I was approached by This Magazine to write something for their current “Big Ideas” issue, and since I’d been chatting to Misha about taking part in Copycamp I used the opportunity to write about how excited I am that art seems to be harder and harder to commodify these days.
Paying for art should be like paying for sex -– possible, but not encouraged. I’m not against creative people getting rewarded for their work or thinking about their craft as seriously as a job -– it’s what I’ve been doing for the last decade or so -– but treating artwork as a commodity has never really felt right. And after thinking about it for a while, I realize why.
Art isn’t created in a vacuum – everything owes a debt to work that’s come before. One of my favorite examples is OutKast’s Andre talking about where the hell “Hey Ya” came from. He credits a mixtape that a friend gave him which included “the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths.” So while that song is testament to his individual vision and work (he played all the instruments on it except the bass), it’s also not entirely his to sell, either. Like all art, it’s a mix of individual effort and a collective culture and consciousness that’s all tangled together.
Perhaps impossibly tangled. If we are really looking to the market to ascribe value to a song, what percentage of the profits from “Hey Ya” should go to the influences? The influences’ influences? If Andre wants to sell it as a car commercial jingle, should the Buzzcocks be consulted?
I’d be happy with any answer that brought about a fairer way of compensating the collective nature of art, but I think we should consider the benefits of taking it off the market entirely. The very fact that the “Hey Ya” was inspired by an (illegal) mixtape shows the value of free art to artists. Selling art piecemeal was a stopgap measure at best. A stopgap measure that’s been fairly functional for the past hundred years, admittedly, but the technological advances that made it possible are now making it nearly impossible.
Music, movies, games, books, are all freely accessible now that they’ve been freed of tangible media -– this is cause for celebration, not panic. It’s a time to reassess the function of the infrastructure which once expanded possibilities for artists and now threaten to constrict them. This is an opportunity to brainstorm fairer models to support cultural production. And it’s a creative challenge that many artists are embracing -– one fellow I know gives his webcomics away for free while earning a living on the t-shirts he sells to his audience.
I might be talking myself out of a job, but there’s lots of things that aren’t for sale in our world — maybe art should be one of them.