‘There are few modern relationships as fraught as the one between art and money. Are they mortal enemies, secret lovers or perfect soul mates? Is the bond between them a source of pride or shame, a marriage of convenience or something tawdrier? The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.” A. O. Scott
“On virtually all fronts, art is immune to entrepreneurial impulses. First, technology has removed most of the barriers to infinite, free distribution of art, which creates an extreme winner-take-all market. Second, art is functionless by necessity, and any attempts to add function to it (propaganda, advertising) are treated with suspicion. Third, there is the ingrained expectation that art is somehow outside of money, that artists shouldn’t discuss their art in monetary terms, that the starving artist is purer or better than the wealthy one, etc. Fourth, people have no idea what the fixed costs of art consumption should be, and they resent any attempt to make them pay for perceived intangible costs.” Aaron Gervais
“And it is here, in the middle, where artists are “just doing their jobs” (Scott’s phrase) that arts entrepreneurship becomes an important tool for working artists. The mega-stars don’t need to be entrepreneurs, don’t need to proactively showcase and distribute their work to their audience – there’s someone already doing that on their behalf and making money doing so. The skilled amateur doesn’t need to find financing for their next installation and invite critics to see it because they are amateurs. It is the broad middle defined by Scott that needs to take entrepreneurial action; call it arts entrepreneurship or call it artist self-management, it is part of the work-life of the artist in the US. It is these artists, the artists in the middle, who can serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique this system in a meaningful way.” Linda Essig
I’ve been sitting on the sidelines of some of these discussions for a while now, and what seems abundantly clear is that there are valid points on just about every side of this argument. The fact of having a good point and things about one perspective being true doesn’t mean that an opposing point of view will not also have similar claims to veracity.
Obviously despite all the difficulties mentioned by Gervais the arts ARE entrepreneurial. The problems he mentions are mechanical/practical obstacles that make it hard to do at times, but the truth is nevertheless that some people manage just fine. Even managing poorly qualifies art as at least occasionally entrepreneurial. Lesson: What makes something difficult is not what makes it untrue (Otherwise we ordinary mortals might think that all Higher Mathematics, Organic Chemistry, Quantum Physics, etc., were simply ‘untrue’. And where would that get us, exactly?). Arts entrepreneurship survives despite these concerns. Just as Linda Essig said, there is a middle group of artists who DO benefit from entrepreneurial activity.
And yet, there is real truth to the attitude that Scott recounts (The part I quote is not exactly his position, by the way, he merely sets it out as a starting point for his discussion). The issue, he notes, isn’t so much mechanical or logical but psychological or ideological. Its a mental disturbance. And it is often primarily because of these ‘feelings’ and sensibilities that the entrepreneurial aspect of the arts gets called into question.
Sometimes selling our art does feel like selling out. Sometimes it can’t be understood as anything but a betrayal of the art itself. When Gervais says, “When you look more closely you’ll notice that “art entrepreneurship” is and has always been about art technology, not art itself” you get the feeling that he is really onto something important. The art itself seems to exist at once both above its means of distribution and occasionally hopelessly mired in it. And this is, perhaps, the root of many artists’ disquiet with the entrepreneurial aspect of being an artist.
But maybe talking about this issue does nothing so much as send up the usual red flags and provoke the time honored responses from us. Maybe we can’t see the issue except through an unwavering lens. Perhaps we have already formed opinions about art and money that won’t budge. Or, we are too close to the issue to see things clearly. There can be a lot at stake in how we describe the situation. It is a self-description for many of us, after all…..
Perhaps we can look at something besides art to gain insight from the comparison. Maybe a lateral shift will help us see familiar things in a new light.
Imagine we were talking about sex.
Just about anything can become commercialized and commodified, amenable to an entrepreneurial spirit, and sex probably tops that list. We even talk about ‘the world’s oldest profession’. Porn is a massive modern institution. And there isn’t much that can’t be advertised by dressing it up in the temptations of sex. Sex sells. Sex is entrepreneurial. The sex industry is BIG money. The marketplace where sex is the transactional object or its selling point dominates us. That seems so straightforward that it should be easy to digest. Turn on the TV for a few minutes and see the truth of it: Svelte appealing model/actors with big teeth, toned abs, and tight buns. How much money is being invested just to bring a bit of sexiness to your viewership?
We have no problem seeing it out there in the world: Sex and money go hand in hand. The problem is in taking this relationship out of its anonymous commercial context. If sex is inherently entrepreneurial then what would that mean for dating, hooking up, and other potentially sexful conjugations of ordinary consenting adults?
And here we see the difficulties that artists face as practitioners in a commercially viable industry.
The parallel between amateurs and ordinary people getting paid for sex and ordinary artists getting paid for art is that these activities don’t seem like jobs in the strictest sense. To the ordinary person, getting paid for it is weird. If you have any doubts just try handing your lover some cash the next time you fool around, making sure they understand that its ‘just compensation’ for the ‘job’ they just did. See what I mean? If you didn’t get slapped I would wonder why.
So here’s the obvious next question: If you think of yourself as an artist (or a lover), does it mean you necessarily think of yourself as a person who should get paid for what you do? If getting laid means getting paid, we have a problem. Would getting paid make you a ‘better’ lover or artist necessarily? Is professionalism a useful standard, even?
The reason this needs to be asked is simply that most people first enter into these activities without the intention to make money. And its not as if they have a void where that intention should be filled. Rather, what they do is complete in itself. I’m not sure I know anyone who started making art because they thought it would be a great way to make a living. Same thing for sex: No one starts doing it because it seems like a decent career choice. Trying to be ‘the best’ artist or lover is not even remotely the same thing as trying to get some money doing it. We are not usually doing it because of the money, like most ‘jobs’ would entail. And doesn’t that say something?
So you see the problem: In many cases the professionalism of an entrepreneurial stance is either incidental or deferred. Seldom is it the prime moving force. Too much about art is ‘impractical’, as Scott notes. Same thing for snuggling on the couch, stealing kisses underneath the bower, and copping a feel in the back seat of your parents’ car. Does it diminish the experience to not get paid for those things? And professional artists often feel this ambivalence. Sometimes they instinctively know its a quandary. Why would we ever think it was a simple situation with an easy answer?
The argument that Linda sets out is that by making money at art we feed the ability to make more art, and that seems fairly straightforward. How can it not be true that funding for an activity is part of what sustains it? A(art)➔B(commerce)➔A➔B➔A…. Its the picture of a worm eating its tail, as Linda describes it. Regeneration and self perpetuation wrapped up in one.
But the deeper question is whether the activity being sustained is fully circumscribed by what counts in a transaction and can be pedaled in a marketplace. The question is whether A always translates to B (some art being inherently unsuitable to commodification) and whether the art that was enabled by the marketplace has in fact sustained itself, or whether it has been changed into something else, transformed. Is it the same thing that comes out the other end? Does A lead to B lead to C lead to B lead to C again or maybe even D? This seems a question worth asking: Is what we get from putting art in the marketplace always a path to the same things we valued when we first entertained the transactional nature of making art?
Think about that for a moment.
A professional sex worker or professional artist knows the truth that paying the bills allows the endeavor to go on. Get paid and we get to continue doing ‘this thing’. Stop getting paid and it becomes marginal really quick. But a too easily ignored question is whether ‘the job’ of doing these things has the same exact rewards as doing it merely for intrinsic reasons, only with money on top. Its a reasonable question.
What many artists feel is that it doesn’t, and there is plenty of psychological research to back this up. For instance, much of art starts out as self exploration, as attempts to solve particular problems, or as insight into unusual ways of looking at the world. Sometimes its just something we like doing or feel we need to do, regardless of whether we are paid for it. Its not always conceived with the strings of potential cash value attached. Its often so much more (and less) than the object that can be bought and sold.
Sex too is often more than merely the object that can be bought and sold. At least in the hands of amateurs. It can be a sign of love and passion. It can reflect an intimacy that depends on the far ranges of a relationship. It can be an act of personal commitment. And none of these things are necessary or mostly even relevant for the entrepreneurial spirit of sex work. Its almost impossible to put a price on these things.
And that’s exactly what artists often feel. Its what Gervais sums up in his third and fourth points: The value of art often seem something intangible. Worth and value seem to meet in this nebulous context at the heart of these issues.
The question, then, is whether we lose something important by simply trading on the economic potential of certain activities. Do we lose something by treating art merely as a product to be manipulated in a marketplace? Are we as confused about it if we were talking about sex? Sex tangles quite freely with such other issues as love and desire, and that means it is sometimes unwelcome as a purely commercial good. Sex can be bought and sold, but love? Art tangles quite freely with the ideals of creativity and imagination, and that too makes it an odd bedfellow for purely entrepreneurial activity. Selling the products of creativity has a place, but is our imagination itself for sale?
How to make sense of this? The fact that you can make a commodity of just about anything doesn’t answer the question. The truth of art entrepreneurial activity doesn’t answer the question. The issue seems both bigger and smaller than these things.
Maybe the point that needs to be made is that sometimes art is a product, and there are then some few issues with treating it as such, but that at other times art (sometimes the same art) is something different that has a hard time being pinned down as merely ‘this sellable commodity’. There is something about being an artist that is simply bigger than being professional at it. There is something about art that defies the intention to universally reduce it to a product. Also, art can sometimes seem too small for the economic importance of a marketplace. Art isn’t all grand performance and marketable product. The sweat and tears of art and the humble offerings of imagination flit by in an ephemeral blur that entrepreneurial attention can’t quite get a hold of. Its only when you look at art as a product, as an object, that it seems to conform to the uses of a ‘job’ and other entrepreneurial activity.
Art means more than one thing, and being an artist isn’t always simple either.
Any of that make sense?
Make beauty real!