The Artist Endures

American creators are embracing the ideals and practices of craftsmanship—but that’s less of a break from tradition than a return to it.

A scene from Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, as staged at the Metropolitan Opera in fall 2013 (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Something is changing in the arts—now there’s a thesis we can all get behind. Perhaps you believe that video games will be the defining art form of the 21st century. Or maybe the widespread propagation of networked tools for writing and photography signals some incoming era. Or maybe what thrills you to the moment is a specific school ascendant—Nigerian fiction, or Brazilian sculpture, or Inuit throat boxing, or progressive clawhammer banjo, or, or, or—the list goes on.

But something is definitely changing. William Deresiewicz’s new essay in the most recent edition of The Atlantic talks of an epochal change. The concept of the Artist, he writes, is dying, replaced by that of the “creator.” Creators are not like artists: They are dilettantes, studying crafts of skill instead of disciplines of inspiration. They’re not collaborators in a scene but economic agents in a network. They’re also almost all (it’s implied) young.

A bold provocation—and, I think, a half-wrong one. A great change is taking hold in popular American understanding of the arts, and it has altered how artists and artisans understand their role and their work. But Deresiewicz perceives this shift through the ahistorical gloom of the mortal Boomer, and moans about phenomena which he should merely mark.

In other words: Clad in the rumpled weariness of the intellectual historian, Deresiewicz has actually written a Millennial thinkpiece.

So many of the essential components are there. There’s the blinkered interpretation of the Internet, which must be depicted always as something uninteresting and shallow. For instance, Deresiewicz notices that most artists now have websites. And because artists, not their individual works, tend to get these websites, he points out that (to paraphrase a thousand social media marketers) these sites often sell the artist’s brand:

Among the most notable things about those Web sites that creators now all feel compelled to have is that they tend to present not only the work, not only the creator (which is interesting enough as a cultural fact), but also the creator’s life or lifestyle or process. The customer is being sold, or at least sold on or sold through, a vicarious experience of production.

Yes, that’s right: These websites are more than a measly list of works. They have the impertinence to provide a short biography, too. And what’s more, having rented a domain name and server space, these creators have the gall to blog.

I kid. There’s nuanced stuff happening in the adoption of artist websites. Framing artistic output through the lens of a personal website does give artists a place to present their careers. Does that mean some people vainly spend more time thinking about the arc of their lives—as @TacoBell would put it, the story of their brand—instead of their work? Maybe, probably. But not all of them do. Some people just want websites.

Notice, too, the conflation of economic necessity with cultural preference—another key attribute of the Millennial thinkpiece. Artists “now all feel compelled” to have websites; that is, they’re not actually compelled. But any realistic assessment must conclude that they are compelled. If someone googles your name so that they can exhibit your paintings or commission your composition, or just because they want to learn more, wouldn’t you prefer they find a website that’s yours? Anything else would be obscurantist, itself an artistic decision about personal performance.

Perhaps this is unforgiving. Deresiewicz is often sympathetic to how the market has shaped the attitudes of the people who have to function inside it. But it’s little things like that—that small sneer in “all feel compelled”—that confuse me. After all, Deresiewicz has a website, too.

What’s more, websites aren’t all about personal branding. They make artistic output available to people who never would have had the chance to see them. They expand access. I am ready to accept this as a tension of the 2010s Internet as cultural force: It gives us personal brands and widespread access, it makes it possible both for companies (and artists) alike to perform themselves in public and for interested folks beyond the great cities to find work from the avant garde.

These same tendencies—unclever disdain for the Internet, economic compulsion presented as cultural preference—seep through elsewhere. “The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking,” he says. “Coleridge, for Wordsworth, was not a contact; he was a partner, a comrade, a second self.”

Network and networking, I agree, are at least as interrelated as ambling and ambulance. And the latter point I can only cede: I too lament that so few modern-day relationships equal one of the supreme friendships of English literary history.

But these are digressions. Deresiewicz’s real assessment comes in his critique of the creative entrepreneur: the personage whom he believes is supplanting the artist in our nation’s ivory garrets and attic towers. These new “creatives” are dilettantes, and what they lack in depth that make up for with a breadth of skills. These creatives sell atomized pieces of entertainment, not individual works of art. They are, in fact, artisans, and to them an artisanal poem is little different than an artisanal pickle. Both, after all, required creativity.

His reading suffers a tremendous flaw: Deresiewicz cannot discriminate the substantial from the faddish. What’s more, his historical work is incomplete—he mistakes a very new idea for a very old one. Deresiewicz’s artistic philosophy aspires to timelessness, but it’s younger than most of his Millennial subjects.

His hypothesis requires us to accept some broad and far-reaching stories about the progress of art in Western history. In sweeping paragraphs, he acquaints us with the early-modern artistic craftsman, the Romantic ideal of the lone genius, and the recent turn toward professionalization. In the late 20th century, he concludes, artists—and novelists, and composers—hid out in the academy, where grants and staff meetings rendered them “just another set of knowledge workers.” (O, what a sad life they led.)

Now those grants and tenure slots are gone, impossibly competitive, or held on to by Boomers. So artists have sought a new lot, driven by economic realities—probably. Deresiewicz can’t decide if what actually happened is that younger artists just got tired of the old system.

In a section about networking, he writes: “A Gen-X graphic-artist friend has told me that the young designers she meets are no longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours. One reason may be that they recognize that 10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts.” Do these younger designers break with discipline because the pecuniary realities of day-to-day life give them no choice, or because they’re lazy? Deresiewicz isn’t sure.

Here is the real nut of his essay, though:

No longer interested in putting in their 10,000 hours: under all three of the old models, an artist was someone who did one thing—who trained intensively in one discipline, one tradition, one set of tools, and who worked to develop one artistic identity. You were a writer, or a painter, or a choreographer. It is hard to think of very many figures who achieved distinction in more than one genre—fiction and poetry, say—let alone in more than one art. Few even attempted the latter (Gertrude Stein admonished Picasso for trying to write poems), and almost never with any success.

It is hard to think of anyone who achieved distinction in more than one art. Deresiewicz mentions Picasso, who was perhaps a poor poet. So let us also put out of mind that one dude who was a poet and a playwright and a songwriter but who, in his lifetime, seems to have considered himself mostly an actor. (Shakespeare.) And let’s forget that would-be writer and poet and actress and dancer and singer. (Maya Angelou.) And certainly let’s think not of that composer-painter-writer-philosopher who helped shape modern choreography. (John Cage.) And who can bear to bring to mind that Spaniard who was a painter and a sculptor and had a contact in dance, so he did set design too? (Picasso—the contact was Diaghliev.)

I wrote that two things are happening in art, and one is a fad. Here is the fad: Some artists are calling themselves entrepreneurs. When the tech boom falters, entrepreneurship will go out of vogue for a little while. Artists will stop calling themselves entrepreneurs. Likewise, if Deresiewicz’s friend is frustrated by a wave of new designers who seem more concerned with playing the role of designer than with actually designing things, she need only wait till the next recession.

But to discuss the non-fad, we need to talk about specifics. For I suspect that if Deresiewicz paid attention to what actual artists in the world are saying, he would like the state of things much more than he claims to.

* * *

Few fields have been as shaped by this new vein of artistry as classical music. In 2013, one of New York’s two opera companies premiered a new work by a 32-year-old composer. The other one permanently closed. New blood and failing institutions—check, check.

I reported on that new opera, Two Boys, for this website. In the six years between Two Boys’s commissioning and its first U.S. performance, its composer, Nico Muhly, wrote 70 pieces. This is a staggering amount of new work for a classical musician. As Will Robin wrote in the New Yorker at the time, Muhly’s career spurns a “Beethoven paradigm”—where an artist, “cut off from society, issues revolutionary works at staggered intervals”—for a “Vivaldi paradigm,” in which “composers were considered not truth-seekers but employees, writing a continuous stream of functional music for church services and royal occasions.”

Muhly, in other words, is writing avidly and socially. (In the writing of my piece, he and I also became friendly.) He even blogs. But he is also invested in one art form, and his “new” artistic model is less a subversion of the past then a return to it.

But he is not the only classical musician to work like this. At the 2013 commencement ceremony of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, the flautist and composer Claire Chase exhorted students to entrepreneurship. Orchestras may be shuttering, she said, but young musicians are inventing something new: “new performance practices that put creators, interpreters, historians, educators, theorists in the same entrepreneurial spaces.”

Writing up her address later that year, The New York Times described how Chase prized agility over institutional stability:

Once, [Chase] recalled, a mentor questioning her ambition asked, “Don’t you want to drive a big bus some day?” Ms. Chase answered “No way!”

On a big bus “you are confined to the land, you have difficulty making quick turns,” she said. “I want to drive the little car that’s nimble, that can take fast turns, or amble on an open country road.”

She has done that. In 2001, she founded the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a spry chamber group of virtuosic musicians. They perform works old and new, often with electronics and improvisational. Countless other small, creative groups have followed in their path. I have seen hundreds of classical music concerts in my life, but a night with ICE in 2011 may be the most stirring one I’ve attended.

I remembering hearing Chase’s speech and thinking: Something is happening here, and it’s bigger than classical music. I was among the first people to hear her address, as I was graduating from Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music in the Class of 2013.

So: What is happening?

There used to be a YouTube video of Ira Glass. It had thousands and thousands of views, and I saw some lifehack bloggers link to it with what felt like every new moon. It’s now been taken down (a loss to art historians), but you can find audio recordings. In it, Glass encourages creative types to keep working until their skill matches their taste:

[The thing that] nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish somebody had told this to me—is that all of us who do creative work, you know, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. […] But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer, and your taste is good enough to tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean? A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit.

And the thing I would say to you with all my heart, is that most everybody I know, who does interesting creative work—they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as what they wanted it to be—the thing I would say to you is, everyone goes through that. […] It’s totally normal. And the most important thing you could do is is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that you know that every week or every month, you’re going to finish one story… because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work, that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap.

As far as I am concerned, this is the seminal document of artistic practice in the 2010s. Equal to this is Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a kind-of how-to guide to the Picasso quote beloved of Steve Jobs: “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Kleon’s maxims include “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” and “Do good work and share it with people.”

Steal Like an Artist is a New York Times best seller. Even two years after its publication, it’s in the top-thousand-selling books on Amazon. It is part of a growing group of media that instructs would-be artists to worry less about genius and instead just to make, to apprentice themselves to their craft. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is another such portrait of excellence. Here’s a tweet from Nico Muhly that combines all the threads:

These are the ideas attached to artistry in 2014. They are pervasive, in both the mainstream and the American avant garde. In them, we can see traits that Deresiewicz regrets: If you “don’t wait until you know who you are to get started,” you might be susceptible to the dilettantism he condemns. But we also see ideas he can’t see past—like the idea that deliberately practicing something for 10,000 hours makes someone an expert at it.

Deresiewicz returns to the “10,000 Hour Rule” five times throughout his essay. The idea is so widely understood that he does not need to gloss it. (It is the only pop psychology concept that has its own Macklemore song.) Deresiewicz accepts its wisdom unquestioningly: If you’re a photographer and a designer and many other things too, he instructs, that “means that you haven’t got time for your 10,000 hours in any of your chosen media.”

I find the 10,000 hours ideal at least suspicious and probably deleterious. Deliberate practice is undoubtedly important, but using it as a prerequisite for serious artistic intent misses the point. When wielded as Deresiewicz does, it discourages beginners who should be making art from starting out, suggesting that the only value derived from an activity can be found by experts.

What’s more, the idea that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert may not even be psychologically valid. A recent meta-analysis found that while practice correlated with skill, it did not at all explain it. “Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained,” wrote one of that study’s authors in Slate. We know so little about this idea because it’s so relatively recent: The first research suggesting a “10,000 Hour Rule” existed was published in 1993, and the rule itself only became popularized with the 2008 release of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.

And look what happened: In six years, the idea became such a part of the cultural atmosphere that Deresiewicz can treat it like it’s timeless. But it’s not—it’s new, as much a part of the changing artistic firmament as the compulsion to have a website.

But that doesn’t mean its meaningless. The “10,000 Hour Rule” caught on because it invited readers to a cultural meritocracy. It discredited the un-American idea that in-born talent drives careers, instead suggesting that any discipline, any craft or art, could be accessible to anyone through hours upon hours of practice. Maybe that’s true: We just don’t know. Likewise, I don’t know whether true cultural democracy is coming.

But I do know one thing. The value of any discipline, whether craft or art, is not extracted solely by experts. In his essay, Deresiewicz approves of how Gertrude Stein once scolded Picasso for writing poetry. I have also heard Picasso was a terrible poet, but I really don’t know, and I can’t hazard whether some iambic innovation would have spurred him to paint differently.

I am not Picasso, though, and neither are you. And in the world I’d like to live in, everyone—whether they’re a famous painter or a CPA—would feel as though they can explore the breadth of human expression, whether through writing poetry or learning about Chinese pottery or even researching historical pickling methods. If cultural democracy comes, my guess is it will not look like 100 million specialists. It will appear as a society of curious minds, captivated by human traditions and inspired to improve upon them, interested in the many places in the world where humans have spent their attention—and hungry to invest more.