Arts Writing

Questioning Success: Reading and Thinking Together

By Bean Gilsdorf

William Deresiewicz’s latest book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, is a dry-eyed look at how the internet has shifted the conditions under which artists of all kinds (writers, musicians, visual artists) are attempting to make their work and live. Deresiewicz critiques the cultural narrative that anyone can be a professional artist now that the means of production are cheap and the internet functions as the ultimate tool of distribution. In particular, Chapter 13, “The Fourth Paradigm,” delves into Deresiewicz’s concept that the Web has created a marketplace that is unavoidable and inescapable: “When the market is everything, everything gets sucked into the market” (p. 250). Operating in this new marketplace creates a marketplace men-tality, to the extent that art becomes merely another cog in the wheels of commerce. To compete, an artist must appeal to her fans at all times; to grow and maintain an audience, her work must be consistent and recognizable, formulaic even — a brand. Success is defined entirely by the\ artist’s ability to sell her work, so the logic of commerce prevails. Finally, Deresiewicz argues, while the earlier paradigms of “artist,” “art worker,” and “entrepreneur” no longer apply, the bland descriptor “producer”— a quintessential market term — now encapsulates what the erstwhile artist has become.


This essay appeared in FIGURING, a publication of The Ford Family Foundation. The annual arts journal (shifting title as it progresses) is part of the program element CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS, led by the University of Oregon with partners Portland State University, The Cooley Gallery, Reed College; and PNCA at Willamette University.

The inaugural publication is dedicated to notions of “figuring,” that is, the processing of a moment to inform a position from which to act, the presentation of a form, or expression of a body. By holding space for both indeterminacy and latent form, Figuring conjures histories and possible futures, lived experiences, and propositions for ways that ethereal matter might exist concretely or be allowed to endure as defined by its own logic.