Filed under: art, business | Tags: arts funding, commercial, NEA, popularity, selling out, Van Gogh, you are not so smart
I keep thinking about selling out. I don’t mean I’m considering selling out myself. I’m considering the cultural shift that has changed the meaning of selling out.
I learned on a podcast (You Are Not So Smart) that the generations after mine don’t know what selling out is. They think it’s a good thing. Like, when your show sells out. For my generation and the ones before, selling out was a danger, a bad thing – selling out meant losing your credibility. It meant trading in your artistic credibility for commercial success. Today, there is no sense of lost credibility in achieving commercial success. On one hand, this is a positive move – a world that is perhaps more unified – artistic values, perhaps permeating the dominant culture.
On the other hand, it has created an intertwining of art and commerce in a way that creates a world of problems, including the current political landscape.
When there is no difference between art and commerce, art’s value becomes its commercial potential. A painting becomes only as valuable as its price tag or its marketing reach. The painting loses its intrinsic value as a work of art.
And perhaps the loss of one painting or one piece of piece of music as being of intrinsic value isn’t the end of the world. But I think losing the entire CONCEPT of the intrinsic value of art IS.
I can draw a direct line from the devaluing of artistic values to the election results of 2016. We decided that the only good art was successful art, was popular art, was art that sells and this then leads to a value system that privileges power, popularity and money. By continually lionizing the billionaires, the moneymakers, the hit TV shows, the popular art, we chose a culture that values money above all else. Lil’ Donnie T is the direct result of over-valuing commercial interests.
When we stopped seeing art as valuable in and of itself, when we started trying to defend it as a viable economic growth builder, when we began to pitch it as an agent of social change rather than as a thing that is good for our souls – we lost. We lost a long time ago.
I’ve watched this happen in Arts Education. When I first started working in schools, it was enough to just do art with kids. Then we expected the arts to teach them something else – more academic subjects or team-work or conflict resolution. Then we needed the art to solve the problems in the classroom or the school system and when it couldn’t do that impossible thing, it was pushed aside for things that could. I’m not saying it’s not super cool to teach math through theatre or conflict resolution or life skills. It is! But what’s happened is a trend toward teaching these things instead of theatre itself. I remember being in a meeting of artists, educators and principals years ago and a principal stood up and declared his support for “Art for Art’s Sake.” He asserted that he was dedicated to Art, itself, no qualifiers. I cried and applauded – because I could feel how much of a stand he felt he needed to take to say that. That is, the world around him was so insistent on dismissing “Art for Art’s Sake” that he had to push hard to make room for that idea. In some education circles, “Art for Art’s Sake” has become kind of a joke – as in, not enough, as in, naïve, as in old fashioned. And so art ends up in service of other more commercial or socially relevant things.
On an individual level, I have seen incredible artists devalue their own work due to its lack of commercial success. They think that their painting, art or music or show or sculpture or poem isn’t worth anything because they couldn’t sell it. It’s not worth anything because it isn’t “worth” anything.
But some of our greatest artists were never commercially successful. Van Gogh sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime. But later, most of us understand that his work was incredibly valuable artistically. And then his work became valuable commercially as well. The commercial perspective will say that he became successful after his death because he became popular and his paintings sell for tons of money. But even if they never sold and very few people knew his work, the art itself is intrinsically of value. We all got mixed up on this point at some point.
This relates to a trope that I keep seeing pop up – that artists should stay out of politics. I find it fascinating that anyone could think that would be possible but it speaks to a perception of art. It suggests art is seen as decoration instead of meaningful discourse. This movement to cut the arts is sometimes an impulse to “trim the fat” and get rid of the inessentials: – to cut the frills. Art is the frills for some people. It’s seen as a luxury item that conservative folk don’t want to pay for. I get it. I’ve played into it myself. At a grant interview, I was seated next to an applicant who wanted to increase access to drinking water in Zimbabwe. I felt like – how can I make a pitch for artistic exploration when there are people without drinking water? There is also a line of thinking that suggests that cutting the arts are a targeted way to control discourse, that the authoritarians know that stifling the arts is a way to control freedom. I’m not sure our authoritarians are all that smart yet. But whatever the reason for cutting the arts, my response comes down to that idea attributed to Winston Churchill who is said to have said, “Then what are we fighting for?”
In my own life it is fucking ESSENTIAL to have music and theatre and dance and art right now. It was nice before but it is essential now. It occurs to me that a sign of our previous freedom was the freedom to think of art as a frill, to think it might not be necessary. We could think that because we could afford to. We can’t afford to anymore. For now. Art is vital right now. For me. For everyone I know.
My mother, for example, is at a protest or public meeting or advocacy event, nearly every single day and at night, she is uplifted and energized by concerts, by movies, by art, by books. Personally, I have been more moved than I have ever been when sitting in theatres, listening to music, singing, watching, listening. We’re learning something that people in oppressed conditions have always known – that art is a need. That art is what we’re fighting for. And perhaps for the people who are not terrified right now, for the people who celebrate the oppression of immigrants and Muslims and women and give no shits about Black Lives – maybe for them art isn’t essential. Maybe they’re so happy, celebrating their victories, shooting deer or rabbits or ducks or whatever, that they feel like they can do without all that art stuff. I doubt it though.
I think, if more folks had had more access to art in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. If there was music to go see in the coal towns of West Virginia, if the ballet came through the Alabama rural landscape, if former steel towns, rusted out due to their employers moving the company abroad, could get some relief at the rust belt art museum, I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve but if they could see that stuff , I’d hope it might make a difference. Art won’t feed a hungry child or solve endemic problems. I know that. I’m pretty clear art can’t save us by itself. But it can help. It can make a difference. It can give hope.
We let art slip into a commercial way of thinking and if there’s any upside to the current political nightmare, it’s that other kinds of values are rising up, making themselves obvious. I’m not saying commercial art isn’t art. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad. But popularity doesn’t make it good either. Prince sold a lot of albums. But he’d be just as good if only a handful of friends saw him in a basement. His artistry is not his commercial success. Commercial success isn’t the only way to succeed. There is value in singing to yourself. In the dark times, there will always be singing. And it doesn’t have to be for sale.
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Filed under: art, business, music, theatre, writing | Tags: delusions, good art, popularity, self-deception, selling out
On the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I heard that the generations behind me don’t know what the concept of “Selling Out” is. When asked, one interviewee thought it was when a show sold all the tickets. (It is, yes, that, too.) But – the idea of selling out, as in selling your artistic soul down the river for commercial success, is (supposedly, according to this show) not in the common parlance for the young.
It would seem that the current blend of market value and artistic value are now so mixed up, many people don’t even recognize them anymore. I find this disturbing. While I’d be happy to have an opportunity to sell out, I feel it would be important to know that I’m doing it and why.
But selling a lot of tickets and getting a lot of YouTube hits doesn’t mean your art is good. I enjoyed reading Penny Arcade’s post on this topic. She said,
“Today’s downtown performance world operates very much on a basis of popularity rather than on ability. It is very easy to feel like you are succeeding with your work when what is actually happening is that you are succeeding socially. “
Her perspective on the new landscape rings very true to me. Art should not be a popularity contest. And yet it feels like it is.
I heard an episode of RadioLab that I’d heard before. The last time, it set off a chain of responses, including anxiety and sadness. The thing that set me off then, and struck me again in hearing it a second time, was the story on self-deception. I don’t want to ruin the punch-line of the story (so maybe listen to the segment first before reading the rest of this.) but studies seem to indicate that people who are better at self-deception are more successful.
Initially, I found this news depressing because I am very bad at self-deception. I felt that I had not yet achieved success in the traditional sense due to this self-deceptive handicap and I despaired at ever having any in the future. And it can be a handicap – when I asked some fellow indie theatre–makers how they keep going in the face of almost certain indifference of the world, one of them answered with, “I think you have to be a little delusional.”
This makes a lot of sense. I was much happier and more successful when I was convinced that my tiny theatre shows were going to change the world. Over the years, I’ve lost many of my self-deceptive abilities. When hearing this story for the second time today, though, I started to think about the competing impulses of cultivating self-deception and cultivating truth.
As an artist, I am (perhaps compulsively) interested in truth. I am curious about what is REALLY going on. I am captivated by the investigation of what is underneath. Do I wish for Elizabeth Bishop or Dawn Powell or Remedios Varo to have been more delusional to achieve more “success”? Definitely not. But is a lot of the art that is “successful” delusional? Absolutely. And how much of that might we deem sold out?
It’s becoming clearer to me that selling art comes from a very different impulse than creating it. The best artists I know are not self-delusional, they question themselves constantly. The ones that are impossibly sure of themselves often find more success but that confidence can feel like a con when it comes to the content of their work.
For me, being clear about the difference between artistic success and popularity, between truth and big numbers, between selling out and investing in, helps me focus on the task at hand, which is (always) making good art. And the only way I know how to do that is by being as honest with myself as possible. The successful self-deceivers can succeed on their own metric, I’ve got my own.
photo by litherland
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