.
So what’s a society to do? Kate Compton, a futurist and computer science professor at Northwestern University, posited a solution earlier this summer: “Someone with a FAANG [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google] salary could literally commission their own opera once per year, so we should do that,” she began in a now-viral Twitter thread. “The Renaissance was a notable cultural era not because of good marble or new paint but because a bunch of newly-rich Florentine wool merchants discovered Spite Patronage” (more on that in a minute).
The idea that the wealthy can and should fund the arts is not new. What is new is the sheer number of wealthy people we have. The US has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality of all developed nations; it has more billionaires than any other (735 of them), a class that added $5 trillion to its wealth — more than the previous 14 years combined — during the first 18 months of the pandemic. The donor class, or ultra one percenters who spend a sizable portion of their income in donations to philanthropic and arts foundations (and often receive massive tax benefits in the process), is growing, and with a political system that seems unlikely to successfully levy meaningful new taxes on billionaires, the least that rich people can do is spend some of it on things that are not superyachts.
Many people, ultrarich or otherwise, already do this. In fact, in exposing so many people to each other in such a short period of time, social media and merchant platforms like Etsy have allowed many designers, painters, and other craftspeople to make a living by selling their wares to their followers. But while older wealthy people have long histories of donating to big arts endowments that do the legwork of finding artists to grant money for them, it’s easy to imagine newly rich millennial and Gen Z tech and finance workers opting for flashier ways to support the arts: Their name listed as an executive producer on a film or play, or the ability to shape the art itself.
Perhaps Compton’s most compelling point is that there is a long history of what she calls “spite patronage,” or rich people paying for works of art that flatter them in comparison to their professional nemeses. The art doesn’t even have to be all that innovative or meaningful in itself, it just has to be seen and displayed. “One issue is that y’all degenerates *are* paying for full body furry commissions (good for you!) but keeping it private. That’s no way to create cultural impact,” she writes. “Rent a gallery and host an art show; buy a chapel and have them paint a ceiling; sculpt it in marble on your mausoleum. Rich people realizing that Great Artists can be rented for pennies + proudly displaying both revenge and cringe commissions = world-changing art movement.”
There are some obvious downsides here. For one, it’s never a good sign when a society relies on the ultrarich to shoulder a responsibility better suited for an institution that answers to its citizens (like, say, the government). Unfortunately, one of the aftereffects of 40 years of tax breaks for corporations and government budget cuts is that right now, we do. As my colleague Whizy Kim argues, tech billionaires have helped to elect Joe Biden in the name of democracy, and have the potential ability to do the same for abortion rights. Second, for artists without an agent or manager to handle business dealings for them, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where they’re paid unfairly or otherwise exploited by the inherent power dynamic at play.
But I’d also argue that wealthy arts patrons could commission art that is at least slightly more interesting than what an algorithm might surface, while also giving artists more freedom to create works that don’t necessarily cater to social media platforms’ demands. “The winner-take-all dynamics of this algorithmically optimized stream will generate a few winners — superstar influencers whose every post will be served to millions of users,” writes Cal Newport in his piece on whether the internet can support creative work with the “1,000 True Fans” theory.
He’s talking about content creators, or the 7.1 million Americans who earned money on social media platforms in 2021. This increasingly crowded field — it is at least three times more than the number of artists or lawyers or doctors or farmers or military members, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — can’t survive if it continues to rely on, say, $5 monthly donations from Patreon subscriptions or small-time brand deals. And if creators keep having to bend their content to what the algorithm demands of them, no one’s going to want to pay for it anyway. As the mother of Don Draper’s second wife tells her in season five of Mad Men: “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world couldn’t support that many ballerinas.”
By creating a culture of commissions en masse among wealthy young people, perhaps it could — or at least it could widen the pool of artists making livable wages. Inequality is terrible, inflation is bad, and whether or not we’re due for a recession, it certainly feels like we are. But there are winners in this economy, and for now, one way the creatively inclined have-nots can use it to our advantage is by bullying our rich friends into funding some weird art. Plus, imagine being some rich guy and having the option to commission an off-Broadway show about literally anything you want, whenever you want! Imagine not doing that!
This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.