Art as commodity. Is art ever free from the constraints of a market economy and the gallery setting? Crafted into the very bones of the art “industry” is a gallery structured value system, and it shapes the way art is made, valued, and considered – whether we like it or not. Despite rebellion and attempted subversion of the gallery and art market as determiner, owner, and distributor of art, it lives on. Its selections influence what the public define as “good” art – art worthy of garnering “close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states,” as critic Robert Hughes dryly states in a 2004 speech to the Royal Academy. In innocuously molding the rubric for determining what is “good” art or art worthy of commodification (of course, one in the same), these institutions wield a mighty hand in qualifying what constitutes art. In order to survive as artists, we are pressured to conform and to make art within these standards in order to even attempt to support ourselves.
Kinda sad, right? Isn’t art about something bigger? When we dream of the biggest things to ourselves, do we ever start thinking about what the dividends will be? Does your hand turn to the brush, to the micron, to absent minded doodles because the cash register Cha-ching! sounded first in your head? For me, the truest things are always pure. It’s true that art can be defined however you want it to be. You decide the value of things. You act on your impulses or through self-made rules and make, make, make. Regardless, we can’t ignore the permeating structure of art as commodity. Commodity spreads. If it’s hot, everyone wants it – on their t-shirts, on their coffee mugs, in their living room. Value goes up. Hype carries it up farther. We look to the (art) stars and wonder if we could be them if we too shot for the moon. It makes it hard to be an original voice, to be true to oneself as a creative entity. But mostly it just raises a lot of questions that perhaps can’t be answered about how art is to be defined and valued, considered, priced, about art’s “place” in the world. It lays down a transparent grid of restrictions. Like slamming into that glass door that looked open, it’s a little embarrassing and it kinda hurts. You’re making something that finally feels real and true and then you forget the grid is there and suddenly BAM! it’s the institution you’ve ingested speaking in your voice: Is what I’m making even good? Despite how we may feel about it, art’s role as commodity influences how art is valued and defined. Perhaps the best we can do is be aware of it or play in it, to overturn what philosopher Michel Foucault calls these “regimes of truth.” Once we understand the system, we can act within it to free ourselves… (spread the word!)