On June 16, my wife Rebecca and I settled into our seats at Chicago’s AMC River East 21 movie theater where for the Midwest premiere of Wish I Was Here, a film that ruminates on the nature of death and the importance of attending to every moment in life. It’s a very quiet and haunting film, one that slowly unfolds.

We’d made the journey because we’d backed the film’s production through Kickstarter, and one of our rewards was a Q&A hosted by Braff and his friend Donald Faison. While his project had drawn considerable ire from people in the press who wondered why he didn’t just pay for the film himself, none of that mattered to anybody in that theater.

After a series of heartfelt thank yous, Braff opened the floor. I’d already prepared my question: Was this the first step in an independent film career, or was his Kickstarter campaign just a one-off attempt to complete a labor of love before heading back into the studio system? It was a good question, I thought, in no small measure because I’m asking myself the same existential question about my project So Far Appalachia.

But I never had the chance to ask my question. Instead, I was floored by what happened during the Q&A. I wasn’t taking notes so I don’t have a verbatim account, but this is what I remember:

  • Someone thanked Braff for making such an introspective movie. She had lost her father in the last year, and the movie was asking the same questions she was.
  • Another person stood up and thanked Braff and Faison for making him laugh during the worst time of his life: when his wife and he had lost their twin babies. And this movie, he said, reminded him of the moments he had with his children before they died.
  • Another person fought back tears, apologized, and just said thanks.

Some of the questions were jovial and Faison added an air of levity, but it was clear to everyone in the theater that night that Braff’s rumination on life, death, and the meaning of the moments around you had resonated beyond the screen. I was glad my question never came up.

As Rebecca and I walked through the streets of Chicago, I asked: “How do you think a movie studio would have marketed that movie?”

She thought for a second. “They’d probably focus on the road trip part, leave out the death, and disappoint everyone who came to see it.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Zach couldn’t even figure out how to promote the movie. I had no idea what this thing was about after the 2 1/2-minute trailer they sent to the backers. I just knew I wanted to see.”

That’s the beauty of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, we agreed. A movie that may not have been made or made and then marketed into oblivion had found an audience.

It’s a good time to be an artist, we agreed as we walked back to our hotel. In Braff’s case, he went directly to his fans, asked them to support his project, and used that money to get his movie off the ground. It’s patronage working at its most efficient: artist and fan conversing.

A Problem of Analogy

I knew that my thoughts on patronage and the arts weren’t shared by everyone, particularly when these crowdfunding sites were used by those artists who have “made it.’

Ben Child, writing in The Guardian, wondered if it was reasonable to ask fans to contribute to a project such as Wish I Was Here when they would not benefit if the movie became a surprise box office hit. Joel Anderson, who wrote a piece criticizing crowdfunding, took that argument one step further. He argued that patrons should think more like venture capitalists, demanding equity stake in projects.

Anderson wrote: “Raising thousands of dollars for a passion project that’s probably never going to really make any money makes a lot of sense on this platform. However, raising millions of dollars to fund your feature length movie or to begin manufacturing your solar roadways prototype and start selling fancy driveways to the super rich, that’s a horse of a different color. In this case, the rewards being offered are paltry compared to the returns for the campaign founder.”

Certainly, we can understand why patrons may not want to donate money to a for-profit company, although it’s not a stretch to understand why people would and have. Die hard fans do those things, and they always will.

What’s harder to understand in Anderson’s argument is why he equates arts patronage with investment in a for-profit company. When I see a movie, I don’t expect to get points on the backend of the film. When I purchase a book, I don’t expect the author to share his royalties with me. Instead, I patronize the arts that I want to support, and give my money to people who I very much hope continue to make the art I want to see, hear, read, and touch.

I much prefer giving my money directly to an artist, instead of mediating that through layers of corporate financing. (As an aside: This is exactly the same philosophy behind major charitable donations, although I don’t have the opportunity to write off my contributions the way wealthily benefactors do. That is the real problem with Kickstarter.)

An Brief & Wildly Incomplete History of Patronage

Leaving aside the obvious point that as an adult I understand how patronage works, I was flabbergasted by the basic conceit.There’s a long history of arts patronage. However, patronage has been fundamental in the world of technology startups, which today is nearly synonymous with the kind of venture investing for which Anderson advocates.

In fact, there’s a good chance that the commercial home computer market would look quite differently without it.

The first commercially available computer (MITS Altair 8800) sold more than 1,000 kits in 1975 before it was ready to ship. After Popular Electronics wrote a piece about the Do-It-Yourself kits, people started sending checks. The catch: the company didn’t have any kits ready, and they weren’t sure how those kits would work once they were assembled. Heck, the kits weren’t even shipped on time once they did become available.

However, those folks wanted their computers, and they were willing to pay for the chance to support a business that was creating a machine they could use.

Years later, the very first massively multiplayer online game, Ultima Online, received 50,000 paid pre-orders for its beta test, which convinced Electronic Arts to fund the game’s development.

Admittedly, it’s fair to argue that what’s good in one realm may not directly apply in another, but there’s an even longer history of patronage in the arts. Kickstarter and its ilk have simply democratized that process, removing it from the hands of the National Endowment for the Arts and private individuals.

To date there have been nearly 65,000 funded projects to the tune of nearly $1.2 billion dollars. It’s hard to argue that this is bad for the arts scene. Instead, the arguments made by Smith and Anderson touch on something much deeper: We expect our artists to create for free.

The Trouble with the Starving Artist

We don’t like artists who make money.

It’s not that we begrudge people who make a living. Our discomfort is more visceral than that. We feel, deep inside, that commerce has a way of compromising artistic vision. It’s easy to be edgy when you are outside a system. Once you become successful with that system, though, it’s much harder to critique that in a meaningful way. This idea is, I think, at the root of the mythology of the “starving artist.”

We expect our writers, our dancers, our photographers, our painters, and our musicians to create their work not for economic reasons, but for passionate reasons. We want to believe that art comes from the soul, and that art has no price.

Introduce commerce into that process, and the mythology of the passionate artists is muddied.

This duality sends the signal to artists that they mustn’t place their economic value equal to meaning of their work. This means artists must not consider their skilled labor in economic terms because to do so undermines your craft.

In other words: Create art, but make sure you’re never place value of the skill it took to create that work.

That’s why the critique and criticism of Braff’s Kickstarter campaign sends a demoralizing message to artists. He is punished for his success instead of encouraged to find new ways to fund and to maintain control of his art, whether through traditional means or through new means.

Every other artist is fed this idea: If you’re successful, you are not allowed to engage your fan base, i.e. his patrons, in order to create more art.

Don’t Think Different

Had Child and Anderson’s jabs been the worst of the lot, I might have argued that the price of success if naysayers. Unfortunately, the jabs turned into cheap shots by those who argued that these DIY productions should function more like major media companies.

While I agree that artists need to bring a certain professionalized amateurism to their projects, it’s unreasonable to expect the projects to run with the streamlined precision of assembly-line media.Yet this expectation seems to be part of an ongoing dialogue in the media.

Jason Bailey wrote a piece at Flavorwire that used the sometimes-flexible nature of indie projects as a reason to take a shot a Braff, who at the time had some backers upset because they hadn’t received their rewards when promised.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Generally these delays are handled through updates, giving everyone the chance to follow what is happening. In one case, Braff (who was attending to the responses himself), got a little testy with an insistent backer.

Bailey wrote: “Um, Zach, you’re not helping. Instead of apologizing for the slowness of the rewards and the perceived slights of his backers, Braff instead climbs up on the cross that he’s nailed himself to since the Kickstarter backlash began.”

Yes, getting annoyed is never a great way to interact with people, but it’s also human. What the piece doesn’t contextualize is that this is how the patronage system works. You give your money to an artist, creating a direct line of communication. This doesn’t give you any particular rights, but it does create a symbiotic relationship between artist and fan.

What it doesn’t create is a corporate-run distribution system that runs smoothly. Instead, it creates a do-it-yourself project that sometimes (many times) falls behind schedule. Surely the direct distribution system for all the rewards probably wasn’t in place. That happens when you remove the assembly line from the machine.

However, I’d take that direct connection with fans over a mediated relationship with the marketing wing of company.

In DIY We Distrust

Yet it’s the one-on-one relationship that inspired the most insidious critique, written by Chuck Klosterman, who argued by using his superfluous, navel-gazing-as-fact alter ego to insinuate that it’s unseemly for an artist who has achieved any commercial success to search for alternate ways to produce work. Unlike Anderson and Bailey, who essentially argued that patrons should get better treatment, Klosterman’s thesis is that artists of a certain, undefined stature may be guilty of preying upon their fans.

He ends his think piece with the written equivalent of a shoulder shrug as a way to absolve himself from any of the attacks he’d just leveled. Klosterman wrote in the New York Times: “That makes me skeptical of his motives — and if this sketchy transaction was indeed his intent, he drifts back into unethical territory. But this is merely my own speculation. I can’t read his mind. As it stands, I can’t classify Zach Braff as anything worse than opportunistic.”

Klosterman’s non-accusation accusation brings us full circle to the uncomfortable relationship we have when it comes to artists and money.

If you ask people who were fans of an artform, e.g. movies, books, graphic novels, whether they’d rather pay an artist directly or mediate that payment through a studio, I’d bet dollars-to-donuts that most would advocate for direct payments. We clamor for authenticity and direct contact with the people who inspire us, and yet when given that opportunity it looks so different than the polished, professional, and corporate media that we forget that individuals don’t operate that way.

This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate corporate media. I am more than happy to pony up $35 to take my wife to opening weekend for Mavel’s films, and we’ll see them  in IMAX 3D and expect brilliant spectacles. I’m more than happy to pony up $20 the latest book by my favorite authors, and I expect them to be well-written, polished stories.

But my desire for polished professionalism doesn’t mean I have an inherent distrust of the personal connection I get from an act of patronage through Kickstarter, even if it happens to be for a writer, actor, director, and producer who has been commercially successful in the past. It never crossed my mind to consider that Braff was “anything worse than opportunistic,” as Klosterman wrote.

In fact, I took Braff at his word that he was just an artist trying to make the film that he wanted with as little outside tinkering as possible.

The Art of the Deal

I backed Roger May’s Testify and Jennifer Willenborg’s The Appalachia Project because neither was like to get made without the help of patrons. I backed Braff’s work for the same reason.

Certainly Braff might have gotten Wish I Was Here made without my help, but I supported the project because I’ve published a book with a major House and I know the compromises that must be made along the way.

Many times these compromises make the project better because there are wildly talented people who work in that business. But sometimes you just want to do the project your way, warts and all.

In the end, that’s the point of patronage: supporting artistic expression. I backed each project in order to give an artist just a little bit more freedom to complete the project in the way the wanted to complete it. I’ve funded several projects (including Braff’s), and I hope they become wildly successful. If they do, I hope those artists return the favor to other aspiring artists, but if they don’t I wouldn’t expect them to apologize for it.

My reward is holding Testify, The Appalachia Project, and watching Wish I Was Here.

That’s what I received in return, and I am better for it.