The notion that creative expression has value is not something that should be controversial. Throughout history, creativity has been rewarded in various ways, not all of them monetary, and none of them perfect. From patronage during the Renaissance to the guilds of the Middle Ages to the major label cartels to contemporary crowdfunding, artists have been the beneficiaries — and sometimes the victims — of myriad systems for recognition and recompense.
Some of the most vocal proponents of “artists’ rights” are increasingly focused on the idea of economic justice in the face of an allegedly predatory technology sector. But to my mind, this misses the more basic concept of vocational respect. At the end of the day, artists aren’t so different than “innovators” — for both, success or failure comes down to an idea, its execution and the ability to generate interest or capital around its expression.
And both camps are no strangers to ramen when woodshedding.
Of course, it’s easier to flip a startup than an artistic career. This is where commonalities in risk may diverge in reward. Our culture seems to glorify disruption in tech, but artists who don’t stick to their original script sometimes fare less well. (There are, of course, exceptions — some musicians, such as David Bowie, have cultivated loyalty while being creatively mercurial.)
We can argue all the livelong day about business models and whether the efficiencies afforded by digital technology have had a positive or a negative impact on the creative class. But that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue: our culture does not currently venerate artists as we venerate other entrepreneurs.
I’m tempted to say something like a society that doesn’t respect its creative classes is doomed, but I have no real evidence to support such a statement. A healthy arts sector certainly makes life more enjoyable, but then there is the issue of who gets to participate. There is little doubt in my mind that the advent of digital technology has made art more accessible to more people. But I’m not certain that this has produced a commensurate uptick in respect for creators.
Perhaps this is just a phenomenon of where the money flows. Ours is a highly capitalist society, and everybody loves a winner. Would we idolize sports stars to such an extent if they weren’t so ridiculously well-paid? Maybe we would.
Our cultural lens is probably distorted and our expectations out of whack across the board. Not every wunderkind coder will produce a Facebook. Most will struggle to get their pitches funded and, even if they do, they may never get anything off the ground. Of course, that may not be the point: some are only aiming to sell to a bigger technology company. This isn’t particularly innovative, unless you consider flipping real estate for profit to be a revolutionary act.
Incentives to innovation are likely different for everyone, creator or coder. People express themselves in a multiplicity of ways, and those who manage to do it well have typically put in their time. Respect for art — and I consider computation an art — helps establish a society that doesn’t just fetishize success for success’ sake. It reinforces the nobility of labor, whether your efforts produces breathtaking music or breathtaking code.