Friday, January 30, 2009

Good Ideas, Capital, and the Crumbling of the Authority Paradigm

Conor Friedersdorf has a good idea:
Were I given my way — hey, last time I wrote an essay like this I was, so it’s worth a shot — I’d secure funding for a Web site that aggregated diverse opinions on various issues, commissioned thoughtful magazine pieces of argument and analysis… and then deliberately commissioned the strongest rebuttals, counterarguments and alternate takes, and published them all side by side, facilitating productive conversation whenever possible. (In innovative ways!) An enterprise that gave diverse views a fair shake — and earned the trust of readers necesary for its success — couldn’t be run by just one editor, so I’d set up an ombudsman blog, give access to a couple dozen carefully selected, variously minded folk who all believe in the journalistic project, and guarantee that whatever they penned would appear on the front page, as a check on the editor’s power.
I had a good idea once, too. My idea was that since artists increase property values in any given area, by attracting hipsters and cultured people with money, we should start an enterprise that consisted of moving a group of artists temporarily into fallow real estate, fixing it up, making it gorgeous, holding art events with publicity assistance from major cultural organizations, and then moving to the next space when desirable tenants were found. The radical part of this idea was that the artists would get paid to do this.

To this end, I talked with dozens of artists, event planners, lawyers, investors, businessmen, and cultural organizations. Everyone agreed that this was a splendid idea. I put together a core team of people with diverse practical skills, wrote up a business plan, ran it by some accountants, and applied for funding and fiscal sponsorship. Then all of our financial and political capital (i.e. the business/legal/cultural organization contingent) vanished without a trace.

After I got over my shell shock, I realized the obvious--that the entire foundation of our cultural economy depends on the fact that artists work for free. As much as it is politically expedient for those with cultural and financial clout to pay lip service to the idea of supporting the arts, artists, and freedom of expression, they are never going to back a project which threatens their authority.

This may go some way toward explaining why good ideas like Conor's so rarely become manifest in reality. The difference between an eccentric loser crackpot and a visionary creative mind is merely one of financing. But for every thoughtful, erudite screenplay that languishes in the slush pile, Hollywood makes ten inane, derivative blockbusters that are forgotten in two weeks; for every architect who designs an elegant, energy-efficient, sustainable building, developers put up forty more strip malls; for every thousand hard-working, skilled, reliable employees who lose their jobs, some investment banker pockets another multi-million dollar bonus, courtesy of the federal government.

As has become inescapably clear to anyone who has read a headline in the last four months, 'authority' in our society has become nearly synonymous with 'sociopaths, narcissists, pigs, sadists, and nincompoops.' And yet those of us with good ideas--those of us with skills, ethics, talent and vision--stand around wringing our hands, as we have been wringing them ever since we first graduated from college with honors, and discovered that we had a choice among sacking groceries, waiting tables, and temping.

In days past, when smart people with initiative found themselves crushed by corrupt and oppressive systems of authority, they went somewhere else. They colonized Australia, or Canada, or California. But we have no physical frontiers left on the planet, and the corruption of brainless, brutal authority threatens to destroy us. We have to find another paradigm--one that consists of action, real action, not useless symbolic statements like rallies, petitions, protests, and Marches On Washington.

Because an enormous part of the problem is that we have all been trained from the cradle to respond to authority like children. Meek submission, blind obedience, feeble protest and violent revolution are all part of the same authority-dependent continuum; they all acknowledge that the power of the violent alpha, the one with the money, the connections and the brawn, is what determines our circumstances.

So what might a trans-authority paradigm look like? Could it start with community building? Could it benefit from consensus decision-making? And how can it be financed? Consider this an open question.


Spatula said...

I love your idea of an artist neighbourhood rehabilitation project. I've always thought it ridiculous that artists and struggling galleries don't get any compensation out of the huge profits everyone in the area makes as a direct result of their presence. And you actually came up with a concrete and practical way to address it! Not sure on what happened, based on your description - you didn't get funding? Or your project mates abandoned it?

It kind of reminds me of my quixotic folly of '06. I thought the city lacked an easy to understand art publication that would help non-cognoscenti orient themselves in the art scene, by profiling galleries, artists and covering local art events. Sort of an in-depth guide to art, for normal people.

Everyone loved it. I talked to dozens of galleries, who were hugely fond of the idea. The publication was to be ad-revenue-supported, and when I called those same galleries to sell ad space, with a first issue I published out of my own pocket, they more or less wiped their shoes with me. I was really crushed and am no longer willing to sink my time and hard-earned money into anything other than my own work...

So, uh, I don't have answers, but I sure do like your questions.

Pretty Lady said...

What happened to the project? Let's see:

Investment banker who said, "That's a great idea, sure I'll fund it, and I met these Harvard architects who want to join in" suddenly moved to Vermont to study Chinese.

Major Manhattan cultural organization which expressed enthusiastic support when I talked to their director refused both funding and fiscal sponsorship on suspiciously specious grounds. Then for some reason my name disppeared from their mailing list.

Key project partner turned out to be one of those people who pretends to be working on your project while also pursuing seven other incompatible projects simultaneously, in case the work I was actually doing happened to pan out to her benefit one day.

One day I woke up and realized that I had been laboring delusion that I had a team backing me up for six months, and that in reality I was just another unemployed artist. That's when I started blogging instead of going to career development seminars.

Spatula said...

Bwah. It shouldn't be funny but somehow it is.

I went to a career development seminar. Was told I would be good at art and writing.

So here I am.

Chris Rywalt said...

I just finished reading Richistan by Robert Frank. Neat little book. But the main thing here is, there's a chapter called "Performance Philanthropy" which I wish you could read. Since you can't -- not immediately, anyhow -- I'll lay it out real quick: Philip Berber is a multimillionaire entrepreneur who decided that all charitable companies sucked. As a successful entrepreneur he decided to tackle charity as a business. So he founded A Glimmer of Hope.

My quick precis doesn't do it justice: From reading this chapter, I thought, this is right up Pretty Lady's alley.

I know you're busy and all and may not be able to do anything with the information now. But file it away: A Glimmer of Hope.

Pretty Lady said...

Actually, about all I'm doing these days is reading, so I'll put it on my book list. Thanks!

Pretty Lady said...

Shea--huh? What are you talking about? Do you expect Obama to ride in on a white horse and personally rescue all the suffering people of Kentucky? He's doing his best to salvage the sinking ship that is the U.S. economy, but that is a task that is beyond the capacities of any one human being, or even any group of human beings.

That's what this post is about--AUTHORITY, as in one person pointing a finger and telling everyone else how to fix things--is NOT the ultimate solution to all human problems. And we have all been raised to believe that it is, as your post illustrates. I'm asking all of us to extend our minds beyond that wish to be rescued by some larger-than-life figure, and consider other ways of solving problems and getting along.

BoysMom said...

I think one of the problems we are facing is that artisic folks don't do business, in the venture capitalism sense. They just plain don't. They wander into ideas, and so on, make wonderful plans, but they're reliant on others for funding those ideas. People who do venture capitalism want a certain business look and profit projections before they fund a start-up, and artists don't know how to do that. We don't merely dislike red tape: we don't understand it. We also generally don't look like good credit risks--we know we're cronicly short on money and it would be stupid to take on tons of debt, but borrowing and repaying is what makes a person look like a good risk.
I think in a lot of ways, the patronage system worked better for artists than the venture capitalism system does. Maybe we should encourage our art schools to start requiring some business classes for all graduating students? (Business math would've been more useful than 'Spirit of Mathmatics' which was the minimum required course for music students at my school. I took Calculus. But that's another story.)

Chris Rywalt said...

I think every successful artist of the past century, at least, has had a partner handling the business side of things. Sometimes the partner was a wife, sometimes a husband, sometimes a dealer. But if you look, there's always at least one person supporting the artist and helping them manage their careers.

So a class in finding a partner might be more appropriate. We could call it "Meeting and marrying an oral surgeon," perhaps.

Desert Cat said...

Do you expect Obama to ride in on a white horse and personally rescue all the suffering people of Kentucky?

Bush failed to do so in NOLA, and we see what that got him. The pointed lack of involvement by the current Administration in the Kentucky disaster does seem peculiar in that light.

Not that I think they *should*. It is and always has been primarily the states responsibility to respond to local disasters, and it has always been up to the governors of said states to request aid when and where they required it. This was the case in NOLA as well, which is why I still believe the blame laid at the feet of the Bush Administration is unfair. Local and state officials failed miserably in their responsibilities and their request for assistance from the Feds was tardy and incoherent.

The problem, from my perspective, with the outcry following Katrina, is that the Feds have, and are in the process of, aggregating unto themselves quite a bit more centralized power and authority to deal directly with future incidents.

Rather the opposite of what I'd like to see.

Pretty Lady said...

DC, that's why I'm thrilled with the Obama administration's appointments, as Hilzoy says here:

In other words: the people who have been appointed to two of the most senior positions in the OLC, which (basically) tells the Executive branch what is legal and what is not, have explicitly and publicly rejected some of the Bush administration's central arguments in support of its expansive view of executive power. It's hard for me to see how they could reverse themselves on that score with a straight face, or why Obama would have appointed them if he had the slightest intention of adopting the Bush administration's views on this topic.

It's also why I'm pretty thrilled that one of the first things Obama did was sign executive orders increasing transparency in government and setting ethics rules limiting lobbyists.

It is also worth noting that although Louisiana has a longstanding tradition of indubitably corrupt and incompetent governance, in the case of Katrina, city and state government were not nearly so tardy in assessing the situation and requesting federal assistance as the Rove spin led us to believe.

My view is that we, the people, make up government; we the people are the employers of our 'civil servants,' and we have the right to demand competence in whatever we hire them to do. Transparency and accountability are essential factors in this.

As it happened, I hadn't heard much about the Kentucky ice storm, but when I Googled it the first article that popped up was full of quotes praising the speed of FEMA's response to their request for aid, so I'm not sure what that's about. Southerners sure don't know how to deal with cold weather; my relatives in Maine have gone without power for extended periods of time in temperatures of well below zero.

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