Is our age of content creation killing the artist? What would Hemingway make of 2021? Certainly, he would earn a drop in the ocean compared to the likes of Kim Kardashian, who, according to TMZ, earns between $300,000 and $500,000 per sponsored Instagram post.
When Kim Met Ernest
Some interesting content cropped up on my admittedly freelance-journalist-heavy Twitter feed the other day: ‘Hemingway’s rate was $1/word in 1936,’ wrote teacher and essayist Andrew Marzoni, ‘which means that he got paid $19k in today’s dollars for a thousand-word feature.’ Mind, boggled: the famous American novelist could be making over $5,000 dollars for a single Tweet, if he went up to the character limit and the world worked like that. Marzoni, donating more of his words for free, added: ‘Will happily write more about this and other things for $1/word or less!’
If we graciously assume that a top-tier professional writer today is worth one-tenth of Hemingway....— Ryan Thompson (@BardicKnowledge) April 11, 2021
....almost nobody, and no one I know personally IRL, is paid $1.90 per word.https://t.co/J6RNpSNbfn https://t.co/tqYsV82Clb
In an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, these two worlds collide when Kim and sister Kourtney visit Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s Cuban residence purchased with earnings from reporting on the Spanish Civil War. ‘We’re excited because we studied and read Hemingway, and it’s cool to see how people lived,’ Kourtney says. Kim is taken with Hemingway’s bathroom. Using a scale and pencilling notes on the wall, he checked his weight every day. ‘That’s like me!’ Kim says.
It’s great content. Not least because it time travels Hemingway into the 21st century. Almost sixty years prior to the Kardashian’s visit, in 1957, Yousef Karsh – one of the most acclaimed photographers of the twentieth century – made the same trip to Hemingway’s residence just outside Havana. Upon arrival, he said, ‘I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed – a man cruelly battered by life, but seemingly invincible.’
Indeed, from the resultant portrait, you’d never get the impression of Hemingway as an abstemious, calorie-counting man, still recovering from the injuries caused by a plane crash during a safari in Africa. Karsh’s portrait recalls the Old Masters, such as Rembrandt and Velázquez, theatrical lighting elevating the biblically bearded author on a stage of charisma and dignity. Apparently, Hemingway wanted to be wearing a sweatshirt, after Karsh’s portrait of Einstein. Amidst all these hyper-gendered portrayals of masculine greatness, you could bet that the resultant aloof distance would be racking up the likes should it appear on Insta.
If conjuring up Hemingway’s next social media blast seems cynical or even in bad taste, then consider this: if, as the Webster dictionary puts it, creativity is ‘the ability to create meaningful new forms’, what, ultimately, is the difference between producing art and creating content? The latter word was popularised by YouTube, when it branded its stars creators, rather than ‘partners’. Other platforms followed suite. In more recent years, the term influencers has become more or less synonymous with creator – and a kind of Catch-22 has emerged.
Organic and authentic content is what does well on these platforms, yet in the cultural imagination a certain stigma is attached to the authenticity of these platforms in and of themselves, as if one is lowering their art to little more than advertising: ‘selling out’. Then again, I wouldn’t be the first hack to grumble about the decay of cultural value, the lowering of taste and the relation of one’s creativity to the way it is recompensed by the structures of the day.
The Dunciad is a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope published in three different versions between 1728 to 1743. Pope skewers hacks and bad poets, all of whom are presided over by the goddess Dulness, who ensures they bring about cultural decay and imbecility:
Not with less glory mighty Dulness crown'd,
Shall take thro' Grub-street her triumphant round,
And her Parnassus glancing o'er at once,
Behold a hundred sons, and each a Dunce.
Pope based Dullness on Queen Caroline, who had supported Pope as a patron but lost interest when she came to the throne. Here Grubstreet, which Dulness takes for her Mount Parnassus, is populated by literary hacks. Certainly, when George Gissing wrote about the class of characters he found himself amongst, in 1891, the shorthand was already old hat enough that he called his famous novel New Grub Street (emphasis mine). The book opens with an ‘alarmingly modern young man’ motivated by pure financial ambition in navigating his career as a man of letters. Spoiler alert: things don’t end all that well for him.
So, if it’s hardly news for artists and writers to rail against the technological advancements of the day cheapening their artistic labour, what has changed? Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, argues that ‘the deep and enduring changes of our age are not technological but social and cultural’:
In virtually every industry, from automobiles to fashion, food and products, and information technology itself, the winners in the long run are those who can create and keep creating. This has always been true, from the days of the Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution. But in the past few decades we’ve come to recognise it clearly and to act upon it systematically.
According to Florida’s thesis, if we were able to time-jump Alexander Pope, George Gissing, and Ernest Hemingway to 2021, the biggest shock to all of them would be just how far the pseudo-bohemian ethos of Grub Street had extended (Florida estimates 40 million such workers, about 30 percent of the U.S. workforce), to encompass sectors such as business, finance, education, health, with the creative ethos as its beating heart.
‘Schedules, rules and dress codes have become more flexible to cater to how the creative process works’, Florida writes. ‘Creativity must be motivated and nurtured in a multitude of ways, by employers, by people themselves and by the communities where they locate. Small wonder that we find the creative ethos bleeding out from the sphere of work to infuse every corner of our lives.’
Here’s the rub: creativity being systematically ‘motivated and nurtured’ sounds great – after all, creativity is part of what makes us human. But beyond those special pilates balance balls I imagine everyone at Google sits on, I struggle to visualise what this might look like. On the other hand, the image of creativity as one endless blood transfusion between work and ‘life’ is one I feel on my nerve-endings: every time I open that desk that lives in my pocket to Tweet, post, screenshot, select a GIF, I create content. Content, we understand is a commodity to be exchanged for value – creativity, crucially, isn’t.
‘Florida’s formula has proven to benefit the already rich, mostly white middle class’, wrote Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian. In the same article, Florida explains how he has been held up as a straw man for critics of gentrification. Indeed, just as the arts and artists have long been cited as factors contributing to the gentrification of central city neighbourhoods and the displacement of lower-income residents, when artists create content you could say they are gentrifying the internet: so long as algorithms are black-boxed, data transferred from people to marketers, and creativity in the hands of major corporations, content creation will feel like the equivalent of erecting a Health Food shop in the global village.
While this might explain why the term content creator can be somewhat queasy-making, so can the words artist and writer – particularly for those who aren’t yet making enough from either discipline to start paying back their student loans yet. Capital will continue to flow upwards to landowners and social media juggernauts both, but don’t berate the penniless artist or the struggling content creator. As capital continues to squeeze us for every witty caption, Vlog post and meme, as readily as every sonnet and daub of paint, I hate to break it to you, Ernest, but you’re going to have to write a lot more than a thousand words.
By Sammi Gale