Free (from the) Market

Not all art should exist within a market.  Meaning: not all art can pay the rent.  If I have to choose between making the artwork I want to make, and making a living from my artwork (and I do have to choose), I choose to make the artwork I want to make.  I have another full-time job to support myself and my artwork.  Sure, I wish that I didn’t have to work another job, but this is a choice that I am making, in order to have complete control over my artwork.  This is not a choice which is forced on me by “the system.”  Let’s stop acting helpless, and let’s stop pretending that making art is the same thing as fixing a toilet.  It’s not.

It is damaging, utterly destructive to our humanity, to perpetuate the idea that monetary value is the only value, that the only actions which matter are the actions for which we receive monetary compensation.  One of the great social benefits of art is that it can exemplify a model which is alternative to the marketplace.  Art can exist, and, in fact, thrives, outside the market, and it is therefore a tangible representation of the generosity which our society requires in order to retain its humanity in balance with the “me-centric” demands of our market-driven culture. 

Yes, art can achieve impact within the marketplace, but only to a degree.  Once art is institutionalized and commoditized, it loses some of its value as an example of generosity.  We trust it less.  We want to know who is making a buck off of it – off of us (as audiences, as artists, as presenters, even as funders).  Once art is in the market, we want to know who benefits, and we want to make sure that we are getting whatever we feel is our due, in relation to that benefit.  This destroys much of the power of art.  It makes art a commodity, and it makes artists salespeople.  It makes artists feel that there are “gatekeepers” standing between them and their “market.”  Art does not require a distributor; product does.

I think it is fine for some art to be sold as product, and I think it is necessary in such cases for artists to be smart businesspeople, so as not to be taken advantage of by the distributors of their product.  However, I do not think that artists who share their art outside of the market should be criticized for their generosity as if they were strike breakers.  If you are an artist who feels exploited by presenters, show your work in the street or at your home, or any number of places.  No one is forcing you to apply for a grant, or to put your show up in specific room, and no one has promised you that, if you do, you’ll make enough cash to pay your bills. 

This is not because some presenter is skimming off the top or because some funder is sitting stingily on “your” money.  It is simply because there is practically no money in experimental art, because it does not exist within a monetary market.  If you want to operate within a monetary market, you have to spend a (large) portion of your time thinking about your artwork as a product, and developing it in such a way that you can sell it to a consumer.  If you make that choice, take responsibility for it.

Alternatively, there is also power in an artist saying that monetary compensation is not the only determiner of value.  There is power in an artist saying that there is more to life than paper in exchange for sweat.  There is power in our recognition that we make and present art, in collaboration with the generosity of many, many, people (funders, presenters, writers, performers, designers, audiences, etc., etc., etc.) all because we feel that art is important.  We feel that it serves something essential in us.  We do it because we must, and not because it pays. 

That does not make us suckers; it makes us human.

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2 Responses to Free (from the) Market

  1. Siobhan Burke says:

    Hey Sarah, right on. This made me think of your mini-performance for Jillian at the track. I posted a few words about it here: Also, very happy to have discovered your blog! So much interesting stuff on here.

  2. smaxfield says:

    Thanks, Siobhan! I have been trying to put my non-money where my mouth is in this arena, so I’m glad that this post made you think of my performance for Jillian. Thanks for your lovely words about it on your blog, which I’m delighted to learn about as well.

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