Finding Value in a Flattened FieldAugust 11, 2015
The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.
In this late-capitalist era, in which content circulates frictionlessly through digital conduits, the influence of our words is changing. Their value is now less about where they appear (in this publication or that), and more about how far they travel, and how long they persist. Likewise, even though artistic merit has always been quantitatively measurable in some capacity, now those measures are more proximate and immediately visible. Gone is the slow path from obscurity to renown, when an artwork could accumulate a mossy layer of critical appraisal, or the length and location of its provenance could obscure the machinations of market forces. Nowadays, esteem is measured by hits and followers, and the velocity of their accumulation.
In many ways, the question of how quickly an article goes viral is the same as how much an artwork sells for at auction: both are numerical assessments that now supersede other descriptors. (Which movement will characterize early-21st-century art more readily: Post-Internet art or Record-Breaking Sales?) We’ve acclimated ourselves to our reflections in the glossy sheen the current quantifiers have created and the speed with which they fade. Perversely, the more explicitly we can tally our influence, the less we value exposure, ascribing reach to momentum as much as to merit. And, cognizant that our words or objects or actions can drop quickly from view, we’ve become less invested in the full lifespan of an article or artwork. We don’t need to see something all the way through; we just have to keep churning out more.
There is a direct correlation between the current quantifiers measuring influence and prevailing perspectives governing compensation for artistic labor.
There is a direct correlation between the current quantifiers measuring influence and prevailing perspectives governing compensation for artistic labor. It is not accidental that one of our most widely trafficked features, Aruna D’Souza’s “Dying of Exposure,” explains her rationale to stop writing, lecturing, et cetera, for free. Artists must get paid; writers must get paid. But while previously, one could still ascribe value to unpaid commissions if other conditions were met, nowadays we look askance at the promise of such fringe benefits—look down on it, even—as we are fully aware of the extent that influence is subjected to the vagaries of algorithms. As the advantage of “visibility” becomes more and more dubious, compensation becomes our most concrete assurance of value. And so we rightly seek it.
But apart from the spikes that mark the rush to one article or another, the digital publishing landscape is flat—flattened, actually, by the very attributes of the medium that enables content to circulate so quickly and widely. Website design now prioritizes accommodating the size and format of your device (mobile, tablet, laptop). And considering the innumerable ways one can access content through vehicles other than their point of origin, one can even make the broad-stroke assertion that visually and experientially, publications are interchangeable in the digital realm.
This complicates the issue of compensation, insofar as the medium’s homogeneity can inadvertently neutralize conceptual intent. When independent, mission-driven publication projects (such as this one) employ the same platforms and modes of engagement as profit-driven media corporations, seeking the same kinds of circulation and behavioral responses, we risk losing the visible distinctions that signal the specificity of the audiences we serve and our responsiveness to their needs. And the amount or means by which we compensate writers is evaluated in this flattened field, exacerbating the precarity of functioning as a nonprofit in a field where there is little profit to begin with.
We, like many of our peer publications, were established on utopian principles of dialogue, self-determination, and collaboration.
In the editorial “The Free and the Antifree” in issue 20 of n+1, “Survival,” the editors succinctly outline certain shifts in economies governing cultural production by which we now vilify the companies and institutions that traffic in unpaid labor. They note that the greatest ire seems reserved for the smaller, less lucrative publishers who operate independently of corporate affiliations. Speaking from experience, Daily Serving and Art Practical weren’t conceived as vehicles to generate and compensate labor because those objectives usually serve the larger one to generate an excess of capital. Instead we, like many of our peer publications, were established on utopian principles of dialogue, self-determination, and collaboration. Our contributors, subjects, and readers are frequently interchangeable. We are also, however, deemed unlikely to survive the transition from project to enterprise, or at least to make that transformation while retaining our utopian credo. The aforementioned ire is present, I believe, because publications like ours too starkly represent how starved our cultural economy is. Peeling back the glossy digital veneer, we articulate and reflect the vulnerability that an entire community of artists and writers shares in the quest to survive.
Compensation serves at least two purposes beyond the immediate value that publishers place on work and grant to their producers. First, art publications and their writers are interdependent entities within a cultural ecosystem. Recognizing the ethics of fair compensation for writers or artists means recognizing how that compensation contributes to the health and sustainability of the ecosystem. Second, expectations for fair compensation will—they have already—enact a shift by which sustainability is incorporated into the mission statement of projects such as ours that seek to serve artists, writers, and cultural producers.
The second is an obvious point, but it begets a series of more nuanced ones. It is challenging to align the means by which we feed the conceptual framework and mission of our organization against the needs of its infrastructure. It requires placing intention adjacent to cost, implicating transactional analysis of conceptual objectives. That is fraught territory. I’ve realized of late that in the drive toward sustainability in which each participant receives (fair, then decent, then worthy) payment for their work, there is a tipping point at which collaborators and contributors become contractors, participants moving steadily away from supporting a shared ideological position to underwriting personal motivations. In the shift that happens when a writer stops working with the publication and starts working for the publication, how do we continue to exercise our beliefs in collective action and authoring our own histories?
What we publish is meaningful now to artists and their galleries, and to our writers and their readers, in ways that we can anticipate.
The pleasure derived from spikes in traffic notwithstanding, I believe each article we publish aspires to a subsequent cycle of influence once it leaves the landing page and enters the archive, which is our collective contribution to a (short- or long-view) historical perspective on the local contemporary art scenes. What we publish is meaningful now to artists and their galleries, and to our writers and their readers, in ways that we can anticipate. But at some future point, it will be meaningful to scholars and students, curators and audiences, in ways we can’t. Much of the teaching work that I do in the classroom is about encouraging students to think about how to conceive their audiences and undertake the hard work needed to reach them, again and again and again, measuring this beyond the current system of metrics, and imagining a future reader who has no direct access to the artists, work, or places they describe.
Our efforts for sustainability, therefore, are twofold: there is the funding we need in order to pay writers (and keep paying them), and then there is the infrastructure required to promote, preserve, and perpetuate their efforts. In the fundraising efforts we’ve undertaken in the past months, it has been much simpler to ask for support for the former than the latter—meaning, to ask people to fund a writer they know rather than a hypothetical audience they don’t. But it is in the latter goal that our mission and operational logistics most closely align. And it is the means by which we might shift the conversation away from a dichotomous valuation of paid versus unpaid, which results in publications such as ours combating accusations of exploiting the very people we want to serve, and toward a more holistic accounting of the work we do. It replaces the evaluation that begins and ends with compensation with a negotiation that acknowledges the needs and assets of each participant.
The commitment to paying contributors, then, must be acknowledged as only the most visible link in a long chain of interlocking, concrete exchanges distributed throughout the ecosystem. Paying a writer or artist is not a unidirectional transaction; it is part of a public health policy. We cannot perceive artistic compensation as an end goal abstracted from the strata of support that precipitate that payment. We need to reinforce the infrastructure that enacts that labor. I believe this is what Orit Gat was driving toward when she asserted in a Rhizome opinion piece, “The more the internet veers toward paid models, the better off we’ll be.” It’s not just that we’ll get better criticism if writers are compensated both financially and in less tangible ways. We’ll also have a stronger cultural ecosystem, one in which our exchanges will have more weight and therefore more resistance to the evaporative nature of digital media. Those exchanges will move more deliberately; their acceleration will slow. If, through our fundraising efforts, we’re answering the question, How do we pay our writers? we’ve only begun to ask the question, How do we measure the value of our writing? We know its costs; now we must discover how to determine its worth.
How do we pay our writers? Through your support of our Writers Fund.
Patricia Maloney is the founder of Art Practical, the Executive Director of DSAP, and Associate Professor in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts.