BELOW IS AN ESSAY OF SORTS THAT LAYS OUT THE CONVERSATIONS AND QUESTIONS THAT EVENTUALLY LED TO THIS PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT.
(Please forgive its highfalutin quality and length - there is a farting hotdog at the end)
*GOES BOOKS is currently a personal experiment, but we hope to find ways to expand this model. One thing we will never do is ask an outside artist to labor for free*
**The following essay comes with no judgements or absolutes about the models artists choose to adapt or have to adapt in order to disseminate their artwork and survive. Everyone is trying their best to figure things out in a landscape that is not particularly gentle or forgiving to the creative spirit**
***Some notes about terms: in this essay we use the terms “capitalist,” “capitalism,” and the phrases “capitalist system,” or “capitalist framework” to refer to a type of philosophy as it relates to art making rather than as a complete embodiment of and referendum on the larger capital “c” Capitalism. That’s a much more vast subject than this piece can tackle. Instead, this is an exploration of possible adjustments that can be made to our personal philosophy as it relates to making art***
Capitalism, an Unimaginative Framework
In this first section we will be looking at some of the pitfalls and complications related to making art in a capitalist system. The 14 points and their extrapolations below are an examination of those pitfalls and complications. While these points are in no way true for everyone across the board, neither are they exhaustive, they aim to highlight the ways that capitalism can negatively impact the process of making art:
1. It turns art into a product
2. It restricts the reach of the artist
3. It is a privileged and racist system
4. It encourages competitiveness and fosters individualism over community
5. It links success to financial gain
6. It encourages unrealistic goals
7. It breeds toxic and unhealthy habits
8. It values marketable ideas over others
9. It expects the artist to also function as a business entity
10. It does not foster an artist’s uniqueness
11. It creates a sea of content that too often feels overly similar and repetitive
12. It breeds gatekeepers and toxic business environments
13. It nurtures the tendency to view things through a consumerist lens
14. It is a poor yardstick by which to measure the success and fulfillment of an artist
Below is further explanation for each of the previous points:
1. In a capitalist framework the eventual requirement will always be turning our art into a product, the observer into a consumer, and our goal into ever increasing financial profit - otherwise you’re not doing it right. Even if the artist absolutely loves their work and what they do, that is the natural structure of this particular framework.
2. In this framework we are encouraged to restrict ourselves to sharing our work with those who have money and are willing to pay for it - in other words, it requires us to drastically limit who will experience the art that we care most about.
3. This framework by design favors the more privileged artists and caters to consumers who have more access to disposable income. It is a class-based system. Which means it is by definition also a racist system.
4. This framework forces the artist to enter into a naturally competitive marketplace where vast groups of artists compete for a shrinking pool of money. The result is the overwhelming majority agreeing to work in a system that will likely relegate them to obscurity. If an artist’s work doesn’t perform well in the marketplace, then it is a sign that the work is not of a high enough caliber - only the “best” art will naturally perform well in the marketplace. This is the false belief that the free market is somehow uniquely gifted at allowing the “cream to rise to the top” and it encourages individualism within art communities.
5. In this framework artists that choose to not follow the structure (i.e., artists that give things away for free or that aren’t specifically looking to make money off of their art or by way of their art) are often said to be “devaluing” themselves, their art, and their fellow artists. The implication being that “value” is in part inextricably linked to financial gain - or at least more linked than other possible forms of measuring value. Such artists are typically seen as hobbyists rather than professionals because professionalism is usually linked to the ability to make money with a skill set.
6. In this framework, finding an artist that (a) makes only the art they want to make and (b) makes a good living wage off of that art without having to supplement their income with other work is incredibly rare. They are unicorns. They are essentially the one percenters of the artist community, and yet they are also held up as the model for other artists to attempt to emulate.
7. This competitive framework has the effect of feeding toxic habits among artists: jealousy, self-doubt, compromise, overworking, devaluing the self, degradation of mental health, limiting creativity, etc., etc.
8. This framework increasingly encourages especially struggling artists to make project choices based around the core principle of marketability first instead of personal inspiration. Artists will more likely exhaust their creative resources on projects that they calculate will perform well in the market, keep the lights on, and be popular. Artists are also more likely to abandon personal projects before they are completed if they do not perform well in the marketplace.
9. This framework often requires the artist to simultaneously function as a kind of business even though the artist may not have the desire to do so or the skill set to do so effectively. This also necessitates that the artist be partially preoccupied with business concerns as it relates to the art they are creating, which undoubtedly will impact and shape the work itself.
10. This framework is ineffective at encouraging exploration of new and interesting models or modes of delivering art to the world because it does not typically encourage innovation beyond what is financially savvy/effective.
11. This also results in an increasing amount of art feeling similar in part because marketability is mostly determined by seeing what else is already performing well in the marketplace and much less so by what has never been tested in the marketplace.
12. This framework is a top-down one that naturally breeds gatekeepers that can be exploitative of the artist. Along with that, a gatekeeper’s determination of what is given space in the marketplace and what is not is usually some form of subjective/personal/biased/racist/classist/sexist/ableist/etc.
13. A capitalist framework can also manifest in other forms of “income” besides strictly money. New types of revenue represented by things like reach on social media, Likes, Retweets, Follows - these are all things that can behave in a very similar way and have the same kinds of pitfalls as it relates to artistic practice. Along with that, many of these online platforms like Instagram are designed to turn their users into a product that can be sold to advertisers. An artist's work becomes "content" and the artist becomes a "content creator." Vast amounts of money is generated for the platform itself by encouraging its users to labor in the marketplace of Likes/Shares/Follows.
14. In a capitalist framework the vast majority of all art projects will not make money or garner popularity on social media; they will not perform well in the marketplace. And yet it is the default yardstick by which we choose to measure the success or failure of most art projects. In other words, this framework teaches us to see on some level most of the art we create as existing on the failure side of the spectrum. In that way it is a very unimaginative yardstick.
Redefining Revenue and Identifying Alternative Sources
As a thought experiment let’s imagine for a moment that capitalism was not the reigning system and that we could easily make art outside of that system. How would that change what art we make and how we make it? If there was no need for art to make a profit, what would be left to gain from art creation?
In this next section we will take a look at some of the benefits of practicing art that have nothing to do with whether or not that art makes money. First let’s briefly lay out some (but in no way all) of the possible benefits. (some sources for this section - , , , .)
1. Creating art can relieve stress
2. Creating art can exercise the brain, encourages creative thinking, and increases plasticity in the brain
3. Creating art can boost your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment
4. Creating art can facilitate better learning in other areas of life
5. Creating art can increase empathy, tolerance, and a sense of being loved
6. Creating art can be good for our health
7. Creating art can enhance problem solving skills
8. Creating art can make us feel a sense of belonging
9. Creating art can connect us to others
10. Creating art can give life a sense of meaning or purpose
11. Creating art can benefit the people around us
In a sense each of these benefits can be seen as a kind of revenue in that they are all returns on an investment - just not cash returns. If an artist puts their work out into the world and in return they receive the benefit of an increased sense of belonging, that is in a very real way a kind of revenue. Accepting that as true for a moment, we can see the potential here to identify all manner of revenue streams outside the limited scope of “dollars-and-cents.” With these benefits in mind, let’s take our thought experiment from before, the one where we eliminate capitalism from the equation, and imagine instead that the list of benefits is a list of different kinds of revenue streams with which we could fill up our lives in a similar way that we fill up our bank accounts with money.
Let’s use number 9 as an example: Imagine that instead of a system that ultimately encourages us to favor art that will earn as much money as we can, we are operating in a system that encourages us to create art that will earn as much connection with other people as we can. In this hypothetical, a sense of success and professionalism is determined by how much meaningful connection we can create with our artwork. If that was indeed the system, how would that change the way we feel as artists? How would it change the way we make art, the regularity by which we make it, or the content itself?
Looking at it from a slightly different vantage point now, what are some tangible ways that a system like capitalism can often stand in the way of these other revenue streams like the revenue stream of human connection we just discussed?
Let’s picture a young creator who has just finished a new comic. They’re eager to share it with the world - they want to share it with as many people as they can. They’ve poured their heart and soul into these pages and they can’t wait for other people to read it. In the system we operate in now, the capitalist one, the logical next step in the process is to print their comic in some way and try to sell it to as many people as they can. They actually do alright at the next comic convention - they sell 30 copies of their comic. It’s enough to cover the printing cost and a bit of the table fee. It’s not a bad showing and thirty people are going to read their story, which is great. Only they printed 100 copies and 70 of those copies will have to go home without readers. It’s too bad 100 people won’t be reading their comic. Hell, it’s too bad 1,000 people won’t be reading their comic. But it would be unrealistic to think 1,000 people or even a 100 people would buy the comic in a room filled from floor to ceiling with other comics all vying for the same cash.
But what if instead this comic artist did in fact make it a priority to print 1,000 copies and to give those copies away for free to 1,000 people who expressed genuine interest in reading it? And not just to people at the convention - people at the library, online, family members, friends, coworkers, people across the world. Certainly the lack of cash in this equation could open up a whole new expanse of people who otherwise would have needed to pass on the purchase. It's not an outlandish model. We see its resemblence in many areas of webcomics, podcasts, and street art to name a few. What if turning a profit or even not losing money was no longer a priority? What if instead the main priority for this young artist was having as many people as they could actually hold their comic, read it, and get something out of it? What sort of difficult-to-measure returns on investment would this artist receive with that many more people reading their comic? Granted, they would likely lose money. But let’s be honest that in the original scenario they weren’t exactly getting rich either - they were barely breaking even in fact (and they were greatly limiting the number of readers as well). With 1,000 readers instead of 30, how many more human connections might this artist create? How many more of those readers might reach out to the artist to start a conversation, pay a compliment, inspire self-satisfaction for the artist, or even begin a new relationship of some kind (ask them to collaborate, offer them to have work in an anthology, offer them a job, or a publishing deal of some kind)? In other words, how much potential is this artist missing out on because the current framework expects them to treat their art as a product to be sold?
It might be important to pause here and make it clear that the conclusions drawn should not be that it is a poor choice for this young artist to sell their comic. Neither is it that this artist should absolutely give their art away for free. The point of the hypothetical is to highlight what different models afford the artist in question and what limitations come along with those models. Certainly a standard “dollars-and-cents” model affords the artist the chance to make money, or at least not lose money, while still getting their art into the hands of some readers. Equally as certain is the limitations that such a model imposes on the artist’s ability to reach larger numbers of readers. Inversely, a model where the artist gives their comic away for free affords the potential for a great increase in readership and connection, but it also requires that the artist not see a financial return on their investment, which depending on the circumstances can run anywhere from being not a big deal to a complete dealbreaker.
The point here is to highlight the fact that there are countless other forms of revenue outside of the very limited confines of financial revenue. Further still, there are countless potential models out there that might better allow us to access those other types of revenue more effectively. It might also be important to recognize how much a capitalist system teaches us to see models where money is lost as bad and irresponsible. Right now these models are woefully under-explored.
In the previous section we talked about the possibility that there may be other forms of revenue outside of a dollars-and-cents concept of income. The world already is well aware of other forms of revenue that function outside of the realm of Capitalism. Take something like mutual aid as a perfect example. The popularity of mutual aid is growing exponentially in recent years. Boiled down to its essence, mutual aid is a communal exchange of resources and services. It’s really an ancient idea. Imagine a community where a person is able to ask for assistance getting their broken car up and running. This person doesn’t have that skill set but there are people in the community who do. They do however run a small farm and can offer fresh vegetables in exchange for some help with their car. It works out perfectly because there is a skilled mechanic in the community who could really use some veggies for their dinner table. Both parties have seen a direct return on their investments and in that way the mutual aid community has directly served itself for the better. This is a different kind of commerce than what we’re used to seeing with capitalism. There is no exchange of money but it is no less effective in meeting the needs of these community members (it is arguably more effective).
Let’s take a look at a more abstract kind of revenue, one that is even more removed from the traditional way that we think of commerce. I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m someone who has dealt with an anxiety disorder and have made it a priority in recent years to pursue therapy more regularly where I can. Therapy costs money, and in a capitalist system like the one we live in, I am exchanging money for services rendered - I’m paying a professional to help me work on my brain. Now, in the unimaginative way that capitalism views this transaction, I am essentially choosing to lose some money in exchange for some kind of service. What capitalism is not good at thinking about is all the unknowable benefits that ripple out from this transaction down the line. Yes, in a strictly dollars-and-cents sense I am losing money, but I am also potentially gaining a more stable existence. The treatment I receive from a therapist might mean I become a stronger, healthier, happier, and more stable person. It’s impossible to quantify the benefits that result from that, or how much that might improve not only my own life but the lives of the people around me. So it’s very limiting and even false to view the transaction between me and my therapist as a simple exchange of money for services. My return on investment is incredibly more nuanced than that and it would do me a disservice to think of my therapy in such a limited way. It might even be that I am gaining money through this transaction because we don’t know all the ways it could prevent financial loss down the line. Beyond financial revenue I am tapping into a completely different kind of revenue. One I might dub “emotional revenue.”
What I mean by “emotional revenue” is that, while I am parting with some of my money in this equation, I am at the same time gaining a kind of emotional income in the form of better emotional/mental health and who knows what else. Put another way, I may be less financially solvent because of my choice to make therapy a priority, I may be more “in the red” when it comes to financial revenue, but I may also be immeasurably richer when it comes to emotional revenue - I may be “in the black” when it comes to my emotional revenue stream. It’s truly difficult to game out because none of us are particularly practiced in the ability to dissect and understand more abstract systems like emotional revenue. We have difficulty seeing beyond the “money in exchange for goods and services” framework that, by design, requires that we limit ourselves to thinking about things in terms of financial loss or gain.
Returning to our example from earlier where the young comic artist purposefully loses money in exchange for an increase in readership and connection. This is likewise an example of devaluing financial revenue in deference to emotional revenue. What are all the emotional gains that this artist might experience because of their choice to not prioritize making the smartest financial decision they can? The honest truth is that we don’t yet know. As was made clear in the previous section, it is an under-explored kind of revenue.
Different Measuring Sticks
We’ve already discussed the possibility that a capitalist system may be a poor measuring stick by which an artist gauges their success, professionalism, and the quality of their work. If an artist measures these things first and foremost by their performances in the marketplace they will have an incredibly skewed concept of themselves and their capabilities as an artist.
Imagine instead that an artist measures their success, professionalism, and the quality of their work first and foremost by their ability to make gains in an emotional revenue stream? How would this change the artist’s conception of themselves and their capabilities as an artist? A comic artist who might easily see themselves as a failure in a financial marketplace because of low sales, might instead see themselves as a success by their ability to connect with their readers and have meaningful exchanges that genuinely improve the lives of other people and themselves.
If that was the new measuring stick, what changes? If that was the new measuring stick, in what different areas of their life would the artist invest going forward?
Is it possible to change how we measure success? And by doing so, might it also be possible to alter how we define it?
It’s worth experimenting (shrug emoji)
*thanks for reading
PS: we would love your thoughts on this subject. we are in no way experts. email us at andsogoes (at) gmail.com