Art / Shop


My friend Shaan is in town for a few days and staying with me. Last night he invited me to an opening for a new gallery that he was recently commissioned to do some work for (even though his work was not among those hanging for the opening). The gallery is called RH Contemporary, and it is apparently a new venture from the people behind Restoration Hardware, and as the name would imply run by some branch of their company and tied in with their branding. The opening was very “VIP”, and felt like an opulent NYC dance club opening with velvet rope and carpet, guest lists, pretty young women in cocktail dresses checking people in and pointing them to stairs and bathrooms and such. On entry, there were a row of model-handsome men standing erect and holding platters of frou-frou cocktails, and many cater-waiters carrying around blocky trays with upscale snacks on them. The gallery is five floors, each one reserved for a different artist, we took an elevator to the top and made our way down the stairs, floor by floor. I was impressed by how slick the event was but something was bugging me a bit about all this. The more I examined their concept, the more it made me question the value (and more importantly the purpose) of the art. For one thing, all of the work in the gallery is commissioned by them, with some rather strict rules about how many and what type of pieces they were looking for. They really seem to strive for an alike purity from each artist, and all their selections had a quality about them that would work very well in a certain type of home decor. The work was all rather minimalist, monotone or duotone, and devoid of any obvious political or social content or criticism. The website itself is perfectly designed to convey the gallery space, and is an e-commerce site where one can shop for a piece of art, add it to one’s basket, and check out as with any shopping site. The only difference is that instead of a gaudy “buy” button, one has a tasteful “acquire” link, and instead of “basket”, one has a “collection”. The other difference with a traditional shop is that these are all “one of a kind” items (and have price tags in the many thousands). The purpose for RH seems rather clear: define a new (and lucrative) market segment for decorative stuff. What it does to (the idea of) art and artists is a little less generous I think. And it points to the long (and sometimes tiresome) debate about art and commerce, and what the purpose of art is, and what can even claim the title of art. Depending on who you are and what you believe, art should or can offer a critique of the dominant culture, be a purely formal exploration, examine and reflect on the artist’s psyche, or it can serve a decorative purpose (as is very much the case here). Which of those categories one allows as “art” is up to the viewer and (in our very consumer society) purchaser.


What is art in a market economy?


The New York Times has a fascinating article this morning about a group of expert forgeries attributed to some very well known modern artists. Millions of dollars are at stake as art collectors and investors have been duped into purchasing works they believed to be authentic creations from Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock and others. Reading the article, one can’t help but notice the sheer panic of “art lovers” cast adrift in a sea of uncertainty around questions of authenticity. And this is the sad state of art in a capitalist society, where nothing is appreciated separately from its market value. And where the market value of something has nothing to do with intrinsic value, only what the market will bear. Although this idea is often presented as hardy and utilitarian, it is in most cases the opposite of that, and offends a common sense interpretation of things. I have long believed that art should be public, and that great ideas and works presented by artists are necessarily corrupted when produced for the private art market. Especially while the artist is alive and reaping the financial reward, it is rather like producing advertorial content in a magazine. As long as works are for sale, what guides the artist’s inner vision? Is it what sells? Is it what interests the artist? Is it social or political commentary? Maybe the artist divides between private, “not for sale” work and public “pay the bills” work. And who could blame him or her? We all need to eat.

But to the Art Market, the ideas or forms represented in the work are very much beside the point. They deal only in market value and in manipulation of levers that add to value, such as rarity or scarcity. This is especially true of art photography, printing, or sculpture moulds, which have at their very heart ideas about reproducibility and mass production. The output is intentionally limited to increase value. One can see why the same rules do not exactly apply to other art forms such as writing or film making, where they are intended to be communicative to as wide a range as possible. Those works are meant to be seen, and widely. Again this is the problem of art in the hands of private collectors, that the art is shut out from the rest of the world, unable to interact in a discourse with the culture around it.

And this is the rather amusing joke that has now been played on these collectors who claim to care about art. On the one hand, nothing at all has changed about the paintings they supposedly love and have collected. They still have them, can still look at them closely, appreciate the work in close quarters, revel in the meaning or technique or whatever. On the other hand, they have been duped. These works are not original to the artists in question. They suddenly lack authenticity, and for the collectors all value has gone out of them. Why is that? Is the form or content suddenly different? Would they have purchased these works for any reason at such exorbitant pricing (or any price) if it were only about the work, and not about the investment? Of course not.

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.