Share on Telegram “The actual context and state of content [on the internet] is going to be so different to anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.” — David Bowie, BBC Newsnight 1999
Bowie was remarkably prescient on the impact the internet would have, not only within the creative industries but also on society at large. While the early days of the internet painted a future of borderless, peer-to-peer networks of unlimited creative possibility, we still have gatekeepers and intermediaries demanding their share of cultural equity.
Can the new era of Web3 technologies, such as blockchain and crypto assets, revitalize culture-making and blur the lines between creators and patrons in such a way that perhaps the Starman himself would approve? The nature of creative scenes
Ambient music pioneer (and Bowie collaborator) Brian Eno described the spontaneous eruption of creative scenes and subcultures as a display of scenius : “The intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene […] the communal form of the concept of the genius.”
While stars or other influential figures may be the vanguard for a new scene or subculture, bottom-up community engagement is paramount for any modern cultural movement to gain traction — whether it be surrealism, punk rock, hip-hop, cyberpunk or crypto.
Wired founder and futurist Kevin Kelly breaks down scenius into four core factors:
“ Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
Local tolerance for the novelties — The local ‘outside’ does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.”
Scenius can occur anywhere minds meet: a town, a company, a region or a virtual space.
Scenius tends to have a subversive quality to it. Some of the most lasting and influential cultural movements have happened without permission or broad market appeal . Often, subversion of the status quo is the core driver of their success.
Despite this subversive quality, scenius is often the process, by which new ideas, concepts, sounds, images and so on are injected into the mainstream consciousness, a sort of cultural lab that experiments with the new long before acceptance (or even integration) with the established order.
The framework of scenius presented by Kelly implies a democratic, community-driven structure; yet, if we look at past cultural currents through that lens, a clear pattern emerges of powerful and opportunistic interests seeking to stake their claim on these movements.
The concept of patronage — the ongoing financial and social support of a creator by an individual or community — provides an illuminating fulcrum for analyzing the changing anatomy of cultural markets. The evolution of creative patronage
The history of patronage in the arts reveals that technological and social evolution over hundreds of years results in shifting power relationships between artists and their patrons.
As far back as ancient Rome, it was the status and power of elites that shaped creative scenes. Gaius Maecenas, a prototypical patron of the arts and close associate of Roman Emperor Augustus, almost single-handedly shaped the “Golden Age” of Roman literature and poetry through his support of luminaries like Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid.
Centuries later, in Renaissance Italy, the powerful Medici family elevated figures like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci from mediocrity to legend.
In recent times, it’s not hard to find examples, such as the Saatchi brothers, who have been credited with driving early awareness of Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and other young British artists.
In short, for over two millennia, the rich and powerful have bankrolled cultural production and reaped the benefits, and in many cases, artists were placed in a precarious position — subject to the whims and sensitivities of their patrons. Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, was abandoned and betrayed by the Medicis when faced by charges of heresy for his discoveries by the church and later died under house arrest.
This was the dominant form of patronage until the rise of the joint-stock corporation and the growth of private enterprise in the 19th century. From here, creative endeavors were commodified to feed the market rather than appease the few. The advent of the music “industry” in the 20th century is testament to t...