If beauty is art, how do we fund more of it?
Amanda Palmer // WTF BEAUTY
The text message came in before the interview: “It’s Amanda effing Palmer. Running a tad late.” This is 100% on-brand for the singer/performer. From her early days as a street performer, to her time with the Dresden Dolls, to her TED talk and subsequent best-selling book “The Art of Asking,” to her current album (which NPR called “a grand statement of empathy”), Palmer commands attention.
Her rapt community of followers on the Patreon crowd-funding platform (15,000 strong, each pledging about $3 per month, she says) support her financially and emotionally. The emotional part isn’t a one-way street. When she asks What the Future, she is thinking about the role of art in beauty and the rapidly changing relationship between the artist and arts funding.
WTF: You asked if people feel more beautiful when surrounded by beautiful things and beautiful people. The answers, generally speaking were “yes” and “no” respectively. What did you think of those results?
Amanda effing Palmer: The more I’ve moved through the world, the more I have proof positive that what I see with my eyes really does affect my state of mind. I don’t just mean the other emotional human beings pottering around. I mean whether I can see the sky, whether there are large, clean uncluttered spaces, whether they be nature or a table surface. What’s so interesting about all of this is that beauty is completely subjective.
WTF: Yet people don’t feel more beautiful when surrounded by beautiful people.
Palmer: I would say that there are two definitions of beautiful people. They’re superficially beautiful people who get paid money to model sports clothes, and then there are internally beautiful people. When I’m around internally beautiful people, I feel infinitely more internally and externally beautiful myself.
WTF: In our global study, people tended to prioritize “internal” beauty, but also had a very consistent definition of external beauty.
Palmer: Well, we are mammals and we are definitely set with internal systems for procreation and what looks tasty. It’s just a thing.
“I don’t know, what would Patti Smith advertise? Space X? Tampons? Moleskine journals? Who knows? I respect the decision of any artist to figure out how to play the game any way they want.”
We feel more beautiful when surrounded by beautiful things, not beautiful people.
To what extent do you agree/disagree with the following statements?
I feel more beautiful when I am around beautiful things like nature or art or architecture.
I feel more beautiful when I am reading, watching or listening to something beautiful.
I feel more beautiful when I am around beautiful people.
I feel more beautiful when I see people who look like me portrayed as beautiful in ads and the media.
(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between May 16 and 20, 2019 among 1,201 adults in the U.S.)
WTF: Eighty percent of people find nature beautiful, and two-thirds say they always or often find music beautiful. Others find art in architecture or literature. This would seem to make a case for making more beautiful art.
Palmer: It doesn’t mean anything unless we agree on a definition of beautiful, right? But there’s a lot of argument that I could make where all art is just beautiful by virtue of being fucking art. The more I work in the arts I’m reminded how far we have gotten from the source of why human beings started creating art for one another to begin with: It helps us. It connects us. It fortifies us. It feeds us.
WTF: Can you talk a little about your Patreon community and how that relationship is changing between you as an artist and your fans as a funding source?
Palmer: I’ve been making art and trying to pay rent for 20 years. As someone who came out of the punk culture and the folk culture that really abhorred the commercialization of art, the more I move through the world nowadays the weirder I feel, because the younger generation coming up does not have the same relationship to “selling out” that my whole generation did. It’s super-disorienting because we don’t share a common language anymore.
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WTF: How do you balance the commercial aspects of making a living and the art itself?
Palmer: I feel about commercial work the same way I feel about feminism: I am completely 1,000% pro-choice. I cannot and would not judge Lou Reed for doing a Honda ad or Bob Dylan for doing a Victoria’s Secret ad or for Patti Smith if she decides to do a complete about-face and—I don’t know, what would Patti Smith advertise? Space X? Tampons? Moleskine journals? Who knows? I respect the decision of any artist to figure out how to play the game any way they want.
WTF: If “selling out” is less of a problem, that could open the door for brands to be a larger part of funding the arts, by aligning with artists and musicians who fit their aesthetic or message, or appeal to their audiences.
Palmer: I think some of them do. I mean, look at how [rock band] OK Go paid for their last few videos [through brand partnerships]. Or the fact that Red Bull has a music festival that gives experimental musicians work. Every single artist is going to have to make a choice to whom they want to be beholden. That’s the critical issue.
WTF: And now you’re funded directly from your fans.
Palmer: My relationship with these people is real. Their relationship with me is real. I just spent my morning writing a thank you letter to all 20,000 people who came to my spring tour to remind them that I know that I’m doing it for them, and they are showing up for me, and that this isn’t random.
WTF: Much of your current art is finding beauty in pain. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but you’ve said that the audience isn’t there to validate your pain, they’re there because they have their own issues in their lives that they’re dealing with, and somehow your show helps. Have you figured out how that exchange works?
Palmer: I think human being mammals desperately need to feel un-alone and need to feel our experiences and losses, and our difficulty is reflected in one another. We forget how practically applicable art can be in our lives. We forget that the reason our ancestors came up with this bizarre idea in the first place was to help each other to make sense of the world, to make sense of pain, to make sense of the dark. Art is a fantastic vessel to carry that message of un-aloneness from one to the other.