Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Social currency

2012 . 05 . 16 - Comments / Commentaires (7)

- -—[version française]—- -

If you’re an artist, corporations are out to get you. 

Really! Big companies and enterprising assembly-line types watch independent creatives carefully, looking to capitalize off of the next great idea—whether that’s in jewelry or home furnishings or even the concept of commissioned portraiture.

This is how the world works. Independents with their alternative lifestyles have a way of morphing culture in exciting ways, and it’s not something that the so-called creatives who work in cubicles can keep up with. The corporate environment will never be conducive to truly inventive leaps of the imagination no matter how innovative the management team tries to be. Corporations have the money and the influence that independents sometimes lack, but they can’t compete when it comes to creativity, so instead they appropriate.

And this scares a lot of artists. They live in terror of being noticed by a company who will steal their art. But with all the fear and the hate, independents forget that they have the ultimate secret weapon: social currency.

deux grizzlis avec leurs bebes

Gwenn Seemel
Mama bears (Grizzly bear)
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches
(For more information about the making of this painting, go here.)

Social currency is a person’s reputation, the value that she-he has within her community, whether it’s online or off. If a person contributes in a meaningful way to the lives of people around her-him, that individual has a good deal of social currency.

Some people think that companies can have this too, in the form of their brand identity, but the social currency of a legal person is very different from the social currency of a flesh-and-blood person. For one thing, an individual’s social currency is developed and augmented or diminished only by her-his own acts, whereas the reputation of a company is affected by corporate policies as well as by the behavior of every single person associated with the enterprise. 

Those are a lot of factors to control, and, in the end, the corporate version of social currency always ends up feeling unfocused, distorted, and manipulated. Often companies will try to make up for their lack of true personhood by putting a single face on the company. A founder or beloved CEO can be used to give the corporation a human look, but that’s just a ploy and, on some level, we all recognize that. This kind of person—the legal person—will never actually be just one person.

By comparison, real human social currency cannot help but be more integrated and a lot more powerful. And therein lies the advantage for the independents.

painting of two grizzlies and their babies

detail image of Mama bears (Grizzly bear)

If a company appropriates an artist’s work, it can only steal the work itself and not everything else that the artist and her-his individuality brings to the work. Things that have to do with the way a creative (and not a company) can interact with a customer.  Things like:

The people who run corporations are aware of their weaknesses. In fact they’re so self-conscious about them that they hide them behind ad campaigns, a presence in social media, and a team of intellectual property lawyers.

If only independents were as aware of their strengths as companies are of their weaknesses! Then maybe we’d stop worrying about impractical copyright and start paying attention to what matters: the very real relationships we have with others in our communities.

- Can artists make money?
- The freelance life / La vie freelance
- Imitate this. / Imitez ceci.

CATEGORIES: - English - Business of art - Crime - Uncopyright -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

(7) Comments / Commentaires: Social currency

-- SG -- 2012 . 06 . 25 --

I don’t know, your argument sounds weak.

What good does it do the jewelry artist whose designs were stolen by Urban Outfitter and mass produced, to know that people won’t enjoy the same personal interaction when buying from UO?

I once purchased a painting in person from an artist, at the place where she painted it (during an open-studio weekend). But for me to imagine I have some kind of relationship with this total stranger who I met once for a few minutes is a bit delusional.

And what comfort is to an artist that he or she might come up with a second great idea after the first is stolen? Because that one can be stolen also.

And what if the artist never comes up with a second great idea? Not many artists are able to capture the imagination of a large number of people over and over again.

But you know that the corporation WILL bring forward a second great idea, because it is in the business of stealing great ideas from whoever has them.

You say (in the linked UO jewelry post) that UO should be able to steal, because the original artist can then fight back and get public attention. But this attention came only because what UO did was considered wrong. If we all agree to throw out copyrights, then stealing ideas becomes a non-issue and a non-story, leaving the artist without even that tiny bit of moral leverage to get attention.

That said, I’m still undecided about where I stand on copyright issues. Generally, I think it is not a bad idea to have some protections in place to encourage people to come up with new, good ideas. But certainly the laws have been extended to ridiculous extremes by corporate interests.

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 06 . 25 --

Even if it became legal for UO to do what it did to Stevie Kroener, that wouldn’t make it cool.  It would still affect the company’s reputation, its social currency.

Maybe you didn’t form a relationship with that artist you purchased work from and maybe none of Kroener’s clients have what you would consider a relationship with her, but the interaction is still different than the exchange one has when buying from a company.  Some people will value that human difference and others won’t.  In my own work, I’ve found that there are plenty of people who value buying independent—plenty enough for me to make my living as an artist for the last 9 years. 

What’s more, talking about these issues and raising awareness about the dangers of IP law contributes to changing our consumer culture.  Chipping away at it, piece by piece, human interaction by human interaction!

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-- Gwylym -- 2013 . 05 . 01 --

Social currency was rejected at the supermarket… What now? A pinch of success? Wouldn’t that be worse than the corporate pirate strategy?

@ SG
“And what if the artist never comes up with a second great idea?”
Great Ideas, for me at least, don’t run out. Maybe they weren’t artists, maybe they were one hit wonders, if so, who cares? There are plenty of artists waiting to take their place.

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 05 . 01 --

Social currency translates into other kinds of currency if managed properly.  It isn’t easy, but most things relating to art-making are not easy.  As you pointed out to SG, there are artists who create consistently (through inspiration and hard work) and there are one hit wonders who got lucky.  These are two very different animals.

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-- Gwylym -- 2013 . 05 . 01 --

Gwen, I agree, just being a little provocative. Can you define what you mean by, “changing our consumer culture, chipping away at it”, what is your definition of consumer culture and why do you think it needs changing? Economic theory requires that the “Fool’s wisdom-in-folly”,will always find a home and a hovel, long may it continue, but the beast of which you speak has two tails(Innovative solutions for sustainable products made by innovative producers/consumers), but that’s slightly off topic, we were talking about art?
Art isn’t separate to the market, or at least, doesn’t have to be separate. Not all corporations are evil, what about thinking in terms of working with corporations instead of seeing them as the big bad wolf. Innovation is the common goal here.

My poetry and photos of some of my art are put out under a licence which allows for innovation for non-profit entities and individuals - a free use policy, but if someone is making money from my ideas then they have to pay me and agree to my terms. I think that is fair and I like it.

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 05 . 02 --

Consumer culture is about buying without caring who made the product and how it was made.  It’s buying without understanding that the transaction has more value than “I give you money so you’ll give me a thing.”  It’s important that we try to be more thoughtful and that we all recognize social currency’s role in our society.

I don’t think all corporations are evil.  I know very well that the money they amass can go towards innovation and can be funneled into supporting freelance creatives.  This article is me being provocative, poking at a common fear among artists to reveal how silly it is.

I think it’s fair for you to want money from people who make money off of your work.  I just don’t think that copyright law is a good way to enforce getting that money (or, rather, to try to enforce getting that money). smile

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-- Gwylym -- 2013 . 05 . 04 --

When your father is John Milton, anything is possible wink


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