Micro-funded advances for artists is good news: micropayments for finished work — like paying for mobile apps — would be better

The tall droid was originally a female bimbo. Photograph: http://www.zazzle.com/starwarselection

Creativity needs flexibility, as I was reminded through the demise of someone who had a hand in creating robots who inhabit a patch of my dreams.

R2D2 is the fictional character of the last hundred years I would choose to give the run of my house – in an eye-blink – although I would settle for his Star Wars comrade, C3PO.  A domestic cleaner-robot with charm is my only hope of indoor snow – of experiencing inside my house the supreme happiness of watching frozen H2O blanket everything messy and unsightly in a landscape and turn it into a serene Japanese garden. Yes, reader, untidiness is one of my besetting sins. I like the idea of being pandered to by a droid whose raison d’être is serving humans, and it hardly matters that Threepio’s responsibilities in the George Lucas series are protocol, etiquette and translation (from ‘six million forms of communication’ – really, just look up his wiki). He is programmable. He is sophisticated. Being so much more intelligent, he would sail over the hurdle before which I always collapse – I mean, work out how to de-clutter my existence without hobbling my attempts to do the few things that justify it. He would strap his frilly apron in place and get on with it, expecting me to do no more than keep his antivirus software up-to-date.

But Threepio might never have found his way onto cinema screens. If not for a sort of creative miscarriage, he would not have been born, and this relates to a question I have been weighing since last week’s post about micropayments. Could crowd-funding art with cash advances amassed from micropayments be less helpful than getting artists decent compensation from micropayments collected for finished work?

Let me explain.

You can pay a carpenter an advance on a set of kitchen shelves, agree on a design and choice of wood, and receive more or less what you thought you would. Though the best carpenters are unquestionably artists of a kind, they rarely derail expectations comprehensively – delivering, say, a four-poster bed in pine instead of the birch shelving grid promised for your heirloom pots and pans. Things are rather less predictable in the arts – even in the most extroverted and collaborative branches, like film-making for mass audiences. Capricious flitting about is of the essence of imagining.

C3PO, you see, was originally a woman – not just an anyone with breasts, but ‘a tall, elegant, expression-less Art Decoesque golden female robot’. I made this discovery a few days ago in a New York Times obituary for Ralph McQuarrie,  an artist who served as a sort of medium for directors of science-fiction and fantasy films. He rendered in gouache detailed externalisations, through  interpretation, of their vague imaginative stirrings about characters – a skill he acquired as a technical illustrator and from some years spent at an animation company. The obituary records that his help was crucial to the success of George Lucas’s quest for the financial backing he needed to make Star Wars — to

… persuading the board of directors of 20th Century Fox to finance the first film in the series, and to distribute the others …

“These paintings helped George get the movie approved by Fox because it gave them something to visualize, instead of just a script,” said Steve Sansweet, the author of 16 “Star Wars” books and until recently the director of fan relations for Lucasfilm.

Now, I reckon that those producers made no fuss about a sex-change operation on what is, for some of us, one of the most endearing characters in the series (not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Darth Vader, who are merely archetypes of the hero, heroine and villain as old as mankind). Hollywood has always worked the way small towns do – like publishing does in London or New York. Those producers would have known quite a lot about George Lucas before they invested in him. I could be mistaken, but am guessing that clubbiness would have given him the creative license of a friend who was once so well-connected in literary New York that her publisher made no protest when she used the advance paid for a non-fiction book about wild animals giving birth to submit, instead, a romantic novel involving safaris and social justice.

A cautiously optimistic report last Saturday by Patricia Cohen, an author and arts & culture editor at the NYT, noted surging interest in online backing for artistic projects by small-scale investors being given credit for betting on and supporting talent. Many – if not most of these actual or prospective micro-investors — do not seem to know the artists they are helping.

Some consequences and implications of this particular route to aiding struggling artists are bothering me:

● Seeking and accepting money in advance can constrain creativity. Anticipating prospective backers’ anxiety about squandering even small sums on inconsequential, pig-in-a-poke projects, artists are puffing up their planned works and divulging details of visions that have yet to meet the challenge of execution. How much room for creative manoeuvring and play – or simply changing their minds – will they have when, to reward their micro-investors’ trust, they feel that they must treat proposals as promises?

● Whereas George Lucas had Ralph McQuarrie toiling over the supply of his mock-ups, artists are being diverted from their own work to create elaborate sales pitches – like the multi-media presentations of a bold new British book-funding and publishing site, Unbound. (See, for instance, this lively appeal by five women historians for their planned collaboration on Our Reigning Queens.)

● The clarity and precision required to design and deliver an investment pitch do not fit the fuzzy, dreamlike state that neuroscience is revealing to be ideal for creativity – as Jonah Lehrer has shown in his new book on the subject.  Yes, the fund-raising part of a creator’s life can be separated more or less from doing the actual work, but there is arguably too much inimical to the right frame of mind claiming our attention already — even for people keeping their distance from social media. As Lehrer puts it, ‘… we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine’, even though this bias of the zeitgeist ‘can inhibit the imagination’.

● People are confusing micro-advances for art and literature with micropayments for  work that has been completed independently and put up for sale – like the small sums that authors of short e-books or long e-essays have begun to ask for, both independently and through conventional publishers.

Of course payments ‘upfront’ and for finished work are not mutually exclusive. But transferring the balance of cash-gathering sweat to work that has yet to be done is surely a bad idea.

There is some danger that disappointment with microfunding could lead to disenchantment with micropayments of every kind. That could delay the shift from conventional ways of selling art (through publishers, galleries and so on) to the liberating alternatives that new technological inventions have begun to bring us.

I am thinking once again of Threepio’s trans-gender leap. What if one of George Lucas’s backers for a Star Wars script financed by micro-investors had been an ardent feminist who contributed $500 for the pleasure of introducing audiences to a female robot in a key supporting role – and then had to confront  the horror — oh, the horror!  — of a gender re-programming?

… I say, let’s focus on using micropayments to make it easy for painters, film-makers, sculptors, writers, musicians and their kin to be paid for their ‘products’ — as easy as for developers of software apps for our portable electrovices. ( Sorry, that was meant to read, electronic devices.)

The market for apps has been booming. Why should someone who can afford to pay €3.47 — or its equivalent — for an electronic game app not part as readily with the same amount for a short story by an up-and-coming Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and be drawn inexorably, blissfully and unforgettably into an opening like this one, for GGM’s ‘Maria Dos Prazeres’:

The man from the undertaking establishment was so punctual that Maria dos Prazeres was still in her bathrobe, with her hair in curlers, and she just had time to put a red rose behind her ear to keep from looking as unattractive as she felt …