The Business of Art

I suppose that any successful ideology, throughout history, succeeds by absorbing both adjacent and competing ideologies. See, for example, the Christmas Tree, the Easter Bunny, Halloween.

Today, everything is a business: that’s the unquestioned orthodoxy I encounter on a daily basis. Universities, nonprofits, arts organizations, even churches seem to have absorbed the idea that we are all in the business of business. We are all entrepreneurs!

There are plenty of cogent, insightful, deep critiques of this idea out there, from journalists, academics, activists – but where I personally feel a need to push back against the idea is in the arts. I circulate pretty broadly in the arts community in Minneapolis – film, theater, dance and fine arts – and it’s remarkable to me the degree to which many of my peers have internalized this ideology, ultimately to the detriment of (in my opinion) their mental health, their art, and the community as a whole.

Capitalism, as a system, wants us to believe that everything is a part of capitalism, everything fits into capitalism and is governed by its logic and values. If the art is good, it should be expensive! Lots of people should want to buy it, and the good artist who makes good art should be wealthy and popular!

This is, in one sense, the morality of capitalism playing out: a good product produced by hard work is rewarded with cash and status.

And who could argue with that formulation? Who doesn’t want to be wealthy and admired for being a talented, hardworking, productive artist?

I have been surprised to find people threatened and offended when I question these precepts. Because when you articulate them and flip them, things get dark very quickly – if you are NOT wealthy and admired, does it mean that you are not a talented artist, or that you aren’t working hard enough?

…And that’s the problem right there. There’s a moral imperative to succeed or give up, and succeeding means growing – bigger audience, more profits, bigger budgets. To keep making art that isn’t successful by a conventional definition is an affront to a capitalist ideology – unless it can be recategorized as a hobby, a consumer activity. Then it’s safe again – people start lining up to sell you accessories and services. If you’re not producing goods to sell, you can still be a “prosumer” and fit neatly into the system, with only a whisper of cognitive dissonance.

And, in my experience, that is truly terrifying to artists: if I stop pursuing my work as a business, does that mean I’m a hobbyist prosumer dilettante, and therefore not serious? That is death or exile, banishment, existential crisis. Whereas if we keep pursuing the Business of Art, we’re safe – for now.

The ideology of capitalism dictates that nothing can exist outside of capitalism. If yoga is your thing, you better start a yoga studio and charge money for it. You can still donate some of your time and feel good about giving back to the community.

If filmmaking is your thing, better keep submitting to festivals, win some awards, get some grants – build that resume, establish that brand, burnish that reputation. It’ll lead – somewhere. Bigger projects, bigger audiences, larger budgets, maybe… nationwide distribution? Sure, it’s not impossible. Better keep chasing it.

The idea that something could be valuable and meaningful without the possibility of profit is deeply unsettling to the capitalist worldview. The idea that I will never be more successful than I am today, as an artist, but that I choose to keep doing it anyway, upsets the fundamental dynamics of the equation that success = growth = profit, for somebody. If I’m an artist but my art doesn’t make any money for anyone, does it count for anything? If a tree falls in the woods…

I started Video Haiku in 2006 for exactly this reason: I wanted to make something small and impossible to monetize, with negligible cost to me, and free to share. I paid a few bucks a month for server space and bought a basic digital camera, probably with income from my job as a security guard.

In 2010, I started working with an antique 16mm Bolex, shooting short films with no dialogue and minimal narrative, not purposefully impenetrable, but not highly “accessible” either.

If, someday, some Mephistophelean character appears, offering me piles of money and acclaim for any of the work I’ve done in the past decade, first, I will be shocked. Second, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take the money. But until that day, I’ll be damned if I’m going to chase that character. It’s not worth the energy to bother to believe in him – and I doubt I’ll ever earn a place at the top of his list, which means it’s not a dilemma I’ll have to face, anyway.

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