before-wedgeArt and Humanity

Art and Humanity

“Six Self Portraits,” by Andy Warhol is estimated to be worth between USD $25M and $35M.  Beyoncé’s earnings are listed at USD $53M as of June 2013.  “Spiderman 2” earned USD $10M on its opening. These are significant sums of money.  But do these sums of money represent art?  And if it is art, is it really that valuable?  And if it is valuable, why aren’t all artists making this kind of living.

On the one hand, there exists, as noted in a recent New York Times article (A.O. Scott, dated May 9, 2014), “The Paradox of Art as Work.”

Scott explains that,

“On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world.”  And on the other, “money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment.”

The moment is upon us.  Our so-called sophisticated, developed societies need to take responsibility for the artists that exist among us, and the art they produce.  The notion that when the artist ceases to starve, s/he is labeled a ‘sellout’ must be abandoned.  Why can’t we be in it for the money?  Why is the concept of artists earning enough to live comfortably anathema to us?

“In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work,” Scott openly acknowledges.

To make a movie, a video, compose an orchestral piece, be a dance maker, paint, sculpt, or design…is hard.  Just ask those who are deemed to be good at their ‘art.’  Critical acclaim brings with it great pressure to continue performing at the same high level.  The making of good art becomes even harder.

On the other hand, if we acknowledge that art is hard work, why, then, do we also hold it as fundamentally un-serious?

School aged Kids are encouraged to use their imaginations, pursue their passions, and play through and explore their talents.   Adults, both young and not so young, are dismissed, discounted, discouraged, undervalued, and outright ostracized when they attempt to use their imaginations, pursue their passions, explore their talents, and God forbid, use play as an innovative tool.  As a New York Theatre maven, I can’t tell you how many times I have overheard parents say to their star struck Broadway novice, “Darling, I’m worried you won’t make a decent living; can’t you just get a ‘real job’?”

Nowadays, anyone with a smart phone, tablet, kindle, or some other gaming device can be an ‘artist.’  Or can they?  In his NY Times article, Scott theorizes that the flood of [digital] amateurs threatens to overtake ‘professional artists,’ trivialize their artistic accomplishments and undermine their already precarious living standards.

Is the art produced on the spot digitally; disseminated en masse, electronically; in a relatively cost neutral fashion valuable?  Was it hard to make?  Is this type of art creation a way to make a living?

The recent change in the tax code which allows for an accounting of the value of art, when calculated and added to the 2011 GDP of the United States, was informative.  The National Endowment for the Arts report stated that, “the production of arts and cultural goods and services contributed USD $ 504.4 billion to the U.S. economy.”

As to value proposition of art, no one school of thought can be the final arbiter.  Andy Horwitz at culturebot.org (“Seeing Value in the Arts,” October 19, 2013) states this succinctly.  He says

“If the corporate consultants and funders so set on “innovating the arts” would try to see artists as “different but equal”, try to see what artists do, see their resilient economies and inventiveness, their collaborative creative processes, and ability to create real value, real change, real transformation out of scarcity, they’d learn a lot.”

It took Cambodia nearly 40+ years to rebuild the cultural fabric of their society after it had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge.  The Economist magazine, not known for its arts coverage, reported on this in 2013.  The economics of the loss of all art in Cambodian culture was devastating, not just financially, but also morally.

Horwitz builds a case that art and its creation comprise the archetype of all “value propositions.”  For example, he describes a live performance, in particular, as a

“[…] dynamic and ever-shifting interdependent social ecology comprised of complex, conditional relationships between artists, audience and institution. The creation and presentation of live performance is a social process, it is the construction of social objects; it is not mere one-directional “presentation”, it is multidimensional engagement; even spectatorship is participatory; it is not a business transaction, it is an ongoing relationship that requires stewardship and mutual respect, not manipulative sales tactics.

The value proposition of the arts is that it is fundamentally not business. We offer our “customers” a service they desperately need but may not know it: humanity.”

The upshot?  Art matters.  Art has value.  Both to our sensibilities and to our economy.  But it may not be fully monetary.  It’s time to stop treating it as though it were an ugly step child – something we feel we have a duty to take care of but only at the subsistence level.

Thanks for reading,

Suzanne Scott

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