What the Renaissance tells us about modern creatives?

There’s a famous quote by Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, that translates to “To be prepared is half the victory”. In Spanish the saying has a more romantic ring, but the sentiment holds true in any language and for every artist. The idea that success is about the path you set out rather than any grand showcasing.

And it’s an artistic ideal that has held true for hundreds of years even before the term “artist” meant anything. But the creative world is at a crossroad. Creatives have more options than ever before but the traditional paths have seemingly crumbled. It’s unheard of for a journalist today to stay at the same paper for twenty years or a filmmaker to make all of their works with one studio.

The music industry’s revenue has more than halved in a decade and it’s unclear what will happen to the movie studios in light of streaming services. Surprisingly many of the questions that young creatives face today are similar to the concerns of Renaissance artists. How can I become great at what I do? Will my career be sustainable? And where will I find my next meal?

Our public perception of the Renaissance is clouded by the Church and famous Academies but it’s beginnings are far more humble as it started in small rustic shops on the banks of the Arno river of Florence, Italy. The semi-public shops were hoisted on wooden shutters and were quaint even for the time period. And the craftsmen of the era took their small works and elevated their pieces from mere shop work to art that would be celebrated for centuries. Artists like Giotto paved the way for art to depict the natural world and a sense of realism that had been missing for almost a thousand years.

But despite the artistic breakthroughs of the period, it was also characterized by competitiveness and extreme uncertainty. The shop owners would vie fiercely to secure contracts from the Church and other wealthy patrons. In many ways the specialized shops of painters, sculptors, masons, carpenters and more is akin to the startups of today that are often hyper niched to deal with the competition.

For the young artists of the Renaissance, they started at the bottom of these shop’s as the apprentices. Craftsmen like Michelangelo would work as young as seven and train anywhere from two months to fourteen years. The apprentices would compete between each other for larger roles and the opportunity to own a shop. Michelangelo himself faced this intensity when he and fellow apprentice, Paulo Torrigiano, broke out into an argument over their work.

As one of the most talented apprentices, Michelangelo frequently provoked Torrigiano and his peers about their lack of skill. Even at a young age Michelangelo would deride those around him. But Torrigiano didn’t take the insults lightly and after numerous insults he snapped. In a particularly heated argument, he struck Michelangelo across the face and broke the artist’s nose. The injury would disfigure Michelangelo for the rest of his life and the scar is featured in all of his future self portraits.

The workshops weren’t defined by these outbursts but they were highly selective and intensely competitive. Artists could be let go at anytime. The size of the organization was dependent upon the contracts secured. Unlike the 20th century where large organizations became the norm, these craftsmen were far more nimble. And in many ways this fluid model resembles a modern trend growing in the world of the arts and tech known as the “Flash Organization”.

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Until recently, an artist would start with one of three options: join a large company, become part of a startup, or go out on their own as a freelancer. But the flash organization is a new option that is a hybrid of choices. In this model, the artist is a freelancer and within a startup. The premise of the model is organizers creating a team for a single endeavor and once the project is completed the team dissolves. The flash model is a subtle change from the freelancer economy as the freelancer works in an existing system and the larger organization continues once they leave. The flash model relies on groups of freelancers coming together rapidly and then disappearing once they’ve accomplished their artistic project.

Already certain industries have adapted this flash model into their culture. In a podcast interview with Rikki Landhome, comedian Anthony Jeselnik recalled his start in the T.V. business and how the flash model was used as early as the mid 2000’s. “In the T.V. business you get a lot of money for a little bit of time...everyone gets laid off at the end of the year and then you get rehired again”. This isn’t a flash organization in its purest sense but the intent is clear of the producers remaining creatively agile instead of bloated during downtimes. And in tech it’s even more pervasive as services like Upwork and Gigster facilitate over a billion dollars worth of deals for short and long term projects.

The creatives that take the “first mover” advantage in the flash economy will be uniquely positioned. In the mid 2000’s, artists with a personal website were better positioned than their less tech savvy colleagues. Today, the goalposts have shifted towards communities. With over a billion websites on the internet, the move towards platforms and online communities is all the more important. Creatives like designers and animators that are early to platforms like Foundry and Gigster will stand out from other freelancers. The credibility gained from these closed networks allows freelancers to focus less on customer acquisition and instead on actual art. Increasingly within the flash economy, creatives will be small businesses onto themselves. Just as the small shops of Florence facilitated contracts and hired flexible teams, creatives will be tasked with doing similar projects as larger companies and producers realize the benefits of freer models.

In the freelancer economy, it’s been the norm for creatives to serve as their own pseudo small businesses and this trend will expand as the flash model surpasses the more simplistic freelancer economy. The coming changes will certainly jar creatives but many of the old principles still apply. People are still at the heart of flash organizations and more than ever the connectors of the world will be invaluable. People will be able to quickly scale up large teams of trusted creatives for difficult endeavors.

These connectors aren’t necessarily the most successful producers but the ones who know other influencers and talented artists. The Renaissance grew out of the small craftsmen that understood the need for flexibility when it came to growth. The coming wave of flash organizations will likely be built on the same ideal. And perhaps rather than looking forward, artists should look towards the past to understand what a successful career as an artist truly means.



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