Friday, May 21, 2010

Art, Business, and the Revolution

Admission #1: When I propose a presentation, I have no idea what my conclusion will be.
Admission #2: When I put together a panel discussion, I have a point in mind that I secretly want my panelists to make. Often the panelists have their own ideas--which is fantastic. I’m not attached to how we reach an outcome, as long as that outcome rocks. I wouldn’t trade in the discussion that happened at the Southern Graphics Council Conference panel I moderated, Resisting the Remarque, for anything. But I admit that I secretly wanted to talk more explicitly about art economies that are resisting capitalism than about the social content and context of the artwork at hand.

The party line seems to be that most artists are terrible at marketing their work—except when they’re not, in which case we deride them for clearly being more interested in marketing than in art—and then, that we need to overcome our sense that it is somehow wrong to, or that we are undeserving of, making money from our work.

Case in point: Manya Scheps’s May 18 article on the Philadelphia Weekly Arts and Culture site, “Good or Bad? Picasso Painting Sells for $106M.” Scheps’s take is that instead of deriding the sale as a waste of money, artists should take heart that people are still buying art, and should become participants in the market, stating that: “while small-market artists can’t eliminate the disparity between ultra-rich collectors and themselves, they can steer it in a way that is mutually beneficial.” Frankly, I’m unsure how precisely Scheps thinks one can ever view disparity as mutually beneficial. But more to the point, I’m tired of the idea that artists must embrace the market and let go of their idealism and/or market phobias, as if a resistance to the market could never be a decided form of resistance to the capitalist economy that would appear to rule all decision-making within American society, both socially and politically. Recently selected Republican nominee for Senate for Kentucky, the Tea Party affiliated Rand Paul, stated on primary night, “capitalism is freedom, it means the freedom to voluntarily exchange goods, and retain the fruits of your labor” (as quoted by Kate Zernike in the May 19 NYTimes), seeming to conflate our economic system with our system of government. Admittedly this is an understandable mistake, according to the way things play out, but not one you want your government officials to be stating outright. The other problems with this statement I won’t bother to break down here.

Chief Cultural Officer of the City of Philadelphia Gary Steuer blogged yesterday about the book What Poetry Brings to Business. Again, I tire of these efforts to bring together the worlds of art and business. One would think that in the wake of the recent economic meltdown and the ongoing uncovering of the absolute venality of those running our financial system, it would be okay to be a bit suspicious of our economic system—not just of “the big banks” but of the structure of capitalism itself, and the social mores we’ve brought up alongside it.

I don’t object to artists selling their work, particularly as, no matter what our ideals, we find ourselves here trying to survive within a capitalist system. However, I would encourage us, artists and non-artists alike, to think about making a livelihood from our work, rather than about making money from our work. This gives us space to carve out alternative values in thinking about the quality of our lives, to explore economies such as gifting and bartering, and to see our position as artists-outside-the-blockbuster-echelon as a potential site of power and reclamation to redefine the ways we create a livelihood through our work practice.

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