Several years ago, as a music student in college, I remember hearing constant complaints about “lack of funding for the arts.” Hardly a day would go by without a classmate or professor bemoaning the thin and fickle pockets of the bourgeoisie or Uncle Sam’s lack of artistic initiative.
Little did we know, a shake-up was already taking place, driven by a mysterious mix of newfound prosperity, entrepreneurial innovation, and the market forces behind it. The digital revolution was beginning to level the playing field and drain power from tanks and banks of all kinds, from the Hollywood execs with dollar signs in their eyes to the aesthetically enlightened cronies at the National Endowment for the Arts. Despite the many prophecies of a creative apocalypse, a bottom-up revolution was taking place.
Amid the sea of new technologies and tools that were soon to emerge — streaming music, streaming movies, ebook publishing — crowdfunding rose as a powerful path to creative independence: artistic, economic, and otherwise. Leading the pack is Kickstarter, with success stories abounding, from inventors to thespians to foodies to photographers, and with routine funding results that actually surpass the NEA.
As I’ve written in the past, such innovations offer further proof that markets have a mysterious way of checking their own excesses. In this case, markets have kept the creative sphere in motion, continuously seeking better ways to fund projects and locate quality.
During my college days, the complaint was that, outside the occasional graces of government funding, the only way to make a living in the “pure arts” — unadulterated by demons of consumerism — was at the hands of controlling bankers or philistine marketing gurus. Capitalism was perceived as an enemy to beauty and “true expression,” riddled with greed and empty of good taste.
And yet, it is markets that have only continued to empower artists and expand creative opportunity. Why? Because markets are full of free people and channeling “true expression” just so happens to be a core competency.
But Kickstarter’s latest move makes this thesis even more interesting and all the more compelling. Not content to serve as a run-of-the-mill technology company, the co-founders recently announced a certain embellishment of their priorities:
[The co-founders] announced on Sunday that Kickstarter was reincorporating as a “public benefit corporation,” a legal change they said would ensure that money — or the promise of it — would not corrupt their company’s mission of enabling creative projects to be funded.
“We don’t ever want to sell or go public,” said Mr. Strickler, Kickstarter’s chief executive. “That would push the company to make choices that we don’t think are in the best interest of the company.”
… Under the designation, companies must aim to do something that would aid the public (such as Kickstarter’s mission to “help bring creative projects to life”) and include that goal in their corporate charter. Board members must also take that public benefit into account when making decisions, and the company has to report on its social impact.
As to the actual impact of all this, time will tell, and it may be nothing more than smoke and mirrors and marketing hocus pocus. But at the very least, Kickstarter is signaling a complexity in their bottom line that artists ought to praise, and behind it lies more than pie-in-the-sky daydreaming or political rent-seeking. Based on the typical qualms of the artistic community, Kickstarter and its competitors are pursuing a pursuit of imagination that is economically possible, and it comes not from political power but from the hearts and sacrifices of actual people. Not only are these companies offering models where, by basic function, the artist has free reign (if they can sell it), but they are organizing their businesses around the value that promoting creativity matters at least as much as money.
This wouldn’t be necessary, mind you, for Kickstarter to maintain its position of empowering artistic independence. But it does say something in remarkable contrast to the common refrains about the nasty impact of free markets on the arts. Whether necessary or not, we are seeing more and more private companies pursue NEA-style values, minus the bloat, lack of accountability, and absence of human connection. As a result, artists will connect more closely with their patrons, and fewer will need to find leverage with the fat cats or purchase paintbrushes from the politburo.
Surely there’s a place in modern society for publicly funded art, just as there is a place for highly consumeristic pop music and low-brow drivel. But neither of these are suitable ideals for up-and-coming creatives.
At one point in history, we might simply have shrugged and asked, “What other options do we have?” Now, thanks to markets and their many economic actors who continue to pursue goodness and beauty, far better solutions are still come.