As an artist I run up against this all the time. If I talk passionately about how in general, there is a lack of coverage and respect given to the arts and how this lack of coverage and respect has the very real effect of ensuring that artists are seldom paid for their efforts, inevitably someone will say to me "Why don't you try marketing." Or, "Who are you marketing to?" And it's not just the arts. I see this reflexive notion all the time. If you don't get the job you wanted people will say maybe you just didn't market yourself the right way. Increase your sales -- try marketing. Become a brand. Get out there and sell yourself. Have you tried merchandising? How about corporate sponsorships?
I have noticed over the years that it is very difficult for people to talk about "value" without talking about it in terms of marketing and the larger context of the economy. It's as if most things are reduced to the cold calculus of economic calculation. My success, according to how others perceive the value of what I do, cannot be imagined outside of the realm of economic calculation. So my economic failure as an artist becomes a failure of my ability to market myself as opposed to a societal failure in finding imaginative ways to support culture and artists. The onus of responsibility becomes perverted whereas the victims of an exploitative economy are not only the ones tasked with changing it, but are blamed for their own lack of economic success. They are granted none of the levers of power and wealth that the so called "successful" people have created and maintained for their own benefit, and when these carefully crafted and maintained disparities are pointed out, the retort is once again the panacea of marketing.
The mythos is that to be successful all you have to do is maintain a positive outlook on life and market yourself. The problem with this is that such a simplistic view of success obfuscates the larger and more systemic problems which are at the heart of an exploitative system. It masks how power and wealth actually operate. In fact it not only masks it, but worse, power and wealth become celebrated and conflated with creativity and genius. We give deference to those with wealth because our culture has taught us that to be wealthy is akin to being more capable than the rest of the underperforming masses.
Wealth is not created, it is experienced. It is visceral. The challenges of the poor are not the same as the challenges of the rich. Hunger for food is never the same as the hunger for maintaining one's privilege.
Wealth is inherently a function of vertical transference as opposed to horizontal transference. To become wealthy in our society one always has to make others more money than what their labor costs. Kim Kardashian is afforded millions because she makes the owners of the network much more than she receives back. Basketball players are given millions because they make the networks and the owners more money than they get back. Whatever wage you make is worth more than what the company you work for pays back to you. As long as money flows up to the owners as opposed to horizontally to the workers, your value is maintained. Your job is secure, unless of course someone is willing to do it for less. In such a society, competition is sacrosanct whereas the collective burden we all share is denigrated. We become lone agents whose success is determined by out-competing our neighbor. And how does one out-compete their neighbor -- by working harder, by being more intelligent, or more creative? Sometimes, but increasingly those who are being rewarded by wealth are those who are willing to conform their minds and bodies to the dictates of mass marketing. This isn’t to say that hard work is never rewarded, but should a little honesty be applied here, it’s not too difficult to see that the rewards given to the working class are not the same in measure or in deference to those rewards heaped upon the investor class.
I have come into contact with a lot of brilliant people who are largely excluded from popular media. And yet, I am inundated with all sorts of celebrities and quasi-intellectuals who get good ratings but have little in the way of imaginative thoughts. But since they make their owners money, we are force fed a daily gruel of misinformed fantasies. I have met all sorts of amazingly creative and talented people, yet their voices are seldom heard in popular media. Talent which is not easily exploited is rarely rewarded. Not just monetarily, or in terms of respect for what they do, but in terms of allowing them to inhabit a space in our minds. And yet, so much space in our minds is readily given over to the countless messages we receive daily by the army of marketers who man the machinery of mass commercialization which dominates every conceivable niche of our society. It’s easy to escape a day without coming into contact with art, not so easy to avoid on any given day, some kind of ad.
Connectivity has become a buzzword because in our parlance it means a mode of transmission by which one gadget communicates to another gadget. Through that communicative process, data is extracted and converted through marketing, into wealth. So, what is the value of ideas in relation to the connectivity of minds absent of marketing and the economic sphere?
I, as an artist, convey an idea to the viewer by means of visual transmission. In my absence, yet through my creative labor, my art, as an object which embodies not just ideas, but also an ideal(s), gives freely to those who stand in relation to it. Anyone can venture into a gallery and freely partake in the transmission of ideas. Great artists, by which I mean those who have truly mastered their art form and are somewhat unique in their perspective, ought to be celebrated for their amazing contributions to our society and our culture. It is to the detriment of the whole that this free transference of ideas is not taken seriously unless the art and the artist is selling well, that is, making the gallery or an auction house considerable money. The voices of all but the highest paid artists are largely ignored by mass media. And even when these artists are heard, their message is often lost amidst the perverse fascination we have with how much some rich collector paid for their last painting. Was it eighty million dollars or one hundred million dollars? It’s almost as if the sole arbiter of greatness can be measured in terms of a number on a spreadsheet. In truth, most artists are ignored and yet told that being ignored is largely a product of their own failings. It is true, that within that small sphere which some call the art world (a world apart from all the others?) great value is placed on what artists do, but unfortunately, it is all too easily drowned out by the flatulent cacophony and endless prattle of our consumer culture. To be an artist is akin to practicing semaphore in a hurricane. Before you convey a single message, the gale force winds rip off your arms.
And yet, so much attention and money is paid out to those who yes, are savvy marketers, but have little in the way of new ideas. Donald Trump comes to mind. He has been handsomely rewarded by our culture not because he creates masterpieces, solves societal ills, has great physical abilities, or a towering intellect, but simply because he caters to those like him, that is, the rich. Slathering everything with giant gold letters which bares your name is great branding, but is it good for our society? And in order to be "successful" should I as an artist do the same? Is it even a fair assumption that I am capable of the same?
No. I do not possess the same levers of wealth and power, that people like Trump possess and maintain. I do not have a staff working for me. I do not have excess dollars to spend on marketing. I am barely staying afloat, treading water in an economy that is leaving more and more people behind. I am not granted free airtime because I am rich or ridiculous in ways that matter (reality T.V. I am thinking of you here). I have no access to the endless hours and money spent on sports, reruns, commercials, infomercials, home shopping, reality T.V., and the thousands of other modes of transmission which have little to do with the arts. I do not stand in opposition to such programming, this is not an argument for either/or, but instead, an argument for both/and. I am not expecting parity or to be given equal footing with the endless parade of clichéd ideas. Entertainment is a powerful tool wielded by the rich and powerful in order to maintain our passivity. No, I do not believe there is a cabal whose goal is to keep us passive. Passivity is merely a function of not being a direct participant in what is being created. The beauty of art however, is that to fully comprehend its message, one has to become engaged with it. One has to actively seek out its meaning. The surface beauty of a work of art is merely a reaction. A knee jerk reaction which states one's aesthetic taste. Saying you like or dislike something, however, is not the same as understanding it. Being a passive viewer of entertainment is not the same as being an active member in the creation of culture.
This is why I feel people struggle with artistic endeavors. It's easy to sit back and enjoy a show or watch a game. The drama of a game or the entertainment value of a show is based on the enjoyment we receive from being a passive participant in what we are watching. Entertainment is immediate gratification, tends towards simplicity, and generally, reinforces our already established beliefs about the world. Most of what we consume is self-serving. It's easier to market, by way of commercials, to the masses when we willing give up our minds and our bodies to our television sets, cell-phones, computers, tablets, etc. Our minds are constantly invaded by brands, catchy slogans, talking points, tired ideas, commercials – just to name a few.
It’s rare that anyone ever asks, but nonetheless, as an artist, I give freely my ideas. My work embodies within its creation, a way of not only seeing which is different, but through its creation, a different way of being in the world. A mode of being which creates without asking first, what is it worth? My ideas, my labor, the pain of my body as I toil, my love, my passion, my sweat, my dollars, coalesce before your eyes and become manifest in an object which, should you come to a gallery opening, you will be free to engage with without having to pay a cent. Should not such endeavors be valued, not just in some form of monetary enumeration, but in respect? Is it too much to ask that a space be carved out of our consumer driven culture, a space which allows for culture to flourish, free from economic swindling? Is it too much to ask that we try at times, to be active participants in the exchange of ideas as opposed to blind passive automatons chasing after the next self-gratifying program?
I wholly reject the notion that it is my responsibility to bear the burden of changing our culture. I do my part, I create. I talk endlessly and passionately about what I believe in. I work and work and work, to master my art. I am always learning and experimenting with new techniques. My labor, my money, even my sanity at times, is lost to my artwork. And should I raise the banner for a brief moment and exclaim to the world that to the robbers go the spoils, people's response tends to be either one of outright denial, or to castigate the messenger. Give the voiceless and the powerless a voice and power, and should we fail to convince, then by all means eviscerate our ideals. I will gladly offer you my gut for the cutting.