Ari Amala

Creativity under Capitalism: Commodification, Contentification & Alienation

A sad monkey with a silly hat on dances for a laughing crowd.

I haven’t written anything for ages and usually when I realise that, I feel downhearted or disappointed. But this time, when I noticed how long it had been since I’d undertaken a writing project, I felt a kind of freedom. It was the joy of recognising that there is no force outside of myself that pressures me to write. There are definitely external factors that stop me from writing. However, when I do have the time and energy, I write because I want to.

I used to dream of being paid to write, whether through a published book or as a contributor to a blog. Being paid to write is still appealing to me, but the prospect of experiencing external pressure to write is more unattractive than the money is appealing.

I feel particularly repelled by the expectation of needing to frequently churn out writing. Even imagining that I need to produce articles daily or weekly makes me feel tense.

Artists aren’t Machines

Patrick Rothfuss and his brilliant yet-to-be-finished trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles, provide a useful case study for the impact of external pressure on the creative process. Enthusiasts of the first two books have been waiting for the final book in the series since 2011. They waited eagerly at first, but as the years stretched out patience wore thin for many fans.

Some former fans became so frustrated that they wrote rants on message boards about how they will refuse to read the final book if it ever comes out, or will illegally download it in an attempt to financially punish Rothfuss for taking so long to finish it. Others harangue Rothfuss, in person or online for daring to work on anything other than the final book in his triology. 

In a 2018 Q&A, Rothfuss compared writing under pressure to having sex in public. He loves writing, but like sex, it is not enjoyable if other people are pressuring you into it or watching you like a hawk or yelling at you for not doing it.

As Rothfuss explains,

“That's the difference. Something you get used to doing in the privacy of your own home, late at night, frequently by yourself. And then suddenly you have to do it, like, right now. And it better be as good as before. It changes your whole mindset…

I went from 14 years of writing something just purely for the fuck-it-all joy of the experience in my heart. And then I got published. And then my publisher is like 'Okay, right, and now we need that other book.' And it's really hard to do something because you're supposed to if you're used to doing it because you like to."

On numerous occasions, Rothfuss has expressed the negative mental health impacts of feeling pressured to finish The Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy. Despite this, fans continue to feel entitled to criticise and harass Rothfuss. Here’s the thing though: just because you like someone’s art and have paid for it before, it doesn’t mean they are obligated to make more art for your consumption.

Neil Gaiman addressed this misguided belief in a blog post that is fittingly called Entitlement Issues.

The post begins with a letter from a fan called Gareth, who asks if it is unrealistic to feel as if George R. R. Martin is letting him down by not finishing the next instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series that Game of Thrones is based on). Gaiman responds by saying that yes, it is unrealistic to feel that Martin is letting him down. Not wanting Gareth to remain under any illusions, Gaiman goes on to state:

"George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.

People are not machines. Writers and artists aren't machines.

You're complaining about George doing other things than writing the books you want to read as if your buying the first book in the series was a contract with him: that you would pay over your ten dollars, and George for his part would spend every waking hour until the series was done, writing the rest of the books for you. No such contract existed.”

Consumer Culture and Contentification

We are not entitled to another person’s art. Perhaps this is confusing to comprehend because it goes against the core tenets of consumer culture. Consumer culture teaches us that everything, including creativity, is a commodity – and that you can have whatever commodity you want, as long as you can pay for it. If you want access to someone’s imagination, Patrick Rothfuss’ imagination for instance, then consumer demand and money should be the master keys.

However, as Gaiman writes, writers and artists aren't machines and by the same token, independent writers and artists are not corporate brands. That is usually one of the reasons they are beloved by their fans in the first place. But this also means their art is not going to be churned out with the clockwork precision of the latest iPhone. When artists do succumb to consumer demands, and pressure from publishers, agents, and record labels, and in doing so become a brand, their fan base will woefully and rightfully complain that the soul of the work has evaporated.

This is where art stops being art, and turns into content. 

Sure, there can be an overlap between art and content. But in general, I think two questions help to distinguish between art and content:

First, who is the art made for?

Content is made to appeal to the consumer. Creative decisions are made with the target audience in mind. 

Art is made for the artist. This doesn’t mean the art won’t be shared. But the impulse to create emerges primarily from the artist themselves.

Secondly, what motivated the creative process?

Content is produced to keep up with output demands, adhere to contracts, maximise profit, and appease the algorithmic Gods.

Art is an end unto itself. A desire to immerse in the creative process and to see what is born from that.

Consumer culture turns artists into brands and art into content. Meanwhile, connoisseurs, devotees, or lovers of art are demoted to the role of consumer.

The demotion from connoisseur to consumer is just as significant as the relegation of art into content. It is similar to the difference we feel between seeing rare animals in a zoo enclosure to seeing those same animals in the wild. The animals are still magnificent but something vital is lost in the process of encapsulation and commodification. We get to bear witness to phenomenal creatures but at a cost. Such is the predatory nature of capitalism. It takes something that is beautiful and wild and free, and subjects it to commodification; dulling its beauty, domesticating its wildness, and clipping its freedom.

The tension of commodification and domestication is felt acutely by artists who have become brands. I’m reminded of the lyrics of a song by Tones and I called Dance Monkey:

Just like a monkey, I've been dancing my whole life

But you just beg to see me dance just one more time

Britney Spears is a notable example of the way consumer culture turns artists into dancing monkeys. She was transformed into a brand before she had even been through puberty. Eventually her father came to control her brand through the infamous 13-year-long conservatorship. He was even purported to say ‘I am Britney Spears now’. In her recent memoir, Spears writes, “From that point on, I began to think that he saw me as put on the earth for no other reason than to help their cash flow.” Before Spears was commodified and exploited, she loved making music. As she writes, “My music was my life, and the conservatorship was deadly for that; it crushed my soul.” 

Consumer culture exploits artists the same way it exploits animals in the zoo. We are taught to feel so entitled to witness their beauty that we turn a blind eye to the indignity of being boxed in and scrutinised from all angles.

Art & Alienation

This level of entitlement is made possible when we separate products from the process of production. To give an art-related example, the product of a book becomes severed from the personhood of the writer.

Under capitalism, the process of production is invisible to the consumer. Rather than recognising and relating to the person behind the labour, the consumer relates to the product directly and believes they have a right to buy what they want, when they want it. This is one aspect of what Marx called commodity fetishism.

Workers, including artists, also become alienated from the process of production. Alienation is, in part, the fracturing that occurs when work is carried out as a means to an end (to adhere to contractual terms or, at a more basic level, survival) rather than an end unto itself.

People turn towards art to temporarily escape the conditions of alienation through distraction, inspiration or transcendence. Others look to art in the hope of seeing their own experiences of alienation, fear, loneliness, anger and grief reflected back to them.

Often, we turn towards art to get a glimpse of undomesticated and unalienated self-expression. However, this is rare because working artists are bound by the same conditions of alienated labour which distorts self-expression into self-denial. 

This distortion is apparent in Patrick Rothfuss’ relationship to writing. Without the constant pressure of readers, agents, publishers, and deadlines, Rothfuss enjoys writing. But like most people, he yearns for his time and creative process to be his own. Feeling that our time and ‘life-activity’ do not belong to us is perhaps one of the most painful and poignantly felt forms of alienation. Asher Horowitz describes it in this way:

“Alienation from my life-activity also means that my life-activity is directed by another. Somebody else, the foreman, the engineer, the head office, the board of directors…decide[s] what and how and how long and with whom I am going to act. Somebody else also decides what will be done with my product. And I must do this for the vast majority of my waking hours on earth…

My activity becomes the activity of another. Life comes to be split between alien work and escape from working, which for us is “leisure”. Because our own life activity becomes an alien power over our lives, activity itself gets a bad name and we tend to avoid it when we are on our own, in our “free time”. Free time itself tends to become equated with freedom from activity, because activity is compulsion.”

Working class people know what it is like to feel that their life-activity is not their own. It is the feeling of watching the clock and waiting for 5pm; waiting for the moment when your time and energy belongs to you again.  

How strange that we have designed a world in which most of our time must be sold in exchange for our survival.

In this strange world, we are so deflated and demoralised by our alienated labour that we lose our impetus to engage in creative, generative and productive activity in our “free time”.

Creativity shouldn’t be a Privilege

Ever since primary school, the carrot of “free time” has been dangled in front of us only to be yanked away. I remember loving “free time” in kindergarten. I used my free time to play with these tiny plastic bears with my friends, or to read a picture book or practise drawing spirals. Regardless of what age we are, we need free time for creativity and explorative play.

It is revealing that in the Kingkiller Chronicles, Rothfuss weaved in a form of art patronage that is reminiscent of the Renaissance period. Artists in Rothfuss’ fictional world of Temerant have patrons; rich benefactors who ensure painters, poets and musicians have everything they need to comfortably make their art. They pay for food, clothing, shelter, and instruments. Even more astoundingly, the patrons in Temerant do not expect their beneficiaries to constantly churn out art. They do not retract their patronage if the artist doesn’t create anything for weeks or months or possibly years. Rather, they continue to meet the needs of the artist, believing that if the artist is not hungry or hurried, eventually they will create something spectacular, perhaps even something transcendent.

The theory behind art patronage in the Renaissance period well and truly preceded Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After all, it is a relatively intuitive concept that when our survival needs are met, we have more time and greater capacity for exploration, reflection, and creativity.

However, the obvious problem with art patronage in Feudal systems is the inherent wealth inequality that allows for a handful of rich patrons to decide who deserves the privilege of creativity. Under capitalism, creativity continues to be a privilege. For most people, creative occupations are economically precarious at best. This is one reason that it is more likely for people from wealthy families to pursue creative work. If rich kids become artists, they have a financial safety net to fall back on if their art doesn’t make money. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do not have the luxury of taking that kind of financial risk.  But creativity should not be a privilege. Just as food, clothing, and shelter should not be a privilege.

As Luke Savage writes in Art for the 99 Percent: 

"If having time, a good education, and economic security increases the likelihood that people will take up creative pursuits, that’s all the more reason they should be treated as rights to be enjoyed by everyone. Real freedom, after all, means the ability to spend your time as you see fit — to write, to think, to paint, to sculpt, or to do nothing in particular — and, under capitalism, the rich have a lot more freedom than the rest of us. But it doesn’t have to be that way."

What kind of world would allow us to be free to choose how we spend our time? To engage in unalienated work and play, and to pursue activities which are ends unto themselves?

It would have to be a world in which all people have their physiological, emotional, psychological, and social needs met. A world without bullshit jobs and without the need to commodify all that is wild and beautiful.

This wild world would require us to move away from an exploitative, predatory and extractive system like capitalism and towards a system like socialism or a resourced-based economy that would support creativity to thrive.

Resisting Commodification and Contentification

What kind of art would you make if you knew it didn’t have to be flattened into content?

What would you create if it didn’t have to be commercially viable?

How would you spend your time if your survival needs were met?

I ask these questions because I don’t think the world is divided into creative people and uncreative people. I think we are all creative. We just happen to live in a system that alienates us from our time and labour. A system that tells us our creative spark is worthless if it doesn’t make money, but that’s a terrible metric.

Art is transformative as an unalienated life-activity.

Art is transformative as a way to express our inner world.

Art is transformative as an end unto itself.

When it is engaged with in that way, it is more likely to touch and transform the people who witness it. But it doesn’t matter even if it doesn’t speak to other people. We as artists get to transform ourselves through the process of creation. 

Let me end with the hero I began with: Patrick Rothfuss. Rothfuss has not yet released the final book of the Kingkiller trilogy. Instead, in 2014 he released a book called The Slow Regard of Silent Things and then in 2023 he released The Narrow Road between Desires. Both books have a foreword that begins in the following way:

"You might not want to buy this book.

I know, that’s not the sort of thing an author’s supposed to say. But I’d rather be honest with you right out of the gate."

Then, in the endnote of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Rothfuss shares about his experience of recognising that he was weaving together a strange story. He writes:

“I could tell by this point that it wasn’t any sort of normal. It wasn’t doing the things a proper sort of story should do. It was, by all traditional metrics, a mess. But here’s the thing. I liked it. It was weird and wrong and tangled and missing so many things that a story is supposed to need… but the story itself had a sort of sweetness to it. Whatever reason, I let the story develop according to its own desire. I didn’t force it into a different shape or put anything into it just because it was supposed to be there. I decided to let it be itself.”

In writing about the organic emergence of the story, Rothfuss also managed to capture a powerful method for liberating creativity from the claws of commodification. In writing these two books, Rothfuss found an outlet for his creativity that sidestepped the external pressures that had been stifling him. He didn’t force his creativity “into a different shape” in order to fit the expectations of his fans or publishers. Rather, he “decided to let it be itself.”

Rothfuss liberated himself by writing books that nobody asked for. 

Rothfuss did something that is very difficult to do under capitalism. He resisted the commodification and contentification of his creativity. In doing so, he illuminated a path for anyone who wants to do the same:

Make art that nobody asked for. Make art for “the fuck-it-all joy of the experience.”

All rights reserved. © 2024 Ari Amala