A Modest Proposal for Funding Art

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | September 6, 2012 |


After my article on why we love dark stories a few weeks ago, Ranylt told me that I should read Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe. I'm about twenty pages into it right now, taking it at the lovely slow pace in which one can roll the language and ideas around in the mind after a paragraph or two. It's one reason I'm glad that I didn't end up going in for an advanced degree in literature, since when I read the really good stuff I don't have to slam through it and six other works due that week. I can just let it marinate instead. I'm at least a hundred pages from the sections Ranylt was recommending it on the basis of, but stumbled across an interesting orthogonal connection. Lucretius dedicates the book to a fellow named Memmius, and proceeds to reference the arguments he is making about the nature of the universe as arguments to sway Memmius' way of thinking.

This is not a literary device, but a quite literal addressing of his arguments. Memmius was the patron of Lucretius, or in more colloquial terms, the guy who paid the bills so that Lucretius could go about the serious work of writing philosophy that we're still reading two thousand years later. It's a nice sort of gig, if you can get it. Virgil had a similar situation when he was composing the Aeneid a few decades later, though his patron was a bit higher in the Roman food chain, Augustus' old buddy Gaius Maecenas.

This was typical of the patronage system of the pre-Renaissance world, in which artists were supported by generous rich people who liked their work, rather than a mass public (which didn't really exist yet) voting with their money. There was an element of civic culture, in which it was seen as a social duty for the wealthy not to simply throw money at charitable causes, but to directly and personally invest in the improvement they wanted to see in the world. This applied not just to narrow definitions of art, but to architecture, public works, and the likes. In the modern world, the closest I can think of that matches these works were the succession of Carnegie libraries installed in hundreds of small towns across the country.

Of course back in the day, these were also a societal mechanism for providing the sort of public goods that tamp down odds of popular revolt, the sort of things we simply associate with the state these days. That is to say, one should not be too quick to ascribe such charity to looming men with more power than the state buying the complacency of the masses.

But an interesting side effect of this system was that artists often interjected their patron into the dialog. Artists, often being lily-livered progressives even back when men were men and barbarians ran scared, were forced to compose their works with an eye towards the staid old conservatives paying for the villa and the wine. This forced many artists into trying to be truly persuasive towards those who disagreed with them rather than simply preaching to the choir. Many of the greatest works of the ancient world are therefore born of arguments with a patron, or in Virgil's case, are subversive subtexts carefully hidden under the gilding of the text requested by the client.

Things are so much different today, when the artist feeds himself not by kowtowing to a single patron but by trying to appeal to the uncountable masses. Art is a business they say, and it's better this way. Certainly better than publicly funding art, or whatever the NEA is calling art these days. It's a market! Nothing is more American!

Here's a thought though that occurred to me during an episode of "South Park" a few years ago, the one where the boys get Butters to star in a YouTube video that goes viral, and proceed to go stand in line to receive their Internet dollars. It's an idea so stupid, I think it wraps right back around to having merit. Why shouldn't the creator and uploader of a silly video that gets three million views on YouTube get every bit as much money as the Justin Bieber single that has the same hit count?

Oh they're different, you say, one people are willing to pay for, and the other they aren't. Really? So that's why the professional music is never pirated, right? Because people are willing to pay for it? The thing is, any time someone watches a video, listens to a song, or reads a book, they are paying in another sense. They are paying with their time. And in the system I propose, they are voting with their time.

Pick a number, a good massive number like $20 billion. That's bigger than the movie industry, and a little bigger than NASA's budget, but overall, it's what the federal government spends every two or three days. Every year that budget simply gets divvied up and distributed to the creators of content, proportional to the length of that content and the number of views. You upload the funny cat video of the year? You just paid back your college loans.

How is the size of the pie decided on? The same way Congress sets the budget for everything else. Can you imagine the surreal beauty of a system in which giant companies spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to increase spending on art?

But then how can we be sure about the view counts on these things? That's even simpler. Any website that hosts and registers with the government in order to be an official repository, they are disallowed from charging money for their services, but can advertise as much as they want. Let Nielson work itself into a new niche by validating view counts on behalf of advertisers. And if we want to be sarcastic about it, we could simply say that the NSA needs to use Echelon to monitor this.

"That's socialism!" Well shit, you saw right through my communist agenda. This type of outraged argument is the sort that would end up sinking an idea like this except for one enormous tripping point. This is a poison pill wrapped in peanut butter for the big media companies. From their point of view this is just a giant government hand out, a chance for big media to cash in on the subsidy business that treats big agriculture and big oil so well. They would be convinced that this would be free money. That's how you get this to pass.

And then big media would suddenly be competing on the same playing field with independent media, the guys with just a laptop and a dream. Sure, big media can reap a lot of money from this, but only by implicitly encouraging them to change their fundamental approach to art. With money on the line, suddenly openness becomes the best friend of big media. Copyright violation take down notices would be a thing of the past once film companies are getting a kickback for every view that movie gets on YouTube. Songs, television shows, movies, books, every one of them getting a larger slice of the pie the more views they get.

Socialism? That's a market right there. A frothing, blood in the water market of content creators competing to get more people to view their work instead of engaging thousands of lawyers to prevent it.

The endless piles of half-forgotten works of fiction and film sitting on dusty shelves because they're still under copyright, and are held onto with cold jealous fingers? All that would be on the Internet before the week was out. Anything to bring in a few more views to keep the trickle coming.

It would be a boon to all of those cult films that seven people see in the theaters but sell a million DVD copies that people watch over and over again. Every time someone watched that film, it would be another bit of cash towards that film. In this world, it's the accumulated billions of repeated viewings of Office Space that would make a blockbuster, not just the initial hundred million of tickets sold on opening weekend for Transformers. The flash in the pan content will be the least profitable instead of the most.

Think for a moment of a world in which rather than being rewarded for whatever they make shiny to sell to you once, companies are rewarded for producing that which is viewed over and over again. That's how you use the market to generate quality instead of quantity.

This idea is hardly perfect, but it's a thought experiment at least in trying to design a new sort of system. With the advent of the Internet, intellectual property has become a public good in an economic sense, which means that it is something that it is not possible to prevent people from enjoying whether they contribute or not. This is the core anger of the content companies, and the reason they employ lawyers by the bushel and have systematically tried to have the Internet technologically rewritten to destroy everything that makes it good.

The only solutions to the paradox of a public good is to either let it be destroyed, to build walls around it so that it's not accessible, or to change the game entirely so that the players involved are incentivized to contribute in a different way. The first option destroys art and is unacceptable. The second requires us to tear down everything that has made the Internet revolutionary, and wind the clock back to the twentieth century. The third, that is where the future needs to be, and whatever particular shape it ends up taking, that's the stand we have to take.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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