“Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority” (Martin Luther King Jr.).
Throughout the history of artistic endeavor many, if not most, artists have included the anticipated response of their audience in their creative decisions. The wonderful painter Vermeer, having to satisfy his patron when painting a portrait, is one of thousands that serve to exemplify this. Certainly the fear of living the impoverished life of the stereotypical starving artist is a strong motivation in support of such a perspective. Today, perhaps more than ever, the commodification of the artist’s work pervades the very root of its origin. Any artist intending to earn an at least modest living through the art they produce is seemingly relegated to work in this manner and there seems to be a dearth of questioning this conclusion. Art schools often specifically perpetuate the idea that artists are manufacturing a product and that they must act and create according to the preferences of their perceived audiences. The professional art world at large further cements and requires this attitude in order for an artist to gain support in terms of financial rewards and public exhibitions. Ultimately, any notion to the contrary of these perspectives would commonly be considered naïve.
Nonetheless, here we will consider the effects of the commodification of art on the creative process and in the finished state of the art itself. It is proposed that such an approach to creativity causes an overall homogeneity in the work being produced and that it acts as a stringent constraint that limits and even stifles the artist’s creative freedom thus disallowing the extent of exploration necessary for integrity, growth, and creative evolution. Further, it is suggested that catering to an anticipated audience response drastically limits the extent to which an artist is able to follow the original inspiration that catalyzed the inception of a project. Seeking the acceptance of their peers, colleagues, teachers, and audiences often relegates an artist’s output to a mediocre and compromised version of its creative potential and leaves audiences bereft of the unique perspectives that subsequently remain dormant within.
The hive mind is an interesting and pertinent paradigm that is markedly prevalent in today’s society perpetuated perhaps by the Internet and the resultant implications of social media. The idea is that an artist, for instance, creates the beginnings of a piece of art that is then submitted to the hive-minded social media medium, which is where the art continues its life to be further formed, modified, and re-contextualized by the swarms of human beings who find it. This could be viewed as a mass collaboration. This activity may produce art that is extremely original in one sense and yet is watered down by the consensus leveling aspects of the hive. Hive-mindedness is a successful model for the survival of a species, the white-faced hornet for instance, however it could also be generalized as a microcosm of the current industrial complex in which we human beings are living and working. We are all serving the needs of the hive of humanity through the commodification of our lives. On the one hand establishing such a firm status quo provides a (illusory) modicum of societal stability. On the other it also provides the perfect launch pad opportunity from which to rocket into the unknown. The hive mind produces individuals that are, or should be, the antithesis of everything artists strive for. The primary elemental nature of an artist is an elevated, creative, individualistic expressiveness that extends beyond the status quo and takes a broader, perhaps even enlightened, view of it. The hive mind precludes such individualistic expression in lieu of serving the normative needs of the hive. The hive mind, by its very nature, precludes individuality.
In statistical analysis the scientist studies the norm, the statistics that fall within predictable parameters, and the outliers, which are the statistics that seemingly defy normative influences. The outliers may relate to the norm but in such a manner as to exist contrary to it. Artists are commissioned by their very nature to search for and to become the outliers of our normative social constructs. This cannot happen when they are looking to the norm for acceptance and acknowledgement. Either they must change their inherent outlying nature or remain dislodged from the norm. In so maintaining the latter, they are in a unique position to provide an objectified commentary on the norm that can influence the overall and long-term directions of the hive. In this manner, the artist who works on developing her or his own unique view, regardless of perceived audience perceptions, is providing a necessary function in relation to the hive and fulfills her or his need to be truly creative instead of employing quasi-creativity for the sake of acceptance. In this situation, the artist is the societal outlier. An interesting observation based upon this analogy is that outliers often tend toward becoming the new norms, from which new outliers eventually emerge. This is evolution condensed to its essence.
As artists we each have an inherent need to follow our creative impulses to their ultimate conclusions. This has nothing to do with outside influences. It is the art that is the driving factor. An artist effectively creates a feedback loop between himself or herself and the piece of art being created. It is this loop that is important to the exclusion of all else. The artist conceptualizes the art and the art responds with its requirements… a dance of relational interaction. It seemed that Vincent Van Gogh would rather paint than eat. It is said that George Gershwin was so focused on the creation of his Rhapsody in Blue that he actually died as a result of the exhaustion caused by his obsession with its completion. While these are perhaps extreme examples, they speak to the dedication an artist feels toward his creations to the exclusion of all else including any intruding thought of social success or acknowledgement. Often this is referred to as “following one’s muse”. Certainly, nearly every artist is interested in generating financial sustenance from the art they create in order to enable him or her to spend their time creating it. However, sales and marketing are processes that can be undertaken after a piece of art is completed. Viewed as separate processes, marketing need not interfere with the creative process.
In his biography, Frank Zappa said that in his early days as a performer and composer, people literally threw tomatoes and other things at him and his band while they were on stage performing (Zappa). He spoke of how he “developed” his audience over time. He found ways to grow and educate an audience who were interested in his artistic vision. Today, years after his death, Zappa still has a huge audience and is an extremely respected composer. To corroborate this, I mention that in W.P Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, which was ultimately made into the movie “Field of Dreams”, the landmark statement “If you build it they will come.” was penned (Kinsella). If you build it they will come. He was referring not only to the ghosts of past baseball greats but also to the audience for which it was intended. These are two of countless examples that epitomize the notion that it is the art that matters. The artist must endeavor to create the finest version of the work they are inspired to accomplish, the finest reflection of who they are, to the exclusion of all else. This creates art that is uniquely authentic. This authenticity rings true to an audience… sooner or later. It creates art that inevitably stands out from the watered down artistic products made with the endgame of social success integrated into their inception. If an artist creates art that is truly an authentic expression of the inspiration that lies within, “they will come”… an audience will manifest and be drawn toward it.
It is asserted here that artists owe it to themselves to go out onto that creative limb from which there is no turning back. It is only by exploring the unknown that inspiration can flower and flourish into creativity. Conversely, appropriation is a key component of many artists’ workflow today. Marcel Duchamp brought the idea of appropriation to the forefront of artistic thinking in his work and in his theoretical writing and speaking. His idea was that since he was an artist he could chose anything, including an ordinary urinal produced by a factory, and call it art. It was the discovery that an ordinary item could be art (Arnason). While one can imagine that this may be true in the strictest sense, it is proposed that the only originality in this is the idea, which will soon fade away into the gimmickry of the past. Since Duchamp’s assertions were made public in the early twentieth century, many people, who have apparently no original thoughts of their own, have taken a product or artifact produced by someone else and called it their own… and call it art. Many of these products have become quite well known to the hive mind. It is asserted here that while this approach may satisfy their need to identify with the idea of being famous artists, in truth they are employing little beyond novelty. By focusing upon audience perception they have in large part bypassed the creative process. This is the epitome of intrinsically engaging the purpose of commodification in the process of making.
It is not the intention here to say that there is inherently anything wrong with commodification as a target for one’s intentions. Many people are drawn to such a mode of expression. What is being said is that art created with the endgame of selling being intrinsic to the creative process does not differ greatly from a company producing a pack of chewing gum to be sold in grocery stores. While this is viable since many people want to purchase chewing gum, listen to elevator music, and to purchase paintings that match their couches, there is a difference between commodified art and art that has an origin based primarily upon creativity.
It could be argued that an artist that creates without regard for satisfying an audience is, for instance, painting for his or her own pleasure, which could be construed as a hobby. Certainly many hobbyists do just that. Yet this is not the only perspective to be had and it is often a perspective used in defense of the commodity-centric artist’s mentality. We can perceive the work of serious artists, who are free from the tethers of a commodification perspective, as endeavoring to extend the range of human consciousness through a deepening and expansion of the creativity that lies within. Free of the endgame of selling their art being intrinsic to their creative processes, they can explore the depths of their being without worry or regret that an expression of their findings may not be accepted or understood by the masses. These are the artists who are not willing to accept the creative potential that is lost when, while in the throes of creative expression, they are required to turn back from their journey in order to remain intact with the hive mentality.
J. Krishnamurti, a well-known philosopher/thinker from the recent past, coined the phrase “creative discontent”, which extremely simplified refers to the notion of thinking for oneself… an attitude of non-conformity developed within oneself in order to find that which is real (Krishnamurti). This simple phrase describes perfectly the sentiment of this writing. It is only when one is creatively dissatisfied with the status quo that one may step away from it and positively explore other potential regions of our humanity. It is only from this perspective that we dare to become the outliers of human existence and to find and to point out new possibilities in our existence and within our consciousness. As Dr. Martin Luther King also stated, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted “(Martin Luther King Jr.). Where do you fall within this range of human endeavor? Are you satisfied with the hive mentality? We need the hive mind to maintain the status quo. Or are you an artist that endeavors to develop your creativity to its fullest potential? This is a lofty goal but it is asserted here that for the artist it is the only journey worthy of lifelong pursuit. It is certainly not the easy way to proceed. You may be required to accept employment working for the hive in a mundane position so that you can maintain a reasonable subsistence… but this is also how you can purchase your artistic freedom. Ultimately this is a small price to pay for exploring the undiscovered regions of human potential and beyond during your free time. It is of course your choice. However, for some there is no choice… it is a life-long obligation and responsibility.
Arnason, H.H, and Daniel Wheeler. A history of modern art: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography. Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Kinsella, W. P. Shoeless Joe. C. Bourgois, 1993.
Krishnamurti, J., and D. Rajagopal. Think on these things. Krishnamurti Foundation India, 2008.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/authors/martin_luther_king_jr.
Zappa, Frank, and Peter Occhiogrosso. The real Frank Zappa book. Simon & Schuster, 1999.