Nov 302006

Marc Ngui's illoI 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.

For further thoughts on the dissonance between the individualism of the market and the communal nature of art, check out this article.

  6 Responses to “Art Slips Free”

  1. Hey Jim – ever read any Hakim Bey?
    This is from the Temporary Autonomous Zone:

    Poetic Terrorism
    WEIRD DANCING IN ALL-NIGHT computer-banking lobbies. Unauthorized pyrotechnic displays. Land-art, earth-works as bizarre alien artifacts strewn in State Parks. Burglarize houses but instead of stealing, leave Poetic-Terrorist objects. Kidnap someone & make them happy. Pick someone at random & convince them they’re the heir to an enormous, useless & amazing fortune–say 5000 square miles of Antarctica, or an aging circus elephant, or an orphanage in Bombay, or a collection of alchemical mss. Later they will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, & will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.

    Bolt up brass commemorative plaques in places (public or private) where you have experienced a revelation or had a particularly fulfilling sexual experience, etc.

    Go naked for a sign.

    Organize a strike in your school or workplace on the grounds that it does not satisfy your need for indolence & spiritual beauty.

    Grafitti-art loaned some grace to ugly subways & rigid public momuments–PT-art can also be created for public places: poems scrawled in courthouse lavatories, small fetishes abandoned in parks & restaurants, xerox-art under windshield-wipers of parked cars, Big Character Slogans pasted on playground walls, anonymous letters mailed to random or chosen recipients (mail fraud), pirate radio transmissions, wet cement…

    The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by PT ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror– powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst–no matter whether the PT is aimed at one person or many, no matter whether it is “signed” or anonymous, if it does not change someone’s life (aside from the artist) it fails.

    PT is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls. In order to work at all, PT must categorically be divorced from all conventional structures for art consumption (galleries, publications, media). Even the guerilla Situationist tactics of street theater are perhaps too well known & expected now.

    An exquisite seduction carried out not only in the cause of mutual satisfaction but also as a conscious act in a deliberately beautiful life–may be the ultimate PT. The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is not money but CHANGE.

    Don’t do PT for other artists, do it for people who will not realize (at least for a few moments) that what you have done is art. Avoid recognizable art-categories, avoid politics, don’t stick around to argue, don’t be sentimental; be ruthless, take risks, vandalize only what must be defaced, do something children will remember all their lives–but don’t be spontaneous unless the PT Muse has possessed you.

    Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary. The best PT is against the law, but don’t get caught. Art as crime; crime as art.

  2. hey Dave–

    Sure do know Bey! Great stuff, TAZ is a classic. He really revels in the deviance of it, but I think my take is more about normalizing free art.

  3. i went to see the heather nicol show last night:

    although there was a $5 admission fee – which i didn’t pay anyways – the event did support the notion of normalizing art as experince in contrast to commodity-fetish. none of the art there was for sale, unlike most galleries.

    even though one could see the whole thing as simply a form of artist-promotion designed ultimately to in sell more art objects, it was fun nonetheless: if for no other reason than the sheer size of the space and the range of artists involved: darbazi singers, performance art, geodesic domes made of fluorescent lights, felt cities, walls oozing brown goop, giant hanging sculptures made from recycled p.e.t. bottles, etc.

    they should put on more events like that, but for free.

  4. Nothing is free.

  5. Those are a lot of interesting ideas. I think if an artist could be compensated by all of society for his or her contribution to society as a whole, that would be ideal. In practice, that would be difficult to carry out. It would require an assessment based on the opinions of people who are familiar with an artist’s work as to how their work benefits society. It would not be good if this process was institutionalized and turned into a bureaucracy. Rather, it could operate like a karma collector. People would express their genuine appreciation for the artist’s work, and give a monetary contribution to support the artist’s continued work. It would be like working for all your admirers, instead of working for a company that dictates what you can and can’t do. This model only really works when completely integrated with the internet. Isolated artisans and craftspeople would not be able to participate. Not everyone produces things that can be digitized and experienced fully on the internet; at least not yet. As an artisan myself, I don’t really feel that my art is turned into a commodity even though I create items that people then purchase. People are buying the product of my artistic process. I want to be able to create art, and I want to be able to eat. People are paying me to part with my creations, and are supporting my lifestyle. Besides, how is art sold on a T-shirt okay, while charging for webcomics is not? It’s more about what people are willing to pay for. For the model I described to work, people will need to realize that if they want more webcomics from people who want to focus on making JUST webcomics, not webcomics and T-shirts, or webcomics and books, they will need to support them somehow. Newspaper syndicates can’t really work too well online, since people can always get the content they want for free somehow, it really will hinge on the good will of the community and how they support the creators they care about. I’m already pretty hopeful about this all after seeing how the comics community supports their own when they are in dire straits. Thanks to the web, word about a tragedy gets around fast, and so does help. I think the transition you described is inevitable.

  6. Wow! what an idea ! What a concept ! Beautiful .. Amazing

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>