Art and Profit

(This article was first published on on December 16, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)

“Despite reporting a net loss on the tour, Conte doesn’t come off as bitter or upset, and he’s not shaking the hat to cover his losses. He’s mostly just saying, ‘Hey, touring isn’t exactly a huge windfall, even when you’re doing objectively well.’

“There’s been backlash, of course, saying that they shouldn’t have slept in hotels, shouldn’t have paid the backing band a salary, etc. I wonder if these are the very same people who complained that Amanda Palmer wasn’t paying volunteers she invited to join them onstage. Certainly, the same websites took these contradictory opinions. Of course, it seems that many of those people think that musicians and other artists shouldn’t care about money. It should be purely out of love and devotion to art as an abstract concept; rent and food be damned.”

Marshall Ryan Maresca, The Cost of Art and the Calculus of Value via his blog

Society indeed seems to hold artists up to two contradictory standards: on the one hand, we're supposed to toil away lonely and unrewarded, because the creation of that which is truly meaningful and beautiful should be its own reward; yet on the other, society aggrandizes the success of the few lucky artists whose work gets validated, as though its selections in the popularity game were inevitable, the result of some intrinsic quality of the work (see my previous post, Tunnel Vision). When the reward for such efforts is artificially distorted, and that distortion is visible within the public sphere, backlash is inevitable.

I find both of these standards socially toxic.

Firstly, artists should not suffer. Neither should we be pampered. But our work is meaningful enough to be socially subsidized within reason. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the creation of art is the most important activity a human can engage in—and that goes for all of its forms: poety, prose, music, painting, sculpture, and so on. I don't deny that society would collapse if everyone spent all of their time being artists, but to me the argument is hyperbolic. Take climbing trees, for example. Yes, I agree that society would collapse if we let everyone climb trees with all of their time. But not everyone is going to spend all their time climbing trees. In all likelihood, many people will find themselves in contexts where climbing trees is impractical (like deserts). Some might not like it very much, and would rather build houses or pave streets or maintain social order or run for political office instead. I'm fairly certain most artists don't want to art with all their available time. Most will occupy themselves with a variety of activities. Not to mention, real artists are somewhat rare.

The idea that artists should suffer stems from the very true sentiment that art created for the sake of profit or popularity is generally inferior in quality to art created to express the artist's vision or experience of living in the world. But saying that artists should be creating art for its own sake is quite a different thing from saying that we should forego food and shelter in order to achieve our vision. This is, in my opinion, utilitarianism's biggest drawback. Taken to its extreme, it ends up as either 1984 or Brave New World, in which the self is completely subsumed to meet the whims of a callous and omnipotent social order.

Secondly, as for the distortion of monetary rewards, my society in particular needs to wake up and realize that its collective choices in popular culture are far from superb. An artifact's popularity is a self-reinforcing mechanism. Exceptionally successful products can be of any quality, from very poor to very high, and produce steady revenue for years if they manage to be the first to find and exploit a niche. Copycats trying to replicate that effect are doomed to failure, even if they execute upon the idea better than the original, because the original has already captured and stolen all of the available attention.

I find it less offensive that society should engage in this behavior, than that it should view the rising stars as non-random. Entitlement and self-congratulatory pomp inevitably follow a massive success, as if that success happened because of qualities inherent to either the product or its creators, rather than pure dumb luck. The celebration of this luck diminishes the potential for real art, as the means for creation (ie. money, which subsidizes human work hours) become channeled more and more toward product confabulators and away from artistic visionaries. The worship of successful outliers seems to have gotten worse over the course of my lifetime, though I once again fully admit that this could be my rosy, decades-past goggles at work.

The way out of this quagmire, in my opinion, is to develop better literacy in society as a whole. The more self-aware an individual is, the more likely she is to judge a popular cultural artifact with a more critical eye, rather than assume its quality from its popularity, or what her friends tell her. Developing such a sense helps the individual pay closer attention to the signs of quality in a novel artifact. Sadly, and I know from personal experience, that an individual with a less analytically, emotionally, and socially developed mind is more likely to turn a blind eye to the elements of art that make it great. Such an individual falls back on what's easy and accessible: what generates simplistic feelings of pleasure, excitement, or validation, as well as those things which are similar to other things the individual already knows she likes.

I once thought that the key to the world of authorship and publishing was printers, distributors, and bookstores. I was wrong. The key is readers. Make readers more aware, more sensitive, more attentive, more knowledgeable, and you will have an age of unprecedented artistic flourishing because artists will be empowered in the only way that has ever mattered for us: we will receive the attention and support of individuals who respond to the perspectives and emotions with which we imbue our work.

EssaysMatthew BuscemiComment