Ordinarily it’s one of my pet peeves, overuse of the adjective “true” (or the adverb “truly”) as some kind of all-purpose intensifier or marker of sincerity. As in, “this is truly a good book.” Or, “he truly loves her.” And so on. Naturally I blame Lionel Richie.

But in this case, we’re given a very specific definition of what constitutes a True Fan:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

The gist is, that with 1000 True Fans, an artist can gross $100k per year and make a decent living. (“Decent?” Much better than mine as a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor, and a fuckton better than the one I made many years ago as a professional musician playing covers and weddings and whatnot, all-the-Buffet-you-can-stand approach. There’s something wrong with that figure.) This state of affairs has various names: “Others call this microcelebrity support micro-patronage, or distributed patronage.”

Robert Rich, a working visionary who has operated for decades according to the logic of micropatronage, was polite enough to respond at length. He points out the difficulties of maintaining 1000 True Fans over time. Here’s the money quote:

A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them. If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don’t.

I don’t want to be a tadpole in a shrinking puddle. When the audience is so small, one consequence of specialization is extinction. I’ll try to explain.

Evolutionary biology shows us one metaphor for this trap of stylistic boundaries, in terms of species diversity and inbreeding (ref. E.O. Wilson). When a species sub-population becomes isolated, its traits start to diverge from the larger group to eventually form a new species. Yet under these conditions of isolation, genetic diversity can decrease and the new environmentally specialized species becomes more easily threatened by environmental changes. The larger the population, the less risk it faces of inbreeding. If that population stays connected to the main group of its species, it has the least chance of overspecialization and the most chance for survival in multiple environments.

This metaphor becomes relevant to Artists and True Fans because our culture can get obsessed with ideas of style and demographic. When an artist relies on such intense personal commitmen from such a small population, it’s like an animal that relies solely upon the fruit of one tree to survive. This is a recipe for extinction. Distinctions between demographics resemble mountain ranges set up to divide one population from another. I prefer a world where no barriers exist between audiences as they define themselves and the art they love. I want a world of mutts and cross-polinators. I would feel more comfortable if I thought I had a broader base of people interested in my work, not just preaching to the choir.

I see these arguments as having a direct relevance to the academic study of the humanities. The first, with its idea of the “True Fan,” reminded me of Michael Berube’s classic idea of Teaching to the Six. The analogy isn’t totally accurate, of course. Berube, so to speak, is being descriptive in that article, not prescriptive. But what he describes is, I gather, basically the situation for most professors in the humanities: there are a few True Fans in each class, and a lot of students who are much more content with the status quo of their cliches. Think, for example, of the difference between the student who is seriously reading Anna Karenina, and the one who would much rather waste class time pontificating about “true love.”

I think most of us get by on the idea of Six True Fans not because it’s an ideal state of affairs, but because it’s an achievable and ethical goal. Is there a way past this? I’m not entirely sure. My first impulse is to think that the alternatives have been explored by Plato, especially in his dialogues on the sophists and in the Trial of Socrates. (The Gorgias is especially relevant here.) To summarize: a teacher can stick to her pedagogical guns and die by them, or she can become a self-promoter and an expert flatterer of existing prejudices. One follows Socrates or one becomes a sophist.

To adapt this analogy to the present, in the end there may not be much difference between being killed by the State and being made irrelevant when your critique is made irrelevant by its ideological apparatuses. In either case, at the end of the day your voice has been silenced. As a test case: just try to get the student who’s convinced himself he knows all about True Love to read Anna Karenina with any real attention.

But on the other hand, I think Rich’s evolutionary metaphor is also illuminating. Have the humanities failed to adapt to a larger ecosystem, and doomed themselves to irrelevance as we continue to eat from a single tree? Perhaps the answer is to start adapting. To move away from hyper-specialization, and get back to making the past relevant. The question, as always–and this question has been asked many times down the centuries–is how to balance the need to be true to the past with the need to be relevant to the present. And here, too, the example of Socrates and the sophists is pertinent. If we adapt too far, we risk pandering.

It strikes me that this is a dilemma. It’s probably just the nature of things that we’ll have to address this question and keep addressing it, just as people have for many centuries, and that we won’t solve it. But perhaps I am wrong, and someone will enlighten me in the comments. It wouldn’t be the first time I failed to consider some of the important evidence–I believe in True Education, after all.