The Industrialization of the Arts

26 May 2011


One indication that the Industrial Revolution was (and continues to be) a genuine revolution has been its ability to transform every aspect of our lives. I have written extensively about the nature of industrialized society, as well as more specifically about industrialized warfare, industrialized space and time, and other ways in which industrialization has transformed every detail of life.

The arts are among those aspects of life transformed by industrialization. The arts are now industries. There is a music industry, and a theater industry, and entire industries that came into being as a result of the technological innovations of industrialization, like the film industry and the video game industry. There is actually a National Arts Index that attempts to quantify and track the health of the “arts industry” by following a large number of indicators, none of which have to do with excellence and all of which have to do with publishing numbers, attendance numbers, charitable contribution numbers, number of “artists” employed in the industry, and so forth.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many bad films made and so many bad novels written? They are products of an industry, rather than products of inspiration. It is very expensive to produce a film. The investment required may be 25 million, or 100 million, or even 400 million dollars. Very few investors can come up with that kind of money. When they do come up with that kind of money, they want a return as certain as if they bought bonds at six percent per year. And so risk averse executives in the industry dust off old television sitcoms and have hack writers (usually a dozen of them) turn this proven “successful” material into a film. Does anyone even need to wonder why the result is so dismal?

Of course, everyone has heard of Adorno’s critique of “commodity music,” which in his time was Jazz, but it is not only music: there is commodity painting and commodity drawing and commodity sculpture and commodity ballet. Indeed, since the arts are now an industry, what the arts produce — be that a material object or a performance — are all, by definition, commodities, and it is the nature of a commodity to be sold in an arm’s length transaction in which the parties are dealing from equal bargaining positions, neither party is subject to the other’s control or dominant influence, and the transaction is treated with fairness, integrity and legality. To cover this more comprehensive concept Adorno referred to the culture industry.

A few days ago, on my other blog at Tumblr, in A Pop Culture Exposition of Constructivism, I mentioned how much I hate the pretense of “writer’s block,” i.e., of people who claim to be writers but who have nothing to say. Perhaps I am being a little rough on writers whose inspiration has failed them, as there are admittedly a few writers who have written some excellent material and then find it difficult to follow up on this success. One of the reasons for this is the industrialization of literary production.

A writer who writes a beautiful work from the heart, the merits of which are then recognized by the industry and the public, has his work published and then is taken into the industry as part of its production process (perhaps with greater status than a book cover designer, but probably much less status than an editor). He then has a book contract, and attempts to write-to-order instead of writing from the heart. So he finds himself sitting around, waiting for inspiration that happens to coincide with his contract.

This is no way to supplicate the Muses. Inspiration comes when it comes, and it comes in whatever form it comes. Inspiration is not obedient to the will, and is not obedient to a book contract. And so the hapless writer, accustomed to writing from the heart (penniless, but at least inspired), attempts to write from the head and finds himself a failure. No big surprise there.

Inspiration and its Muses must be free. In my own personal case, I find that the smallest thing can inhibit creativity. For example, sometimes I buy myself a “nice” notebook in which to take down ideas, but I find that I then wait for “good” ideas and I tend to write down all the ideas that happen to come to me in the cheap notebook that I carry around in my pocket wherever I go. Sometimes I then buy a better notebook for my pocket, and then I catch myself out writing down scraps of ideas on scraps of paper. Partly this is because I am as tight as tick, but partly this is also because any inhibition — including the inhibition of using up good quality supplies — can bring productivity to a halt. And the important thing here is that those scraps of ideas eventually evolve into something more significant.

I know that I am not entirely alone in my method of writing down any idea that comes to me in a notebook that I always carry, since I found this beautifully expressed in The Way of All Flesh:

“He did not understand that if he waited and listened and observed, another idea of some kind would probably occur to him some day, and that the development of this would in its turn suggest still further ones. He did not yet know that the very worst way of getting hold of ideas is to go hunting expressly after them. The way to get them is to study something of which one is fond, and to note down whatever crosses one’s mind in reference to it, either during study or relaxation, in a little notebook kept always in the waistcoat pocket.”

This has been precisely my experience, and I have never seen it better expressed than in Samuel Butler’s wonderful novel.

Reliance upon the Muses, unsystematic working methods, and following one’s inspiration wherever it happens to lead are methods (or, rather, non-methods) that belong to The Heroic Conception of Civilization, and which are difficult in the extreme to accommodate within the institutional structures of industrialized civilization.

The true artist is necessarily uncomfortable with the compromises forced upon his art by the institutions of industrialized society. He may accept them as necessary compromises, he may rail against them, or he may drop out of the industry and pursue his art in splendid (and unprofitable) solitude, but whatever position he adopts vis-à-vis the arts industry he knows to be a compromise, because this “industry,” such as it is, is invidious to the very task, the very heart, of the greatness that makes true art possible.

There is, however, another creature who flourishes in the arts industry, and this is not the artist, but the auteur. The auteur always has a “game.” Like a slick pick-up artist, he never forgets why he is in the industry, and the the reason is to “score.” However, what the auteur seeks to pick up are patrons, and what he seeks to score is cold cash. The auteur has both been created by and has in turn created the arts industry. He might have been a plumber or a dentist, as he has no more calling for the arts than for plumbing or dentistry, but he has found that he has a talent for making money in the culture industry.

What does the culture industry produce? Kitsch. Sometimes this kitsch is packaged as though it were High Art, but then again packaging is central to the culture industry, as is marketing, both of which work together to sell mediocre works to the mediocre masses. Think of the dismal films mentioned above: the investor may well know how dismal they are, but he cannot for that reason abandon his investment. So the dismal product of the culture industry is packaged and marketed. As much money is poured into the design of the move posters and its saturation promotion in all media (which today not only includes television and radio but also the internet, paid bloggers, and made-to-order “social” media). Heavy promotion can do the trick until word-of-mouth gets around, so if you can open on 2,000 screens you might make back your investment in the opening weekend.

It is the industrialization of the arts that is largely responsible for making the very ideal of higher civilization almost incomprehensible to us today. However, we cannot single out this development, because, as noted in the opening of this rant, the Industrial Revolution is precisely a revolution because it has transformed every aspect of life. We cannot meaningfully separate the industrialization of the arts from the industrialization of any other aspect of society.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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