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Kickstarter and suffering for art

2012 July 29
by Matt

There’s this thing called Kickstarter of which you may have heard. So far as I know it’s basically an online “crowdfunding” system, whereby people post some or other type of project (comics-related projects seem to be very popular, which is how I’ve come to encounter most of what I know of the thing) along with a fundraising goal. People can then pledge varying amounts toward the project and their pledged funds are only transferred when and if the goal is met, at which point the project is executed.

It seems to be quite a success, and in theory I find nothing actually wrong with it; indeed it seems like a rather commendable way around certain collective-action problems. Typically of course, I’ve nonetheless found myself irritated and repelled by it since day one. Oh the fun of a contrarian disposition.

Still, if I am a contrarian I am at least a self-aware contrarian, and I have always recognized that there’s nothing particular about Kickstarter that actually seems wrong to me. The endless enthusiasm for this Kickstarter thing or that Kickstarter hooha of the past several months has bugged me, and I can’t help thinking derisively that a Kickstarter project “for carrying-on an undertaking of great advantage but no-one to know what it is” must be coming any day now. Still, I recognize (unusually, I sometimes think, modesty aside) that there is a difference between peevishness and an actual valid argument against something, and in this case I know I have the former rather than the latter.

So I would be content to let Kickstarter go its way while I go mine, but this is not exactly possible unless I alter my reading habits significantly. I keep hearing about it whether I want to or not, and keep on having a contrary reaction. Though, perhaps a little ironically, of late I find myself repeatedly at odds with complaints about Kickstarter and in the vexing position of defending it.

Or, at any rate, defending some of the ways in which people have sought to use the site, as no more or less legitimate than what others seem to feel is the “true” and proper spirit of Kickstarter. A month ago, teh intarweb played host to various arguments about, basically, whether Kickstarter should just be a kind of advance-order system for printing and distribution of completed work, and basically just a way to spare creators from risking a bundle of cash without knowing what kind of sales they might expect for a project (or perhaps where they would even get the necessary sum ahead of time anyway) … or whether it’s appropriate for creators to ask for funds before a project is complete and, particularly, whether it’s not somehow “wrong” for the work’s prospective creator to seek living expenses so that s/he can devote more attention to producing the work in the first place.

A month ago we had one creator opposing this latter idea and saying “Maybe I’m a bit of a sadist, but [I had to] stay up late nights and work during my breaks and lunches in hopes of making my comic successful and [by contrast] asking someone to take all the risk for me with only marginal reward just seems too easy to me.” And the complaint persists, apparently, as just today we heard someone else opine that “These days I only get miffed at Kickstarters when it’s someone asking for people to pay for them to quit their jobs.”

And I don’t know if this is any kind of significant opinion, or if it’s just a few cranks, though there must be at least some measure of sympathy for the argument among the Robot 6 bloggers as they’ve given it multiple outings. In any event, for my part, and for what it’s worth I have to disagree. In fact, I have to disagree rather forcefully, and feel compelled to go on record with my disagreement.

As noted, I have always found Kickstarter weird and a little unsettling. So I should have some sympathy at least for people who are uneasy about using it to pay someone for his or her work in advance. But beyond “this doesn’t feel right” I don’t think any of these arguments hold up any better than my own reflexive annoyance.

Kickstarter is, whatever it was intended to be, a system for crowdfunding projects. Why does it make sense that such funding should be restricted to printing costs? (Especially since Kickstarter’s entire existence has taken place within a world where work is increasingly digitally distributed?) As a grumpy thirtysomething man, I can see how some people might feel a strong sentimental conviction that “you need to tough it out and take the risks and find a way to accomplish the labor on your own before you receive a cent, because that builds character” but it seems like a pretty difficult argument to sell to someone else who doesn’t share that feeling.

Personally, I think the first complaint quoted above does contain an element of sadism frankly. Work is work, creative work included. Why shouldn’t someone get paid, especially if there are people entirely willing to trust that the work will be to their liking and to pay up in advance so that the work will exist? Is working at night while you pay bills with a dull corporate slog, and/or living on ramen noodles and free samples from the supermarket, really such a wonderful experience that we want to insist on it as a prerequisite for any new person who wants to produce a big creative project? When we have an efficient, voluntary and non-coercive system for proceeding otherwise? Why?

Honestly, I don’t see myself ever trying to fund something through Kickstarter, but again that’s not because I see any kind of serious “wrong” in it, however it’s used. It’s because I’m a secretive introverted misanthrope who would prefer to just do it alone and on my own terms and then once it’s done pitch it outside the door at the world and say “here, enjoy this! Or don’t!” For me, having to sing and dance and hustle up resources for my art before/while I’m proceeding would spoil my experience of the art but I do not see any reason why it would inherently spoil the art for those of a more sociable disposition or any reason why their alternative method should be deprecated as somehow bad or wrong.

Screw that noise, frankly. It’s tough to make a living from the arts. Arguing that we need to uphold a standard of toughness because it’s part of the tradition of How This is Done or something is just insultingly asinine.

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