Amanda Palmer – “The Art of Asking”
It seems like some of the rhetoric that is employed in promoting digital humanities projects stems from insecurity. Digital Humanists feel that they have to justify their work as “real scholarship,” so they respond by insisting that they’re changing the nature of scholarship as we know it. Perhaps they’re right, but I’m more interested in this feeling that the work needs to be justified to some looming, suit-wearing authority figure.
Amanda Palmer brings up this feeling repeatedly in her TED talk, “The Art of Asking.” In her talk, Palmer narrates the story that led to her Kickstarter campaign for her most recent album, “Theater is Evil.” Palmer describes her music as a cross between punk and cabaret and tastefully acknowledges, with a shrug, that “it’s not for everyone.” When I heard the term “punk cabaret” I thought, “Now there’s a really niche audience!” Then, I remembered that we’re in academia, where people spend entire careers studying the four elements in medieval literature.
Much of Palmer’s presentation is anecdotal. She begins by explaining that she didn’t always make a living from music. Five years after graduating from a prestigious liberal arts university, she was working as a street artist. According to Palmer, she used to pose all day, standing on a box, wearing a wedding dress. Her income was regular, even though she didn’t have regular customers. Sometimes passers by would drop a dollar in, and when they did she would hand them a flower and reward them with “intense eye contact.” She described these encounters as some of the most profound she has ever experienced. Palmer could tell who really needed the interaction, those who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks. Later in the talk, she would return to these moments to muse on her use of social media; her goal in using social media is to re-realize the kinds of powerful connections she used to have with people when working as a street artist.
During her time as a street artist, Palmer spent her nights playing in a band called the Dresden Dolls. From playing in this band, she claimed to develop an art of asking people for help. She would incorporate other artists and musicians into her act, then pass a hat around during the show. For Palmer, Twitter made asking for help even easier because she could reach people from anywhere instantly. She cites multiple examples of using Twitter to get the things she needed on the road: fans provided her meals, instruments to practice on, places to stay, etc.
Eventually, The Dresden Dolls became successful enough so that Palmer didn’t have to work as a street artist anymore. Later, they became success enough to get signed to a major record label. Their first record sold about 25,000 copies, which Palmer remarks, sounded like a lot to her at the time. The label, however, was disappointed with that number, which led to an unsatisfying relationship between artist and label. Because Palmer’s fans read her blog, they became aware that she was unsatisfied with her label. They began coming up to her after shows and sheepishly confessing they had burned her CD, handing her an apologetic five or ten dollars. “This started happening a lot,” Palmer says. It was around this time that Palmer decided to start giving her music away for free. She would encourage torrenting, downloading, and sharing, but would also have no inhibitions about asking her fans for help/money.
Palmer’s next record would feature a different band and adopt a different production and distribution philosophy. She began a Kickstarter campaign with a projected goal of $100,000. The campaign raised nearly 1.2 million dollars, making “Theater is Evil” the most successful crowd-funded music project of all time. Palmer remarks that about 25,000 people contributed, which was the very number that her successful record company found so disappointing. Palmer uses her story to point out that asking for help is a way of connecting with people and sustaining one’s artistic output. According to Palmer, artists don’t often indulge in this method because it feels weird. Her argument implies that artists in our society are conditioned to think of their output in the terms of capitalist transaction (If a large number of people do not purchase a product, then it has failed), when perhaps this isn’t the most viable way for artists to think of output that might have significant value outside of a more traditional commercial sphere.
Palmer received a significant amount of public criticism after the unprecedented success of her Kickstarter campaign. Most specifically, she was criticized for her practice of asking musicians to play with her on stage for free (or beer). In a scathing critique of her handling of the money, Gawker doctored an image of Palmer gleefully hoisting bags of money above her head. Palmer said the image hurt in a really familiar way; it reminded her of people who used to shout at her to “get a real job.” I found Gawker’s treatment of Palmer unnecessarily harsh. My sense was that Palmer ended up with a lot more money than she, or anyone else for that matter, could have predicted. Having local musicians play with her band was a practice that carried over from her days with the Dresden Dolls, and those musicians were honored to play with her.
Palmer finishes with the observation that celebrity is about loving people from a distance, but the internet and content sharing are enabling us to go back to a time when musicians were more direct members of a community. According to Palmer, a fewer people can be enough to sustain an artist’s living. Her final argument is simple: “Give and receive fearlessly. Ask without shame.”
This talk drew my interest because, speaking anecdotally, I have noticed a gap between the generation that is entering its early-20s and the one that is about a decade older in the perceptions of the ownership of digital materials. In the elder generation, there’s a real contempt for people who don’t pay for music. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who have paid for hardly anything in their music library and don’t think twice about it. Digital materials don’t feel as real. Regardless of their value, their lack of materiality makes it harder for younger generations to justify paying for them.
Rewards for our passionate labors in the humanities are not always very tangible. We have talked in class about how there isn’t any real monetary or professional compensation for offering feedback on aspiring journal articles. The rewards for work in the Digital Humanities feel even more nebulous. There’s grant money, but that’s hard to come by. You could justify your time doing work on Digital Humanities projects by saying it will eventually increase your recognition or professional reputation, but the collaborative nature of DH projects can make it difficult to communicate the importance of your specific contribution.
Some of the DH manifestos I have read are not far from encouraging Kickstarted academia or pay-what-you-want scholarship. In listening to Palmer’s talk, I couldn’t help but make the connection between artists and academics. We both often have to justify the “practical” value of our work to the systems that sustain us. We both produce output directed at niche audiences, engaging with small but devoted communities. Perhaps after the initial fervor for DH work wears off it will become harder to justify DH’s practical use to the bureaucratic wings of universities. On the one hand, Palmer’s story is inspiring. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that Kickstarter simply creates a different kind of distant celebrity. Perhaps Kickstarter is simply more of the same–low odds, high rewards–with a different kind of dressing.
This review poses a lot of really interesting questions, and I don’t know if I can even really begin to muse on where they might lead. Right now, a lot of the more avant-garde forms of DH have a certain raw similarity to street art and other viciously creative projects. This is both one of DH’s greatest strengths–it’s striving to take academia to realms that it would otherwise never touch–but it is also one of its greatest weaknesses, since, like much street art, it can come across as awkward, uncomfortable, and ill-conceived.
I do really like the way that links to relevant articles are worked through this review. In a way, this emphasizes another useful aspect of DH projects: the ability to create a web of information that is quickly and easily accessed (as opposed to the potential distraction of searching for end notes in lengthy research texts). I also appreciate the tone of this review. It’s quirky and engaging, and fun to read.