Art and commerce


A few days ago I was having a discussion with an artist. We were talking about films and one that we mentioned he intended to see. He then indignantly added that a friend of his had offered to burn him a copy and he was horrified that they would suggest “stealing” in this way. To play devil’s advocate a bit, I asked him what had him so riled up? He went off angrily about how much work the artists and creative people had put into this, and the thought that they weren’t being given proper due and that their work was being “stolen” was terribly unfair. He just couldn’t understand why people thought this kind of thieving was in any way ok.

Not deciding whether it is “right” or “wrong”, I posited to him that in our material world, the notion of stealing is most notably aligned with a scarce physical resource. Let’s say I steal your car or even the food from your refrigerator. These are physical items in the physical world that are not immediately replaceable. These are things that took many many hours to produce, and there is no way to “copy” them without disturbing the original. I surmise that people don’t feel the same way about copying a film or piece of music, because the other listener to that music will not suddenly be without it. My friend pointed out that many hours of effort went into producing the music or film as well, and while it is true that a great deal goes into making the “first” one, subsequent copies in our increasingly digital world are fractions of pennies (in cost of electricity) to make.

And then I started thinking about a machine that could reproduce matter with nothing other than power input. Who would protect the intellectual property of a great chef for example, when it will be possible to duplicate atom for atom a fantastic main course or dessert? What about a painting or sculpture? (leave aside that we already have a notion in the art world of prints and castings, which are all about commercial ideas of rarity and value through limit of numbered –and signed — supply). The art world is dripping with contradiction in that on the one hand they desperately want to claim uniqueness, but on the other, in a capitalist and consumer society, they sell as much as is possible and do their utmost to cultivate sale value.

In all these cases, the path forward looks pretty clear to me, whether those vested in the current system like it or not.

As has been said many times before, information (and software, music, and video are all forms of information) wants to be free. The more restrictive a culture is with “fair use” rights, the more impoverished culturally. The greatest works of art do not live in a vacuum, they are relational, derivative, playing off the common cultural landscape.¬†Larry Lessig speaks eloquently about the chilling effect of extreme copyright law in perpetuity, and how important it is for a culture to be able to mix and remix and refer to itself.

As information (and that is all that everything is ultimately) becomes more cheaply reproducible, its ability to command a specific price based on what the creator or owner thinks it should be is diminished. All content in digital form (music, video, etc) will or should follow the model of shareware and the like. The way shareware works is that the owner gives it away for “free” and asks the user (with varying degrees of insistence) to pay for the software if they like it and get some use out of it. Many individual programmers make a nice living off of this model that depends on the “honesty” of strangers. The best, in my opinion only sets a “suggested” price, and really leaves it up to the user to determine for themselves the monetary value they wish to assign to it. Some people will use it once, pay a fee, and never use it again. Some will pay nothing and use it all the time. Some will use it frequently and pay something else entirely. My point is that value is in the eye of the beholder, and for digital works this should be taken advantage of for optimum return. It is the height of folly for an artist to dictate what the value or interpretation of a work of art should be, but that is exactly what the studio system and recording industry has encouraged for years. They are clearly on the losing side in this modern age, and despite all the copy protection mechanisms in place, they are fighting a losing battle.

Let’s take another analogy from the software industry. There are many companies that give software away for free, and sell their support or customization services. In a similar way, one can imagine artists giving away their music but charging for one of a kind events like a live show, where being present is not something that can be easily reproduced (at least not until virtual reality gets a whole lot better). These ways of thinking about selling are anathema to the studios and recording execs, because let’s face it, they are left out of the picture. With the internet as a distribution means, individual artists have much more control over when how and where their work gets out. They don’t need to rely on publicity or marketing decisions of some executive in a far away, well appointed office. They find the sites (or pay someone to) and distribute directly. The end result of all of this is that in the future, there will be far fewer “mega” stars but I believe far more people able to successfully make a decent living off of their music (or other forms of art). With an audience of billions, there is sure to be some subgroup with a particular taste for the artist in question, and some percentage of them willing to pay directly for the music or for the chance to see a live show or interact in some other meaningful way with their artist.

One of the most difficult concepts for me to grapple with while I was traveling around the world recently, especially in chaotic cultures like India, was the concept of haggling for things. Because it has been part of our culture, we like to believe in the democratization of honesty and value and ultimately, price. When someone sets a price on anything (an object in particular) we take it on faith that this price is some sort of fair calculation of the work that went into making it and its distribution costs. But this is a fantasy (and living in a capitalist society, we should know this but don’t). The value of anything (and this becomes abundantly clear in the street markets in India) is precisely what you are willing to pay for it, not a penny more or less. The fact that this is a subjective measure originally gave me fits. But then I came to realize that even in our supposedly advanced culture, price is essentially what the market will bear. If I was tired after a long day a taxi ride of exactly the same length and duration was worth more than if I were really feeling like walking the distance.

My point in all this is that artists (and content producers of all types) should get comfortable with the idea of variable value. They should realize that some people will want to consume their product for a penny and some for a dollar, but that this has nothing particularly to do with their wishes or the value of their work. I asked my friend if we were not living in a world where he could sell his paintings, would he still make them. He of course answered yes, that he HAD to paint. Just as many artists HAD to create. It is part of who they are and they need to express themselves. And these expressions are not outside of culture at all, but part of a dialog with that culture. It is just as vitally important to present and show and dialog with the culture about the work, as it is to make it. Money is nice and it is important to make a living somehow, but let’s face it — this is ancillary to the work of art. And many times it is corrupting. How many artists scream bloody murder about “selling out”, but go along willingly for the money and/or fame?

As the famous line (often attributed to ¬†Churchill) goes, “We have already established what you are, we are merely haggling over price.” If art is to be truly meaningful, the price of a work of art must be irrelevant. I don’t begrudge any artist making a good or even great living from their work, but the value of that work to themselves and the culture cannot be established by the simple fact of setting a price and collecting it. Furthermore, in the modern age, controlling such things as who has access to your work is a fantasy. Far better to deal with the reality of the digital world and adapt to its quirks. With any great technological change comes disruption and displacement. Smashing the mechanical looms will do nothing to forestall the future.

These same rules apply to me, of course. Do I think that my blog writing is art? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Do I think it has value? Yes, of course — otherwise why produce it? But not everyone will recognize that value; I know that, and I am okay with it. I write to take part in a dialog with the culture, and I would and will continue to write whether or not I derive financial benefit from it. Would I love to be able to make a living solely from the writing? Sure, but I have many interests, and getting paid for any of them would be sweet, especially if I could continue doing them as I please. But I do not expect payment unless I am on contract to produce something specific for a client (a website, a commissioned article, an itinerary, tech support, etc). But I do think that my creative work outside of contract should follow the same principles I have outlined above and to that end, I have added an “ALMS” button to the main menu here on my blog. Clicking on it will take you to a Paypal site where you can donate any amount you like to support my writing and this blog. If you do, I will be most grateful. And if you don’t, I am still grateful that you are reading it, and would encourage you to comment and participate in the discussion.


  1. Jasper Jansen says:

    My dad is an accomplished art forger ( who has been on the “straight and narrow” for a few years now. He has made a career of producing new originals (no copies) in the styles of Appel, Matisse, Magritte, Chagall, Picasso, Klimt (and others).
    He had a few very productive decades, flooding auction houses, galleries and even museums around the world with his work. Some of his work fetched the highest price for a work by the (real) artist to that particular date. Karel Appel even (knowingly?) authenticated some of my father’s work as being his own work.
    My father is a very talented man, no doubt, but he could not have had the success without willing buyers and their unwillingness to question (for the most part) the surprisingly large growth of a (often) dead and well documented artist’s body of work. Buy and sell on. Make a buck.
    Following my father’s arrest in 1994, it was almost impossible to build a case against him, because prosecuters couldn’t find any victims. That’s right. Not one person came forward, not for a lack of trying on the part of French authorities and Interpol.
    Coming forward would mean possibly losing the painting – at the very least it’s value – the up to that moment unsuspecting art-lover had hanging on their wall. Not to mention the embarassment.
    To save their own skin and business, art dealers, gallery owners and authenticaters alike tried – and in many ways succeeded – to nail my father. Never mind that they made my father’s career what it was and they often made even more money off my dad’s work than he did himself.
    After his arrest, imprisonment and other hiccups (nutshell) he gained some fame which would have ended his career as a forger. However, because of his (often romanticised) story – and he plays the vigilante role very well – he has been able to sustain his career by still producing the work of others, only now he signs with his own name (or any name the buyer requests for that matter). Prices are considerably lower, of course, but people climb over each other to buy his work. They can now afford to own and enjoy an orginal, museum-worthy Chagall , Lempicka or Jorn for a tiny percentage of the price.

  2. Stephen says:

    Thanks Jasper, that is a fascinating story!