On Art and Commerce and Pseudo-Activism

Let’s talk about art and commerce.

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, first, I am using here a very broad definition of art, so we can simply skip the arguments about what is and isn’t art. Second, those of you who want to make Garfunkle jokes, or any of the other oh-so-original cracks playing off the word “art,” please feel free to do so in the privacy of your own blog.

It is obvious that art and commerce are intertwined, and have been since class society has existed, and will continue to be so as long as class society exists. That does not, however, mean we have to be pleased about it, nor that we cannot do what we can to fight it. Simply accepting it, is to accept money as the measure of quality of a work of art, and I am unwilling to do that.

And yet, here is the problem: among so many people today, particularly people who call themselves progressives, there appears to be a conviction that the most important thing about a work of art is not if it moves the audience, not if it shows us something about life, not if helps us understand people who are unlike us, not if it challenges our beliefs, not if it helps us work through moral issues that perhaps we haven’t considered, but, rather money. Because I keep hearing things like this:

We cannot support this person, he gives money to bad causes. And this person has been accused of having done terrible things, so we must deprive him of money. That person is clearly evil, and must be punished by having his income reduced. This person over here is much more deserving of reward, and therefore the money that would go to someone else should go here instead.

Have you considered that, when you say that, what you are really saying is, “The most important aspect of a work of art is what the artist does with the income it generates”?

That’s it, that’s what you’re saying. This is such a complete capitulation to the values of capitalism, an utter surrender to the most loathsome forms of commercialism, that it astonishes me that anyone who expresses it could consider her- or himself anything but an utter conservative.

There is one writer—I shan’t name him, because I fear some of you would stop reading him—who is, or at least was, a conservative, right-wing Republican. As a writer, he has a sharp eye for detail, a deft hand with touching one’s emotional buttons, and an outstanding ability to express human interaction. I consider his work to be among the most subversive in our field; it takes a real effort to read him and not have one’s view of society called into question, to not see how capitalist society degrades and tries to crush the human spirit, and how we are capable of heroism in resisting it.

To get personal for a moment, I consider myself a red, a revolutionary. If I had the talent and skill to do one tenth as effective a job of calling the status quo into question in my books as he does in his, I’d be satisfied indeed.

Would he agree with this analysis? Hell no. I don’t care. What I care about is that his work challenges society as it is, and encourages everyone who reads it to do the same. If he then takes the money he’s paid and gives it to causes I consider vile, that is more than made up for by the truth he reveals; his work is a thousand times more progressive then the philistines who would attack him.

You are not standing on the moral high ground, it just looks that way because your vision is impaired.


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24 thoughts on “On Art and Commerce and Pseudo-Activism”

  1. One comment: American’s don’t know what “class” means. They are bombarded with “most of you are middle class!!!”

    No, they’re not. If they’re living paycheck to paycheck, if they don’t have *budgetary* authority over others, they’re *working class*. But that’s become a putdown….

    mark, proudly working class.

  2. I haven’t seen many comments of that type, but one thing I have seen is, “There are more artists whose work I want to experience than I can in several lifetimes. Given that, I’ll choose the ones who I don’t consider evil.” (That doesn’t assume that the works are the same, only that the person’s desire to experience them is equally strong.)

    A similar one that I haven’t seen but can imagine is, “I’ll pay for works by artists I approve of and experience the others without letting the artists get any money,” e.g. by borrowing books from a public library.

    Neither of those means the person thinks money is the most important thing about art. I wonder whether some of the people you’re talking about think in either of those ways but leave that part unspoken.

  3. If a piece of art is really good I’ll say it is really good. If I learn that the artist was into vile things that doesn’t change the work itself but it may change my relationship to it.
    Here’s an example—“The Hunt For Red October “ is an enjoyable read (or at least I remember it so). I haven’t read it for a long time since as Clancy became more strident in his conservatism, so did his work. I stopped reading them at some point as they became essentially propaganda pieces. These later works disinclined me to reread the earlier even though the original hasn’t changed.
    If an author really does produce works that are dispute some aspect of vileness, then the work is good. Often (not always), however, the contradiction in supporting vileness seems to seep into the work and this makes me sad as the artist seems to give into corruption.

  4. Jerry: Thank you for a thoughtful comment. In essence, I would argue that you’re saying exactly the same thing. “There are more artists whose work I want to experience than I can in several lifetimes…” In other words, there’s lots of art. This inherently treats it as interchangeable, as a commodity, and if it’s a commodity, why not buy from ethical sources. But it isn’t a commodity, and treating it as one diminishes it. Is Shakespeare interchangeable with Dickens? Is Van Gogh interchangeable with Frans Hals? The value of art lies in the art; your very argument strips that away and bases your decision-making on what happens to the money.

  5. Steve: Need I point out that in your example you discovered things in the work itself? That is entirely different. And, yes, certainly, things we may learn about the artist might make us more aware of what is in the art. If we were to learn, for example, that Dumas was half black (he was), that would put some of his remarks about race in a new context, and we might realize that what we had thought was a racist remark was in fact tongue-in-cheek, and intended to point out the absurdity of racism. And certainly the reverse is possible, as in your example. I am not arguing that we must remain, or pretend to remain, ignorant about the author, and that what we learn might not inform how we respond to the work. But you are placing the work at the center, not money.

  6. Part of the problem is that our society has made art=commerce in many cases. I choose not to give money to people who hate my family members. I do not think that would be controversial. So when I get upset that a famous author or comedian is TERF and I choose not to give them money I do not want to make a judgement on their art but I also do not want to give them money.

    I do not need to make any judgement about the politics of Shakespeare or Dickens since I am not actually giving them any money. The situation is much more nuanced in our modern capitalist world.

  7. I think people who try to leverage their spending to make political or social statements have good intentions.

    The problem is they are trusting the wrong people when they ask the question: “What can I do to fight against capitalists behaving in ways I don’t like?”

    To which, the real answer is “End capitalism. Any other activity is just a waste of your time.”

    But of course, supporters of capitalism are never going to give people that answer, so they like to invent substitution activities for these people to try that still maintain capitalism but at least superficially might appear to have a negative impact against the particular capitalists that the individual is complaining about.

  8. Thanks for the reply, Steve. To be clear (as they say), I’m saying those things and it’s my argument only in that I brought it up here as something I’ve seen. It’s not the way I decide how to spend my money.

    Of course different works of art aren’t interchangeable. I tried to address that in my earlier comment.

    Maybe it will make this argument clearer to imagine a man who’s terminally ill and has time to read one more novel. He has two favorite authors, innovatively named X and Y. X writes books that move him and challenge his beliefs. Y writes books that show him something about life and help him understand people who are not like him. Each has a new book out that has gotten excellent reviews. In ordinary circumstances he’d never try to decide between them–he’d buy both. But with time to read only one, he has to decide. X has just been convicted of selling drugs on elementary school playgrounds, and our reader decides to buy Y’s book. I don’t see that that indicates that he thinks money is the most important thing about art or that art is fungible.

    Of course things are never that clear-cut. But still people have only limited time and money, and “Of the making of many books there is no end.” People with wide-ranging tastes (not “Heroic fantasy by writers who use ‘thou’, and use it correctly”) may well have to forego some uniquely valuable works of art they’d like to experience. How should they decide? A strong difference in their opinion of the artist as a person could easily be more important than a slight difference in attractiveness of what they know of the work.

    Incidentally, there’s room here for casuistry [*] in an old sense. In the visual arts, the prices of works can really make a difference. Here’s another case. A rich woman has about $20,000 dollars to buy an original work of art for her living room. In that price range, she has found a representational painting by A that brings up profound emotions. She has also found an abstract multimedia work by B that says something new and brilliant about art. She loves both in different ways, and by the way, both look terrific with her color scheme. Now she learns that B donates to political death squads in Central America, so buying B’s work will probably mean another assassination. If she chooses to buy A’s on that ground alone, is there something wrong with that decision?

    [*] A sneaky way of letting me mention that a sentence containing that word, spoken by Pel, is currently my favorite sentence of yours. Actually I couldn’t have named a favorite till I noticed how much I like that one.

  9. Well, it could be worse. We could be judging a work’s value based on sales generated. Kafka and Van Gogh both died without ever knowing their output would eventually reach the heights of esteem it did. Meanwhile, certain contemporary novels are commercially quite successful, but I read the first few sentences of them to see what all the fuss is about, but that is about as much as I can stand.

  10. In the past, I have decided what to read based on recommendation, by picking up the next book along on the shelf, or by random chance. Currently I’m reading Steve’s work because I like his politics.
    None of these methods is foolproof. But the politics one has worked more often than any other, I think.

    If an artist who’s work you like turns out to be a Conservative (capitalised as I’m in the UK), that would change my reaction to it. And that would be the case regardless of whether I knew the artist was giving money to the Tory party or not. Merely knowing they had abhorrent views would be enough.
    I don’t think I buy the “art is art regardless” argument. One’s opinion can change with experience, and frequently does.

  11. If I disagree with someone’s world view strongly enough to think I ought to do something about it, I ask myself, “How can I hurt the guy the most?” And, often, it’s by withholding my money from him or her. It’s not measuring his art or lack of art by money; it’s how to make a point most forcefully.

  12. Jeremy: One of the most important things art does is use emotions and imagery to help us understand the world. The idea of rejecting a work of art because of personal characteristics of the artist is as absurd to me as rejecting a scientific discovery because of personal characteristics of the scientist.

  13. A lot of lousy jerks, freaks, recluses, cads, degenerates, and downright psychos have created amazing art during the course of human history. I am looking for a book recommendation…

  14. If attempting to cancel artists with differing political outlooks is counter-productive pseudo-activism, what would genuine and productive activism with respect to art purchases or art recommendations look like?

  15. Encouraging complete freedom in the arts, in every possible sense. When a work of art is objectionable in some way, either deliberately or not, part of that freedom is to criticize that work. When the criticism moves from attacking the work to attacking the artist, it creates a climate of fear that only inhibits art, especially the most daring and exciting work.

  16. I’ve often pondered this myself, and don’t think I’ll arrive at an answer I’m happy with for some time. I want “free” art, of course. I want artists to feel able to create and take risks. But at the same time I wonder whether a “free” art world eventually devolves into the choice of “we will either scare artists out of making art which promotes harm to the out-group” or “the out-group will become harmed by artists promoting violence in their art.”

    In a perfect world, criticism of a vile piece of art would dissuade people from adopting its philosophy. In practice, we know there will always be people looking to use a piece of “controversial art” to legitimize a hatred that they will never willingly relinquish.

  17. I will say that I deeply disagree with many of your political opinions, Mr. Brust, but I love how thoughtful you are in expressing those opinions, and I am not only happy to buy your books but I think you’re a terrific human being and wish you all the best.

    I don’t have to agree with 100% of what someone says to be glad they’re speaking.

  18. Art schmart, I have to fart.

    Honest entertainment made because people think stuff is cool brings a lot more happiness than art anyway. People who set out to make art are probably insufferable assholes.

    I don’t consider the Taltos books art and I hope I never do.

  19. This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with since the beginning of the #MeToo movement. Do we judge the art or are we judging the artist? At first, I explored the work of Lovecraft, and while I can argue that he was a reprehensible human being, I find it difficult to “cancel” his work, having found little to no objectional subject matter (racism) inherent in his art. On the other hand, I look at the work of Nazi filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl and would wish terrible things upon her because of her art.

    That being said, I am thankful that Lovecraft’s work now has mostly fallen into the public domain because another artist, Misha Green was able to reinvent his work in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. If you haven’t seen it, he used Lovecraft’s personal racist views as a horror device and created something I’m sure HP would have hated. For me, it’s still a toss-up and has to be handled on a case-by-case basis. In the end, if I know the artist is a predator, it taints how I view the art.

  20. “Do we judge the art, or the artist?”
    Okay, an answer came to me a few minutes ago: suppose someone, rather than having a time machine and going back and killing him, had worked with Hitler on art, and helped him become a good enough artist to make a living. He might not have taken the other path.

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