A Conversation With Wiliam Deresiewicz

May 7, 2021

Russ Ewell

Today, we’re releasing the third and final episode of our three-part conversation with William Deresiewicz. In this episode, we cover the importance of supporting and valuing artists’ contributions to society.

This particular podcast guest was so incredible, interesting, insightful, and inspiring that I felt we needed to make sure to release it in digestible loads, so that you could mine every nugget in it.

Just in case you haven’t had a chance to listen to the first two episodes, we’ve linked them below as well. 

Deep reflection with William Deresiewicz

As I wrote in my introductory article, the world is changing, and we can choose to see this change as an opportunity or a threat. 

The complexity of change is best understood and navigated by complicated people whose deep reflection has taught them to untangle the complexity of life. These are those who make change simpler and sometimes easier.

William Deresiewicz is just such a man, someone who has untangled his complexity, learned simplicity, and graciously shared the fruits of his journey with his listeners and readers.

In our interview, Mr. Deresiewicz and I discussed a wide range of topics, including mentorship, education, and the arts. 

Deresiewicz has published more than 280 essays and reviews, won the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, as well as a Sydney Award. He is a three-time National Magazine Award nominee, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The American Scholar, and many other publications. These works have been translated into 18 languages and anthologized in more than 30 college and scholastic readers.

Episode 1: The Death of Friendship, A Jane Austen Education, and the Lost Art of Listening

In this first episode of three, I talk with award-winning essayist and best-selling author William Deresiewicz about a varying number of topics, including friendship, mentorship, and learning from those who are different from you.

Episode 2: Rethinking and Redefining Education

Students are people, first and foremost. When we treat them as products or resources for the job market, we deprive both them and the world of the creativity and depth necessary to develop holistic leaders. In this second episode of three, I continue my conversation with William Deresiewicz about rethinking and redefining education and the importance of seeing students as human beings.

Episode 3: The Cultural Importance of Artists and the Arts

Artists communicate and articulate emotionally what we are unable to do ourselves. When we don’t value and support artists, society as a whole misses out on truth, introspection, and depth. An Urban Institute study found that “96 percent of respondents said they were greatly inspired and moved by various kinds of art…[and] only 27 percent of respondents said that artists contribute “a lot” to the good of society.” If so many of us value and are moved by art, why don’t we support the artists that create it?

In the final episode of this three-part podcast series, I conclude my conversation with William Deresiewicz, discussing his book, The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, and the importance of supporting and valuing artists’ contributions to society.

Episode 3 Transcript

Russ (00:00):
Welcome to the lead different podcast. First and foremost, I want to thank all of you. Who’ve been listening to our podcast, especially this last series that we’ve been doing. William Deresiewicz. I think it’s been,uI don’t want to overuse the word Epic, but it feels pretty Epic. UI’ve had a chance to read,uall of his books and,uone of my favorite,uarticles,uor essays that he wrote on solitude and leadership. And I hope at some point to be able to get that out to you, but for now, we’ve got these three podcasts they’re in a series. And if you look on lead different, you’ll see we have an article posted there that really,uputs them all together in one package. So you have them right there along with a little bit of a, you know, me sharing that this is a special opportunity to be able to listen to,uWilliam Deresiewicz,uthe New York times bestselling author.

Russ (01:18):
And our final episode is about the cultural importance of artists and the arts. Now, before you think I’m not an artist and I don’t practice the arts, all of us have favorite artists have entertainment, have things that we like to watch and listen to that inspire us. Whether it’s paintings, whether it’s music or movies, whatever it may be. Broadway shows, we all have an interest, a podcast that we listened to writers that we read, blogs, whatever it may be. And in this, he talks about really the challenge that is before artists, because in this world that Silicon Valley has built, which I’m from Silicon Valley. So I love it. It’s made it in some ways more difficult, and we’ve got to figure some of these things out, but at the same time, it’s really this episode, the death of the artists, how creators are struggling to survive in the age of billionaires and big tech is the book.

Russ (02:08):
The episode title is the cultural importance of artists in the arts. It’s all about because big tech has removed the gatekeepers to creating and distributing art. Digital content. Monetization is down to near zero. Artists have difficulty making a living or making art. One of the things that William Deresiewicz said, Bill Deresiewicz says is I don’t try to convince people that they should value art. I show them that they already value art. What’s really cool. After that, a wonderful quote. You can see what applies, what bill does in the podcast is he contrast to statistics. 96% of Americans agree with the statement that the arts contributed a lot of value to society, but when it comes to, you know, their payment only about 27% are significantly interested or paying attention to concerned about are willing to pay. They just think, Oh, they’re doing fine. They’re rich, they’re fine. Artists articulate and communicate emotionally what we are unable to do ourselves. So this podcast really it’s a podcast for anybody. Who’s thinking about how the world’s culture flows and changes and moves. And so here you are episode three, William Deresiewicz. He allowed me to call him bill, which I feel pretty cool about on the cultural importance of arts in the artist.

Russ (03:28):
I just want to jump in if you’ve got a few more minutes. Oh yeah.

William Deresiewicz (03:31):
Okay, great. Okay, great. And Jane

Russ (03:34):
I, I that the death of an artist, when I picked it up, I was like, I don’t consider myself an artist at all, but I picked it up and I was like, w why, why, why am I, why am I going to read this book? Like, what’s this book going to do for me? Right. and then I started reading it and I was like, this book is about me in so many ways. And I think part of it is and I mean, I’m going to say a few things and then I’ll ask a question. Part of it is the death of an artist made me think about fear because one of the things I’m doing is, is building out properties, trying to see if I can’t in our team can contribute to helping people and maybe get into publishing, not just articles and podcasts, but books and seeing where it all leads.

Russ (04:21):
Right. But I don’t think this was like a major thing in my head, but it was in there. When I read the book, I found out how hard that is. And I found out how many odds are stacked against people. And then it made me a little irritated because I was like, wait a minute. That’s the very thing I feel society needs. I feel what you talked about, about citizenship when I was, you know, I’m, I’m older than a lot of my listeners, but when I was in high school, I got citizenship awards. And, and, and you got that and you were like, Oh, I got a citizenship award. You know, and that means I’m coming to school and I treat people, right. And that was the thing, you know, civics class was a thing. So I want to make that kind of contribution to people today, as best I can on my small local level.

Russ (05:03):
But when I read death of an artists that made me afraid and say, wow, this is a much tougher thing to do. It’s always been difficult, but it’s much tougher to do with what was I reading? I want to just say the death of an artist, there are two stories you hear about making a living as an artist in the digital age, and they’re diametrically opposed. One comes from Silicon Valley and this boosters in the media, there’s never been a better time to be an artist that goes, if you’ve got a laptop and you’ve got a recording studio, if you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a movie camera, garage, band, final cut, pro, all the tools are at your fingertips. And if production is cheap distribution and it’s free. And I read that and I thought, yeah, it, it, that’s not true. And I think some of my friends down here, we went, Oh yeah, that’s not true.

Russ (05:45):
In a sense, we’re selling people, a bill of goods. That’s not real. And if we let and I, I’m going to let you talk about this. If we eliminate artist’s capacity to influence society, I didn’t look up the quote. But John Kennedy, I sat in the John Kennedy presidential library. And he said, he talked about the importance of the artist to culture. And I think some of what we’re missing, even with all the racism, Asians against blacks, some of what we’re missing is there’s a deep cultural chasm where we don’t know how to fix ourselves culturally, because we don’t have the relationships. We don’t have the depth. And we’re squashing the artist, whether it’s music, it’s paintings, it’s books, et cetera. But maybe you can talk about, I think the threat that it is. And also the two stories that may be too much.

William Deresiewicz (06:35):
No, no, no, no. I’m happy. Believe me. I’m happy to do it, especially to an audience that includes people from Silicon Valley. So the first story is the one that you said Silicon Valley story for 20, 25 years now, never been a better time. The tools are all out there. You can circumvent the gatekeepers. You can appeal directly to an audience and you can monetize that audience. You can find a way to make a living. The other story is the story that artists tell and by artists in this book, I mean, musicians and visual artists and writers and people who make film and television, basically all artists, right? Yeah. You can just put your stuff out there, but no one’s going to pay you for it. Like that’s the first problem, right? The same Silicon Valley that’s given us these tools and this access has also driven the price of digital content down to zero or near zero.

William Deresiewicz (07:28):
So you can go on YouTube and listen to pretty much any song you want and not pay a cent and YouTube. If it pays anything to the musician and it may not pay anything at all, the average per stream per you know, per listen is thought to be best guests that we have because they don’t tell us seven hundredths of a cent per stream. Wow. That means if your music is streamed a million times, which sounds like a lot, you will get $700. Wow. People can’t live like this. And we could say the same thing across the arts it’s digital demonetization. So I talk in the book a lot about what this means for artists and how artists have adjusted. And there’s crowdfunding sites, Kickstarter, Patreon, and people are very resourceful. And the people I interviewed for the book, well, over a hundred artists are really admirable human beings who are managing at some level or another to make it work.

William Deresiewicz (08:22):
Some of them are on food stamps. Some of them are making six figures, but the headline is the overriding messages that it’s actually extremely hard now for the reasons I just talked about. And then another reason is that so many people have been drawn into doing this because of Silicon Valley’s propaganda. There’s never been a better time. I just heard the other week that every day now 40,000 songs are put up on Spotify every day, 40,000 songs, a day that’s 14 and a half million, a geesh over a million self published books are put on the Kindle reading platform every year. Everyone’s trying to do this more and more slices of a smaller pie. Also the cost of living is much higher than it used to be. You know, you can’t be the Bohemian living on the margins of society, working a part-time minimum wage job and making your art minimum wage pays less rent is 62% higher than it was in 2000.

William Deresiewicz (09:22):
That’s adjusted for inflation 62%. Yes. So what are we, what are we, what’s at stake here for all of us who aren’t artists. This is exactly what you said. We count on artists for generations. Now we’ve counted on artists to do the things that we’ve been. We were talking about earlier in our conversation, give us those perspectives that we don’t otherwise have. Tell us things that we haven’t thought of, and don’t want to hear speak truth, not just to power, but to the audience. And I think you and I have both talked about Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, Homer Jane Austen, how important those experiences have been in helping blow our minds open and become different people. And we’re at risk of losing that because if the market is so difficult for artists to negotiate, their work is going to have to become more and more marketable to the extent more and more commercial. There’s not going to be the opportunity to kind of work in your studio, work at your desk for years, honing your vision, you know, developing, looking deeply inside yourself for those truths. You’ve got to put stuff out there every day. You know, every week, a new drawing every day, a new song every week, a new story every month. I mean, this is, this is stuff that I heard from artists. So we need to do things to make, to, to change the arts economy for all of our own sakes.

Russ (10:48):
You know, it’s an interesting thing. I, I had a course that would talk, it was a, I dunno, a religious symbols and art course, but it was basically an art course. And and I I’ve never, I can’t draw. I can’t, I mean, it just, when I was in kindergarten, I figured it out. I just like, you know, I’m not going to be a contributor in this way, but when I started learning about, are they talked about high art, low art, various things like that. And I’m not, solutely not an expert. But I don’t think I had appreciated until that moment, how much we need it. And they talked about the Holocaust and I have a book on it, but I can’t remember the artist’s name started with a C that, that did a lot of art around the pogroms, things like that.

Russ (11:31):
Like, there’s so many things. I think a lot of us aren’t even educated about what artists do that go beyond say giving a speech that change culture. And I felt I’ve, I’ve, I feel like one of the things that I’d like you to say a little bit more about is the need to be willing to understand that art goes beyond an action movie and that it does something for society that maybe we didn’t appreciate before, but we’re losing. And I don’t know if you could give us an example or a story to do that, but it would be helpful.

William Deresiewicz (12:05):
Well, you know, I don’t, don’t try to convince people that they should value art. Okay. You’d know, here’s what I, here’s what I do. I show them that they already value art. So first of all, there’s this amazing, I came across this study after I’d finished the book, the urban Institute did this like 20 years ago. I’m not sure if they asked about other occupations as well, but one of the findings of the study was that 96% of Americans, 96% agree with the statement that the arts contributes a lot of value to society. 96%. If you ask them, if artists contribute a lot, only 27% think they do. How is this possible? Where do people think art comes from? This is why this is the, this is the problem at the heart of the arts economy. But let’s just go back to that first number.

William Deresiewicz (13:00):
Okay. Yeah, let’s do it. I don’t need people to reduce the esky. If Dostoyevsky doesn’t work for them. I think, look, there’s a lot of junk entertainment that people consume, superhero movies and pop songs and so forth. But I think almost everyone also the most important place in their heart is for the art. That really goes deep for them. And that can mean it’s going to be different for everybody. And I’m not going to judge people’s choices. But when you have a musician that really speaks to you, you listened to them every day for years, they’re like, you know, you worship them. So I don’t need to convince people. I’m willing to let the other 4% go. We all value the arts already. We just have to think about how we do, which are, do we value? Like how much do we really value that pop song that comes and goes in a few weeks? And we forget even what it was a year later versus the stuff that we, that we hold close to our heart for our whole lives and recognize that if we want to keep having that second kind of thing, we need to think about how artists are going to make a living doing what they do, because they can’t do it otherwise.

Russ (14:10):
Oh, wow. That’s it. So I can’t talk too much about my daughter. She won’t want me to talking about her on the podcast, but you made me think about her. She loves rap. She loves it. And which, you know, I was like, wow, you do. And she loved this guy juice world who died and of an overdose. It was a sad story. But she gets me to listen to all of her music, even when I don’t want to she’ll send it to me. Hey, you gotta listen to this. You gotta hear it. You got to understand it. So I started liking juice world and I realized that he basically has a guy who communicates emotion and that, that, that, that he’s able to articulate. And I think artists do this. They were able to communicate and articulate things that we feel, but can’t articulate ourselves and can’t communicate ourselves, which brings me around to one of the things you said at the beginning.

Russ (14:56):
And then I have one more question for you, but in that is that art makes you listen, as I’m listening to you. Now, I go, art makes you listen. For the most part, we stop. We hear it. We see it. We read it. We imagine based on what we see and it makes you listen. And that’s one of the beautiful things I think about culture. And right now America’s not, we’re having a hard time listening to each other. And it makes me say, ah, we don’t want artists to be gone because there are, you know, I think about, I couldn’t stand to artists sound when I was in college and high school, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, I was like, Oh my gosh. As I got older, they became two of my favorites. And I, I, I didn’t know it at the time, but they could tell a story.

Russ (15:40):
And that story made me think about what I’ve been through. Because when I was young, I hadn’t suffered. But as I got older, I suffered. And then I was like, because my parents, you know, they did a lot for me and it’s nice, but you know, I was shielded from stuff. But then all of a sudden I listened to them after suffering. I was like, now I know what Bob Dylan was saying. Now I know what Springsteen’s saying. I keep my mouth shut. I opened my mind and things happen, but I really, I really loved that book. And we’re going to make sure that we list all the books in the show notes. Folks, I may be going too fast for you to capture all the titles, but they’re going to be fair. And you can get these books and we’ll share on our Facebook page.

Russ (16:16):
We’ll share on Twitter. We’ll get it out to you being able to grab them all. But I have one final question for build a reservoir and you’ve been generous to us today. I’m really grateful. I’ve learned a lot. I think I’ve learned more about how to think about society and how to think about it in a way, not judging it, but trying to educate it about seeings, that maybe it can explore, not telling them what they’re exploring is wrong. But one of the things I thought a lot about, and I have a lot of books about it as being a public intellectual. And this is just, this is me. This is my question. I’m indulging myself a little bit folks. Cause I really wanted to ask you this. I’ve read a lot about them, looked at them and I feel that a lot of them throughout the years maybe you could argue centuries, depending upon who you classify as a public intellectual, they have been, I don’t necessarily consider them artists.

Russ (17:10):
Maybe they are, but they have shaped. They shaped the world with their ideas and probably in my own little local way. I look and I go, I’d like to influence the world with ideas, not make it do stuff, but influence it with ideas. I don’t count myself as a public intellectual, but what do you consider to be? And maybe you don’t even consider them to be real. I know David Brooks goes, I’m not a public intellectual. What do you consider to be a public intellectual? And what would you tell students about why that might be valuable and why that might be a pursuit that they could take on in a way to make a difference in the that’s just me indulging myself, but I got you. So I’m going to ask that last question.

William Deresiewicz (17:53):
Well, I also, don’t like to call myself a public intellectual because I have so much esteem for that phrase. And I also feel like it’s been really overused. Like to me, it’s a really, really high bar and there are these sort of great public intellectuals in the middle of the 20th century, kind of this great age people I read a lot. I I’m not fit to tie their shoelaces. Right. But I would say part of the thing is that that, okay, a lot of people get called publicly intellectuals now who are just people who talk a lot in public. People who may be are journalists or ex journalists who have opinion columns and some of them I like, but you know, that doesn’t exactly qualify. And then another category that our academics with, with a certain area of expertise who are good at addressing the public and that’s great too, but I don’t also, I also don’t consider them public intellectuals.

William Deresiewicz (18:50):
I think a public intellectual is someone who’s able to think on a broad range of topics concerning society and culture and morality in a way that’s creative, that’s powerful. But that’s also accessible, right? So the third kind of person who’s not a public intellectual is sort of a brilliant philosopher, a social thinker who isn’t capable of communicating effectively to a larger public because they’ve been disciplined within an academic environment and they sort of talk in academic language. That’s not really accessible. So to have that combination of someone who’s really smart and learned, and also can articulate and can speak on a broad range of topics is rare. But I will say, and this is just, I wouldn’t have said this a month ago, but I’ve started to listen to more and more podcasts now. And I know there are literally literally well over a million podcasts, right.

William Deresiewicz (19:39):
But I think also quite frankly, as heterodox views become less acceptable to be expressed in academia and in the media and the most interesting sort of opinion writers get pushed out and now they’re on stub stack and they have their own podcasts. Right? I think I’m not going to say a golden age of public intellectuals that’s way too overblown, but I think more and more people are doing this. You know, I listened to Glen, lairig a lot now. And Glen Larry and John McWhorter, they’re both, you know, an economist and a linguist. I mean professors, but they have a broad, broad outlook. And they’re great at, at talking at a very high level. That’s the other thing is that mainstream news outlets don’t allow you to talk at this kind of level. The old public intellectuals from the fifties and sixties were writing for literary journals that had a few hundred or a couple of thousand readers, but their influence diffused all over the, you know, diffused, you know, from that point, their readers influence people and so forth. Now we have podcasts. They may also have a few thousand listeners only, but we now, in other words, we now have the kind of thing in a different form that we haven’t had for a long time. I love that. And I think it’s wonderful and it’s, it’s a, you know, it’s a, is it an ambition to pursue as a young person? I don’t think you arrive at a public being a public intellectual by deciding to be one.

Russ (21:09):
I just learned that I just got a master class right there and they exist. But being one, it’s not something you pull off the career shelf and say, Hey, I think I’ll become that. Yeah. I love that. Your answer’s brilliant. This has been build a resume. He spent a generous amount of time with us. As I’ve mentioned, he writes the essay and book, the death of friendship. His most recent book is the death of the artist. You got to check it out. It’ll surprise you. Especially if you’re in Silicon Valley working at, at one of the great companies or one of the small startups, check it out because it’ll make you think differently about creativity and artistry. Because a lot of people who work in Silicon Valley are musicians as well, believe it or not. And then excellent sheep, which I, it made me rethink.

Russ (21:56):
Even what I tell students, I run into about education. How to think about education, getting a full one. And the one that I almost didn’t read, but said, let me give it a look at Jane Austin education. And I was surprised to find so much treasure there. He also has several other essays. One of my favorites that I haven’t actually finished the American scholar solitude on leadership. That’s probably the one I need to read the most, but you can check that out. We’ll be putting all kinds of information out over the next couple of weeks that allow you to find Bill’s website, his books, and any other podcasts he’s been on too. And your Ted talk. We talked about that this morning. Thank you very much. This is lead different. You can check out our leaddiff.com. You can check out other podcasts that I do on the side, Russ off the cuff. And thanks again to bill for joining us. Thank you so much for us. This really was great.