A Response to Josh MacPhee’s Essay About Kickstarter
By Donna Oblongata
As a working, DIY artist, I feel compelled to respond to Josh MacPhee’s essay about Kickstarter. I want to start out saying that I am not trying to defend Kickstarter as a company. I’m not in the business of defending corporations from critique. I’ve never personally used Kickstarter to fund a project (though I probably will eventually), and I don’t have a Facebook account for many of the reasons that MacPhee cautions us against Kickstarter. I don’t want the details of my very human life and my actual relationships to become currency for corporations. And I’d like to preserve the few small parts of my brain that manage to not be bombarded by constant news and updates from people and sources I don’t hold close.
That being said, I have to take issue with such a lengthy and sloppy analysis of Kickstarter and its effects on our (artists, folks in the DIY movement, radicals) communities, social networks, and lives. The fact is, when it began, Kickstarter was pretty revolutionary in that it was the first institution to formalize (and popularize!) getting community support for art projects as a primary source of funding. The idea that a community of friends, family, neighbors, and fans can and ought to support projects that enrich our lives, tell diverse stories, and provide us with a cultural landscape, is central to any analysis of art’s role in society that doesn’t imagine artists as dependent on grants or wealthy patrons (assuming we’re living under coercive capitalism, which we are). We can create and be the media, rather than having it handed to us by large corporations or an arts establishment. We can be valued as cultural workers without government or private grants, and without being hired as writers by HBO, or sculptors for Macy’s windows. But this is only true if artists are connected (either through geography, personal relationships, or cultural/ideological commonality) with their audiences. If artists are truly serving a community, that community will likely support them to the best of its ability. By establishing a formal way for artists to harness this type of support, Kickstarter (and similar sites) have made possible countless independent, DIY projects that promote this vision of the artist’s role, and as such, I feel the need to pull us back from the slippery slope of critique that MacPhee has set us on.
MacPhee says that any time there is the “suggestion of free money, we should be suspicious.” But as he himself states, it’s not free money. Building a network of support for your work takes time, and successfully executing a Kickstarter campaign is real work, and takes a bit of savvy, as he says. But after doing some hypothetical math, he concludes that after all the work running a Kickstarter campaign, “a day spent on a grant application doesn’t seem so bad.” Maybe I’m just slow, but I’ve never completed a grant application in one day. Seeking out and applying for grants is time consuming work. Furthermore, the entire grantmaking industry steeply privileges those with certain levels of formal education, language proficiency, and connections to people on boards (meaning people with access to money). Glibly suggesting that artists just look for grant money is a dangerous logical road to go down. Not to mention that many, many projects are flatly considered “unfundable,” based on the content, aesthetic, or medium of the project.
MacPhee goes on: “Kickstarting a project demands that we transform ourselves from artists into marketers. Are these two selves compatible?” Global capitalism is coercive. We must have some kind of income to survive. We are also artists. The creative act is what drives us, it is how we like to spend our time, and for many of us, our artwork is the way we are able to process and deal with living in such a destructive and dehumanizing society. As someone living with both of these realities—these “two selves”—it is a constant effort to make these two selves compatible—and to make them compatible with my own anti-capitalist beliefs. I would argue that Kickstarting doesn’t transform us into marketers; capitalism does. Capitalism turns everyone—artists and non-artists alike—into marketers. We market ourselves in college applications, job applications and resumes—all in the name of trying to make a living. Kickstarter can actually allow us to market ourselves less, and potentially more honestly. I know that when I appeal to friends and family and fans for money to get a project off the ground, they already know (and generally are excited about) what I do. I can be honest about the fact that I’m planning a totally illegal project based on copyright infringement, and about my radical politics. I’m not marketing. I’m soliciting monetary support from people who are (in my experience) usually pretty happy to have the opportunity to support something they already think is worthwhile, and that they might even feel a personal investment in. “Marketing” comes in when I have to explain that same project in a grant application, or to investor types whom I don’t know. Suddenly I have to put a gloss on things. I can’t admit to any kind of experimentation or law-breaking. I often have to alter my project (at least in its description) to appeal to their sensibilities. This is what marketing looks like. What MacPhee describes as the mass homogenization that we all go through, “rounding the edges” and streamlining to seem more appealing and attract investors—that is what the grant-application process does. It is not what starting a Kickstarter campaign needs to be. Assuming that that’s what a Kickstarter campaign does assumes a sort of capitalist competitiveness among projects—which is simply not the reality of these websites. If I start a Kickstarter campaign for my play about Charles Darwin’s search for the yeti (coming soon), I’m not competing with someone else’s campaign for their artisan soap-making start-up. The people I know (and solicit) aren’t going to weigh my project against the artisan soap. Surely, most of the people I know don’t even know about the soap-making start-up (nor are they likely to be interested in soap). I can choose to communicate my vision in a language that I feel comfortable with, and that I feel will speak to my community, rather than one that has been institutionalized and mandated by the non-profit industry. In the world of grantmaking, artists are directly in competition with each other for a specific number of awards. If we are meant to be suspicious of promises of “free money,” let’s start with the grantmaking industry (and educating ourselves about things such as the NEA Four)—since that money is much more “free” than money that comes with (one hopes) a sense of accountability to your established community and creative network.
“The Kickstarter platform and website might not look like a shop floor, but when you are there, you are working,” MacPhee says. Yes you are. As is any artist when they are in the studio crafting their work or when they take that work into the real world to sell it, perform it, hang fliers about it, &c. It’s all work. And it is work that we are in charge of in a holistic way—it is our own labor toward our own ends. Many artists love working in the studio, but for political or personal reasons don’t want to do the work of promoting, performing, or peddling the work in order to make it pay. That is understandable. If you don’t want capitalism’s dirty hands on your creative expression, or if you don’t want to turn your enjoyable passion into a daily source of stress and you’d rather make a living some other way, more power to you. But for those of us who do try to go the working-artist route, that kind of work is work we have accepted. We make a bargain that we would rather do work-style-work for our art (that is administrating, promoting, &c.) rather than work-style-work for something/someone else (the local coffee shop, educational institution, or house painting business). Capitalism sucks. But within its coercive system, choices (narrow, limited choices) about what kind of work we are willing to do are made.
Kickstarter is a viable choice for many artists because despite what MacPhee’s sensational math would have you believe, a relatively large amount of the money raised goes directly to the artist. I’m not saying I think that Kickstarter or Amazon’s cut is acceptable or even necessarily worth the price of admission. I think that the percentages they take are disturbingly high. Yet, the ability of artists to self-publish or self-produce (as crowd-funding makes possible for those without a chunk of money in the bank) means that besides retaining control of their work (which is a huge consideration), artists receive much larger percentages than they would if they were simply receiving royalties from a middleman. Further, most functioning arts organizations end up paying a percentage of their income to someone whose job it is to promote the work, raise money, and do outreach. My theater company had times when we paid a booking agent between ten and twenty percent of our performance fees because without that person’s help and hard work, we wouldn’t have gotten nearly the amount of money that the show ended up paying us. Yes, paying an individual to do this work is different than giving a percentage of your income over to a monster like Amazon. However, it’s dishonest to pretend that Kickstarter aside, raising money doesn’t cost money. It almost always does—even if it’s the percentage of your profits that you had to pay the grocery store for the ingredients for your bake sale. Also, when an artist’s project is funded up front, it alleviates a variety of stresses that can impede the creation and distribution of the work itself. For example, if the production of a play has been fully funded before it opens, it’s actually viable to have tickets be purely donation-based, which opens up the theater to anyone who can get there. If a print run of thousands of educational posters can be funded ahead of time by 300 backers, the backers can each get a poster as a reward, and the thousands that are left can be distributed where they’re needed—not where the money is.
Such haste to condemn a tool that people use in an attempt to liberate themselves from wage labor and meaningless work risks taking a very privileged position. While inaccurately comparing Kickstarter to Mary Kay, MacPhee manages to criticize his childhood friend Andrew’s single mother because, “as far as I could tell, she spent more time peddling cheap makeup than with Andrew.” MacPhee says that she was struggling to make ends meet, so we know that simply spending more time with Andrew (which, MacPhee seems to imply, would make her a better mother) was probably not an option. When did it become acceptable to criticize a single mother for spending time working to pay the rent and put food on the table for her kid?
It’s hard for me to see what’s so horrendous about the Kickstarter “rewards” system that MacPhee so heavily critiques. Each person who creates a project gets to determine what the rewards will be. So if you don’t want to turn your fundraiser into a “shopping experience,” you don’t have to. Many rewards end up being extensions of the project itself. For example, if you donate to help someone make a movie, you’ll often get a DVD of the finished film. If you donate to a theatre company, often you’ll get tickets to the show. Help a magazine, get a subscription. These are all just ways of artists getting the seed money to start the project, rather than collecting (via ticket sales and subscriptions) after the fact. They aren’t necessarily creating and dealing in new commodities. MacPhee’s own work lends itself to commodification (books and prints) regardless of whether Kickstarter is involved. Those of us whose work is ephemeral and non-reproducible (live performance) can easily maintain our dedication to not-dealing-in-objects by being thoughtful about what we offer as rewards. But then, MacPhee says, “Why bother sending out rewards if you are not going to ask people for money again? We felt we had to fill all of ours, but I can see why people wouldn’t.” This statement is textbook capitalist thinking. It views human action as based only on incentive—particularly monetary. I imagine that one might feel excited to send the rewards as a genuine way of thanking people for supporting a project. Despite the “abstraction” created by the “web interface,” it is (one hopes) possible to retain some understanding of what it is to be supported by a community and to want to show appreciation for generosity and support. Attesting to be anti-capitalist while being so focused on incentives is either faulty logic or disingenuous. Further, it assumes the worst about people (people that you know! People whom you think of as comrades in the struggle!) which I find difficult to marry with a set of anarchist (or even Marxist) ideals.
Macphee’s vision of the future, in which we’re overturning couch cushions to Skype with Bret Easton Ellis (I would never!) mostly just betrays his own assumption that everyone out there in cyberland (me, you, our rich social networks) is celebrity-obsessed with no investment in our local communities and arts scenes, or projects that we feel politically or personally aligned with. But why assume that about people whose entire social and cultural lives are based on rejecting mass culture and building DIY culture? Does MacPhee really think that all of us no-gods-no-masters types would be so fickle? That we don’t really mean it? Yes, Kickstarter might get gobbled up by celebrities and the people who love them. But that is true of so many good and useful things. If we’re going to let the threat of useful-things-falling-into-the-wrong-hands paralyze us and prevent us from using useful tools, then no radical projects or movements toward a better way of living will ever get off the ground. That way of thinking is just as much a trap as any other. Yes, we must be ever vigilant, and critique of large corporations (particularly those profiting off of our own good will and drive toward creating a vibrant cultural landscape) is important. That shit is real. But what, what, what, good is throwing out the baby with the bathwater? If you privately don’t want to receive Kickstarter pleas, and if you don’t want to pack and mail rewards for those people who helped get your project off the ground, I can understand (sort of). If you don’t want to swim in the community pool because you think it’s gross, that’s your prerogative. But publishing an essay like this, which will presumably be read by any number of people who regularly receive Kickstarter pleas, is standing on the ledge and openly peeing into the pool where everyone can see. And all that does is make it so no one wants to swim in the pool anymore. But widespread enthusiasm for crowd-funding is what makes it work. It cannot sustain itself or hold up under puritanical scrutiny.
Kickstarter has problems. Alternative crowd-funding sites do exist. Macphee suggests (facetiously or seriously, I can’t tell) that we join him in struggling to communize Kickstarter (a privately held company). It seems to me that creating from scratch a healthier, not-profit-driven alternative might be a more realistic and worthwhile venture. I am struggling to see, however, how such a half-baked analysis of crowd-funding culture is going to help pave the way for that. And how many worthwhile DIY projects will fail to raise seed money if this brand of cynicism takes hold while we wait for such an alternative to materialize?