I know a lot of very fine people on Patreon. So it's with some embarrassment -- maybe even shame -- that I confess the whole concept kind of makes me uncomfortable. But my thoughts around it are really not very clear, so I'm just going to list a bunch of questions I have about it, and maybe that will help me figure out my thoughts.
Is it the 21st century equivalent of passing the hat around after a street performance?
And if so, is there anything wrong with that? (Yes: they don't always cough up the dough.)
In theory, it's great; and Patreon founders have this very rah-rah let's-all-support-each-other way of talking about this that makes the optimist inside me shine with rainbows while the cynic hurls. But in the end, does Patreon simply perpetuate a class system that I hoped died out with the di Medicis? (You can say it -- how naive of me.)
What does a creator owe a patron? What do patrons expect? Is it like a donation, or more like a subscription? Will creators be free, or will they feel burdened and beholden to their 20, 300, 1000 patrons? (I suppose if you have 1000 patrons you've figured it out and you're doing all right. Unless they're each giving you 50 cents, in which case, you should look for richer patrons.) Say you're doing really well, and you're making enough to get by, pay your rent, manage. Will other potential patrons decide you've earned enough and decline to support you?
Does Patreon constructively add to the conversation of what art and and artist are "worth"? Does it successfully intervene in a broken system, or does it simply patch it up and replace it with another, just as broken?
This is a larger issue of course about supporting the arts. I'm not, I should say now, a capitalist. I don't believe that some mythical free market will distribute money equitably to those who "deserve" it, who provide "value." No. I'm an anti-capitalist in fact. Capitalism is completely broken. And the fact that creators go broke is a symptom.
But Patreon feels so ... regressive to me. We're going back to the time of generous rich patrons, who pay big bucks to be inserted into a church triptych, and have pissing contests over whether their Michaelangelo is better than that other guy's artist. Okay, I exagerate. Many of Patreon's patrons are not, in fact, rich. There's a lot of evidence that many creators are funding each other. And I totaly understand that we need a new, healthy ecosystem that can support the arts.
How about we increase funding for the arts? How about we work on diminishing inequality across the board? How about we create a government that commisions works of art, that funds libraries who buy books and music and magazines? How about we fund school to pay artists to come give workshops and lectures to classes? How about we stop Wall Street predation? How about we, I dunno, start a fucking revolution so we aren't faced with the grim sight of artists begging for livable salaries? (Among many other sights that are, admiteedly, far worse. Prisons, hunger, mental health, too many guns, you name it, we got it.)
I'm sorry. I guess this topic makes me a little angry. I get it. I'm also speaking from a position of privilege, and I understand that. I worked for years in pretty well-paid positions, and I haven't been a freelance starving artist in a long time. And now that I'm independent again, I have enough savings and support that I'm not worried about where my next meal is coming from. (From the Thai place down the street.) So I can afford to sit up here on my high chair and criticize.
Let me be clear: I criticize no one for going on Patreon. If they find success there, I celebrate that.
I guess all I'm saying is, is this what we've come to? Funding our artists one measly dollar at a time?
Can't we do better?