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Commodity Invades Creativity!

“My theory about creativity is that the more money one has, the more creative one can be.” Robert Mapplethorpe

That quote by artist Robert Mapplethorpe may be true, but its exact opposite might also be true. What role does money play in the creative arts?

As a young violinist in the Midwest, I worked hard to become a better musician, to audition and win an orchestral job in a major symphony. I had little experience with anything outside of that, until I began to get calls for things like weddings and parties, and other “pick up” gigs (with players being picked up and thrown together for a few hours of sight reading). Suddenly, I was making what I considered to be pretty good money, and I began to put my energy into finding more of these cash producing endeavors. 

In other words, my playing (in the form of a service) had become commodified.

Investopedia defines commodity this way: “A commodity is a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other goods of the same type.” 

Sounds pretty dry, right? Even….cold. And when we’re talking about anything to do with the arts becoming commodified or treated as a product, we’re heading down a road that can be slippery and treacherous at best, downright stagnating, thoughtless and heartless at worst. Here in the U.S., where capitalism is the financial system by which we operate, the effect on art has been telling.

Art is at its best when it is devoid of distractions such as money, status and popularity, is created based only on intuition and heart, and isn’t impacted by anything else. You don’t necessarily have to be a starving artist to achieve this, but as soon as the money becomes more important than what you’re producing, there’s a subtle change in thinking. When an artist asks themselves “What will sell?”, they are treating their art as a commodity, and all energy and creative thinking begins to go into answering that question. Clearly, this is a different question than, “What am I inspired to create?”

A good example of this is when the billionaire artist Jeff Koons decided he wanted everyone to be able to own a piece of his art, so he and the clothing company H&M came up with a fifty dollar purse that showcased a picture of his popular Balloon Dog. The collaboration with H&M was primarily utilized by Koons to promote his exhibition at the Whitney Museum (and make millions in the process), but of course, the purses are still out there in circulation, and are being bought and sold as collector’s items, extending their usefulness as promoters of Koons’ so-called art. (I say so-called simply because there is a LOT of disagreement out there about whether his creations constitute art, or are simply commercial fabrications masquerading as something more than they are.)

So what is wrong with this picture? Artists have been offering their services for dough practically since the reference term “artist” has existed. The Sistine Chapel, for instance, hired artists to paint its interior to pretty much sell Catholicism to its followers. But today, we recognize the beauty of the work as well, not simply its marketing finesse. The ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, is still breathtaking to behold, and the rest of the chapel was done by other leading artists of that time.

Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel

 (An interesting aside, however, is that Michelangelo didn’t really want the job, and initially turned it down, preferring to focus on his sculpture rather than lie on his back painting for four years. The pope at the time was powerful and demanding, and wouldn’t take no for an answer without also embedding an implied threat. Sure, we gained a ceiling, but what did we lose in those four years when Michelangelo couldn’t work on what he really wanted to do?)

When I ran a music booking agency in the Midwest many years ago, I was hired to play solo violin for a woman’s reception. I had been recommended by a former client who had used my services on several occasions. A few weeks before the gig, I received a call from a local ballet company to play a week with them. The date conflicted with the woman client, so without much further thought, I found a suitable replacement for myself for the reception.

I called the client to give her a heads up that I wouldn’t be her violinist, but that the man who was replacing me would do a fantastic job serenading her guests. This not only didn’t go over well (much to my surprise), but the client flipped out. 

She pointed out that the whole reason for hiring me was because her friend, my former client, had highly recommended me. It was me she wanted, not some stand in who she had no connection to. She wasn’t just angry and hurt, she was furious

This put me in an awkward spot, since the ballet company job was real money, not just a one night gig, and I usually played several times a year with them. I couldn’t renege on that job without endangering my future with them. But the man who had recommended me also was a loyal customer, and now I felt I had let him down significantly. 

I had commodified my music creation to the point where I assumed my performance was interchangeable with any other gigging musician out there. In other words, a music performance had become a commodity. This incident brought that point home pretty clearly, and I still regret how I handled the situation. 

And this is why Michelangelo had to be the painter of the Sistine Chapel, in the minds of the people in charge. He was not interchangeable, they recognized there was only one Michelangelo, he was the artist they wanted, and they had the money and power to make that happen.

My husband, Lawrence D’Attilio, is a fine art photographer. He is constantly frustrated by the fact that today, very few galleries are interested in depth and meaning in art. Most of them simply want to find artists who have huge mailing lists and will sell fast, and in great volume. Typically, visual art that meets this standard is concerned with short term cultural trends. 

But the great art that does exist in the world, does so because it is willing to take risks, it is unique and sometimes confrontational, and contributes to a bigger conversation than just itself. Ask yourself: Are artists making art that is important to the future history of art, or just something safe that seems on trend and will go with someone’s couch? 

Can we imagine an art world with no Picasso, for instance? No Monet, or any of the Impressionists, for that matter? These are artists who shook up the art world in their time, created a shock wave, and forced people to look forward towards a new way of human expression.

Claude Monet “Sunrise”

Today, especially in the U.S., commodification of the arts has made it very difficult to move forward. While we’re distracted trying to get our hands on a balloon dog purse, really good, interesting art is being shelved and overlooked. One disturbing trend is that art investors are warehousing their purchases in countries like Switzerland to either 1) drive up the price, or 2) wait and see if the art gains in value over time. 

A good clue to whether an artwork is timeless is if it easily contributes to a greater conversation in what it’s trying to express. The work will have a point to make, and will lead to discussions and arguments of depth and meaning. Bad art does not do this. (“What is that?” “It’s a dog made out of balloons.” “Oh..”)

Somewhere, someone is doing the next big thing in art, art that will give us clues about our direction, the possibilities before us, and the imagined future of our species. Will we notice?

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