Kafka on Kickstarter: Crowdsourcing, Capitalism and Art

Seriously? People couldn’t have funded a Pushing Daisies movie, instead?

I never cared much for Veronica Mars, the much-lamented teen detective show which ran for three seasons before being infamously cancelled in 2007. I have friends who are very enthusiastic about it, but then again, I have friends who are very enthusiastic about that thing with the dragons and Sean Bean. I try not to judge, much.

Regardless, the revelation that Veronica Mars will soon return in the form of a feature film, financed by the show’s fans via a staggeringly successful Kickstarter campaign, is the latest noisy manifestation of crowdsourcing’s growing influence in the culture at large. This, along with a slew of other notable developments, has served as a catalyst for some uniquely difficult questions about art, commerce, lives and careers, and how they might all be nourished and sustained.

Now that the phenomenon is impossible to ignore, arguments — some half-baked, some long-simmering — have kicked off in earnest, often hysterically, particularly in the online world without which crowdsourcing would not be possible. To read the rising babble unfiltered, we are either living in the end times, or at the dawning of a golden age; aspiring artists should be enthused, terrified, hopeful and despondent — simultaneously, if possible. The ground is shifting beneath our feet, so it’s hardly surprising that a good deal of paranoia and uncertainty is in the air, especially while the debates grow in number, but solid, sound conclusions appear to be in short supply.

Still, first things first. Show-creator Rob Thomas and actress Kristin Bell raised (at last count) $3.8 million on Kickstarter for the Veronica Mars movie, and in the inevitable media blizzard which followed, two clamouring reactions were almost instantaneous. First, we were breathlessly informed by an overstimulated commentariat that this was a ‘game-changer’ — the kind of word used in marketing, a game that never changes — which could reorder the business of filmmaking and shake the studio system to its very bones. Secondly, questions almost immediately emerged as to whether a production still controlled by the iron fist of Warner Bros was really the kind of project crowdsourcing was intended for. Doesn’t footing the bill for the benefit of a multibillion dollar media conglomerate miss the point somewhat?

The collective worry that unifies such concerns is that corporations and similarly large-scale operators — that already have access to vast and enviable resources — will vampirically suck up the money and attention crowdsourcing offers, overshadowing all others with their high public profile and slick, nefarious tactics. I can sympathise with this suspicion, as I think I recognise where it originates; the gut feeling that, if we’re experimenting with brave new business models, then perhaps there should be one which provides opportunities to the undiscovered and the disadvantaged — the working poor of the arts — that is not available to more well-known, better-off creators. This is not, in itself, a bad notion.

Like many, I suspect, I wouldn’t mind such a reversed imbalance. But until someone codifies and enforces it, it’s naïve to assume that big names and big companies will ignore a new cash-flow when it presents itself. And anyone who believes that, because Veronica Mars was successfully funded, money was snatched from a Ukranian acid-jazz opera, or some similarly struggling venture… Well, we shall never know for sure, but that logic smells funny to me. People with simoleons to burn tend to seek out what they care about, or at least that which arouses their curiosity. The backers of Veronica Mars clearly care more about revisitng an old TV show than new, innovative, untested arts and entertainment. Fair enough, I suppose. It’s their money. But forgive me if I don’t view such folk as missed potential recruits in the war for a higher, grander culture.

What those who agonise over the potential exploitation of crowdsourcing seem to be looking for is a safeguard, mainly against themselves. But there’s only one way to guarantee small, independent arts projects in the Kickstarter arena are not ignored in favour of corporate behemoths: Get your eyes and your mind off Veronica Mars, or anything else like it, and actively seek out the new, the obscure and the worthwhile. As pleased as you may feel with yourself for boosting an idea that’s caught your fancy, you should always be aware of the responsibility that comes with such an investment. Congratulations: you are now responsible for shaping our culture in a very different way from the ordinary consumer. With your money, you are helping to choose what art does and does not get made. If Kickstarter becomes the place where studio-owned properties come to soak up free moolah, you will have no-one to blame but yourselves.

But in the meantime, while I understand pessimism — it’s a favourite hobby — I am baffled by the determination of some to think of every possible way that crowdsourcing could go wrong for the arts, despite the fact that the alternative is an old-school industry approach that has demonstrably failed in every important respect.

Some questions do remain though, and are worth asking: What does crowdsourcing mean for artists? What are its limits, or dangers? And where will it ultimately lead?

“Art is often raised on the back of wealth, and wealth is often raised on immorality.”

— Molly Crabapple, SXSW 2013

There’s no one quite like Amanda Palmer, singer-songwriter, empress of the zeitgeist and part-time goddess of the esoteric. No one is more aware of this than Palmer herself, and she modestly kept this in mind when, earlier this year, she took to the stage for a thoughtful and provocative TED lecture on ‘The Art of Asking’, the globe-spanning reaction to which arguably did just as much as Veronica Mars (if not more) to push discussion of crowdsourcing to the top of the cultural agenda.

More than simply producing art, Palmer has always understood that the artist’s role is to define how to be an artist. Her pioneering work in crowdsourcing has been well-documented. Theatre Is Evil, the most recent album of her current band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, was Kickstarted to the tune of $1.2 million by roughly 25,000 of her fans in June of last year. Perhaps more than any other artist, Palmer has experienced first-hand the unmapped labyrinth of practical difficulties and ethical quandries that faces the crowdsourced creator in the 21st century, and has made significant steps to addressing them.

“The media asked, ‘Amanda the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy — how do you make all these people pay for music?’ And the real answer is: I didn’t make them; I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.” Articulating a common (and often unspoken) fear, Palmer recognised that “it’s kind of counter-intuitive for a lot of artists. “They don’t want to ask for things… Asking makes you vulnerable.”

It’s important to note that Palmer is not offering the final word on crowdsourcing; she’s furthering a conversation that urgently requires continuation. Nevertheless, the sheer force of Palmer’s personality always triggers strong reactions, so up piped a tedious brigade of her regular critics, who remain fixated on the notion that Palmer’s own success has somehow disqualified from the kind of help which led to it.

Though the point of contention is similar, it would be ridiculous to compare an independent artist like Palmer with Veronica Mars’ corporate overlords. Nevertheless, there seems to be a widespread acceptance that there are some people who should not be asking for money… except nobody seems able to make clear who those people are, or what their specific disqualification is.

If you’re not couch-surfing, living off ramen noodles to the point of malnutrition and wanted by debt collection agencies armed with bolt-cutters, the general assumption seems to be that you are rich and feckless, and having no right to profit from other people’s innocent ‘charity’. Such a view betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the artist’s role, and preys on their self-doubt in the worst way. As Palmer argued, artists must not be afraid of asking.

Some decry crowdsourcing as ‘begging’, and believe that artists should feel demeaned by their participation in such an exercise. In my never-knowingly-humble opinon, those involved in the arts should be wary of letting others tell you what is demeaning; trust your gut, instead. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a section of society that does not particularly like young artists, or the philosophies by which they live, especially not in this strange economic aeon, and it’s not above using humiliation as a means of bleeding the battered dreams and ambitions from their carcasses.

Sam Raimi financed the Evil Dead by appealing to a consortium of dentists. Robert Rodríguez subsidised El Mariachi by signing up for experimental drug tests and surgical procedures. Can anyone honestly claim that these sound more dignified than appealing to the world’s generosity via the net?

In her TED lecture, Palmer also talked about the factor of celebrity, which is a separate but not unrelated discussion. Beyond simple vanity, celebrity is key to an artist’s success; occasionally it is given more a polite term like ‘visibility’ or ‘acclaim’, but it still boils down to how many people know you and like you, and what you are prepared to do to increase that number.

Speaking at the SXSW music conference in Texas in March, Palmer acknowledged that her intense relationship with her fanbase was not a universal model, nor will it be desirable to all artists: “My big concern, and it’s a legitimate concern, people bring it up and I don’t know the answer, in the age of the social artist and crowd-funding, what about PJ [Harvey]? Is she going to be OK if she’s not going to be able to robustly DIY it? Will she have the right team around her? Is it going to be a harder future for the artists who aren’t able to roll up their sleeves and do all this stuff that me and all my hyper-social friends are doing successfully? I don’t know.”

Also speaking at SXSW was the artist and writer Molly Crabapple, who spoke with the musician Kim Boekbinder on the panel ‘Hacking the Crowd: Artists as Entrepreneurs’. Crabapple, like Palmer, is one of crowdsourcing’s pioneers, having funded numerous art projects through Kickstarter, most recently Shell Game, which (rather ironically, for an exhibition of paintings themed around the global financial meltdown) raised $63,000, doubling its initial goal. Crabapple, one sometimes feels, revels in confusing superficial onlookers — a radical artist shouldn’t have a mercenary sensibility about their career, at least not openly. But as Crabapple put it, “as any strawberry picker can tell you, hard work and nothing else is a fast road to nowhere.”

Crabapple has no problem asking fans for financial assistance, because as anyone who has gruesome knowledge of the gallery system and its related parasites will know, the alternative is none too different: standing in front people in suits, asking for money. As she said at 2011’s Cusp Conference in Chicago, “The other thing that Week In Hell [another Kickstarter project of Crabapple’s] and other crowdfunded art projects are doing is they’re making art collecting an egalitarian endeavour. One of the big things that galleries have over individual artists is they have access to people with money. I don’t know people who can drop fifty thousand dollars…”

Crabapple also challenged those romantic conceptions of how an artist should conduct themselves (usually formulated by people who aren’t artists), and articulated why such engagement what necessary in an arena like crowdsourcing. “That sort of evil, internet-obsessed, constantly self-marketing career-bot thing is what allows you to do work without the constraints of dealing with an institutional client, or without the constraints of dealing with a museum or a corporation.”

“We all need money, but there are degrees of desperation.”

— Anthony Burgess

That the arguments of both Palmer and Crabapple have more merit that their largely silent industry opponents is by now so self-evident that it barely merits mention. However, the Kickstarter philosophy is not without holes that need to be accounted for.

First and foremost, Kickstarter is in the business of selling its countless backers the idea of something, and part of that is creators selling themselves. Palmer and Crabapple are two profound talents whose success is, if anything, less than they deserve, but they are also confident, canny and skilled in enticing us into the dream of their future work — dreams which they have a track record of fulfilling.

And yet, I am deeply suspicious of any set of circumstances in which artists are forced to assume a certain kind of character. I don’t like it, and I don’t believe it’s ever truly unavoidable. Must we all become experts at marketing? The art remains art, whether or not the artist smiles for the camera or makes a compelling presentation. And what if the artist is socially awkward, or desperately afraid of public interaction? It seems a little harsh to say, “Well, tough shit, kid — guess you should look for another line of work.” Franz Kafka did not excel at self promotion. Fernando Pessoa was so retiring, even he barely believed he existed. How would they fare if sent looking for investment?

I happen to believe that a novelist who chooses to spend their time doing nothing more than writing novels, punctuated by eating, sleeping and generally carrying on like a halfway-decent human being, is not a hopelessly self-indulgent crank. And so, more and more, I admire artists who shun an online presence, not just because I have a soft spot for misanthropy of almost all kinds, but because in this age, they are probably harming their own careers out of principle, and that’s not something you see much.

Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind that Kickstarter is a corporation, and as diligent readers may have detected, I don’t trust corporations. I am sufficiently grizzled enough to remember a cocky little entrepreneurial venture called Napster. While inducing worldwide handwringing over online piracy and much self-righteous posturing from both sides of the argument, Napster spent a few years quietly adding up the profits. Similarly, Kickstarter is not putting people and money together purely out of the goodness of its heart. Crowdsourcing is not, in principle, tarnished by this, but putting a revolutionary new business model in the hands of only a few companies seems to me like a recipe for trouble.

There’s no arguing with the end result: art is now being produced which, without crowdsourcing, would not have been, and I can’t see that as anything but a good thing. Unless someone Kickstarts a war (“Needed: $120,000,000 to invade Belgium.”), I have a hard time believing crowdsourcing effecting serious damage to our civilisation anytime soon. For all I know, the prophecies may be true and crowdsourcing may be the future of arts funding. But should it be the only one? And what option, or hope, is there for the artists who, for whatever reason, cannot thrive in battlefield of Kickstarter?

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”

— Woody Allen

Here’s a rarely acknowledged truth: almost all artists know, deep down, that there will never be enough. There will never be sufficient resources to gainfully employ all artists, to pay them for all their work, or to finance all their future endeavours. There is a limit. And truthfully, most of them are okay with that. Everyone has their own idea of a lazy artist, an unimaginative hack, a poor talent that ultimately does not deserve to receive rewards for their indefensible efforts. And naturally, when artists think of such people, they never include themselves. That is ego, and if I can think of one virtue of crowdsourcing to raise above all others, it is the fact that it encourages such an ego.

Crowdsourcing has created an ethos which says, we do not need the permission of a publisher, a record company, a studio or a bunch of people in suits. It says, we believe this art is worth creating. While I may dislike the dog-and-pony show that accompanies the act of selling oneself, the idea that the work is worth selling is something artists — and this mistreated generation in particular — badly needs.

Some would argue that this ego is the result of the insular, old-fashioned art world which seems to be disintegrating before our eyes: the awards, the grants, the self-regarding critical community, the ‘elite’ nature of the profession. But these are only distractions. The ego I mean is the one that convinces a guy who cannot afford to eat more than one meal a day that he will ultimately change the world, or the girl who has been told by absolutely everyone to give up, but won’t, because she knows that absolutely everyone else is wrong. It’s a hubristic lunacy, a meglomania, a God complex dressed in rags, and it’s more than a little ridiculous. It’s also the most vital piece of armour any artist can have. Humility can kill us all.

But of course, ego alone isn’t enough to get the job done. The equation runs something like this: art should not be concerned by money, as it would then no longer be motivated by purely artistic concerns. However, money allows the art to be made. Therefore, art — and artists — need money… in order to be unconcerned with it. If your head’s beginning to hurt, don’t worry, that’s normal.

Neither crowdsourcing, the old school approach of the ‘creative industries’, or state arts funding quite manages to deal with the question of art on purely artistic terms. They are all, in their own way, compromised. Populism will always run the risk of become a brutal, unfair, unfeeling contest for the attention of a fickle public. Capitalism will always be motivated by ugly, unashamed greed. And no one in their right mind wants their government telling artists what their next work should be, which is what state arts funding almost always becomes.

Despite all this, crowdsourcing did not emerge as an ascendent model because of such academic questions — it was born because the alternatives were drying up like tumbleweeds. While no one has yet suggested that crowdsourcing should pick up the slack for mutilated state arts programs, or for the social provisions unemployed, poverty-stricken artists might need to survive this bitter, grey age of ours, many of our governments have already seen fit to remove those safety nets — or at least move them so close to the ground, the fall will still kill you.

What can crowdsourcing offer an artist facing down the smoking ruins of a global economy ravaged by the New Austerity? At best, a disengagement with certain horrific aspects of the corporate-capitalist consensus, while at the same time providing a new means of survivial within the capitalist system. Crowdsourcing makes the best of a bad situation. The next step is to change that situation.

The argument can’t really be taken further than that — not without encompassing some far bigger issues. What people are really talking about, when they discuss new options and new ideas for financing art, is how to fix the capitalist system under which we live and such art is produced — how to make it fairer, easier, more full of opportunity and more supportive of the underdog. This is usually where I disengage from the argument.

Because you cannot ‘fix’ capitalism, in the same way you cannot ‘fix’ cancer. You cannot bargain with it or gain its sympathy. You can, if you are very, very lucky, overcome it. Or remove it entirely.

Art has learned to live with capitalism as a chronic condition, just as it found a way to survive, kind of, under Soviet communism, or feudalism before that. But there’s something wrong with this system, and it’s not you. It’s not any of us. We, however, are the ones of who will find something to replace it. Kickstarter is, at heart, a nice idea. We will need far more such ideas as time presses on. Any amount of strange or ingenious new business models for the creation of art can be thought up, but as long as we remain in a stranglehold of capitalist self-interest, there’s a limit to what Kickstarter or anyone else can do. So, crowdsourcing doesn’t solve the problem? Well, then what can?

To simply shrug that there is no answer, and continue as things are, is not only cowardly, not only a betrayal of everything we are capable of, but it is simply no longer tenable. The merry-go-round has broken down.

Art is the business of dreaming big, so dream of a world where the poorhouse does not loom like a shadow over every aspiring artist, and where every creative endeavour is not an act of taking your life in your hands. Dream of something better.