The Work of the Artist in the Age of Mechanical Representation

I definitely severely stole the title of Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for this blog post. Though not directly related, it’s an interesting piece about artistic value and the integrity of its ‘unique existence’ in the face of authentic reproduction – very modernist in its concerns, quite influential in its time.

So I’ve been thinking lately about integrity, and how it’s an underrated value, but one that’s actually quite important in the worlds of both art and business.

It seems to me that though art strives to reflect higher values, it is often inescapably linked with business. Sometimes we speak about art as if it’s been ‘tainted’ by commerce: selling out, throwing money at the problem, corporate budgets for movies – does this render art suspect? When art sells for phenomenal amounts of money, the ‘millions’ thrown around until it doesn’t mean anything, and we blink and go ‘£300,000,000,000?!’ when some Duke sells some Titians and it is amazing that art can be so commercially-valued. Of course, that’s not the only value, but art is always overshadowed by money – the term ‘priceless’, practically a cliché when discussing matters of art, is defined in relation to the cold, hard reality of cash.

I think one of the reasons art is valued by money is because it’s easier to understand, for the majority of people, than the unfamiliar mouthful ‘artistic merit’. Perceiving artistic merit is subjective, so can we all understand it? No. Someone paints a phenomenal picture that most of us could never emulate without years and years of dedicated work: I’m sure we all agree that that’s art. Someone cuts a shark in two: that’s… art?

But also, monetary value seems to detract from art. A cheap plot in a formulaic film has the ability to make megabucks around the world, and it’s not a great work of art because those are expensive to make, have smaller audience demographics and therefore narrower profit margins.

So perhaps we should find a better way of discussing all of this. Because I believe art does touch something in us that’s nothing to do with money, but it always seems to be defined in relation to money. There’s a certain affecting tragedy to artists who died penniless and now their work is phenomenally valued, but are we defining that emotional impact by money or by human pain? Should we be considering money in terms of art? And if we stop valuing art by money, what else is a standard that most people understand?

Your honours, I’m going to call Joss Whedon as my Exhibit A. He has legions of loyal fans, and I wonder if part of it is because he’s retained something in his work that I can only think to call artistic integrity. He’s had a bunch of shows cancelled and Serenity didn’t do so well at the cinema, so his commercial viability was considerably less secure before the phenomenal success of The Avengers, but his writing is always full of fun and heart and charm, and he’s never sold out. He did Dr. Horrible to prove a point, and it was great and heartbreaking and proved its point really bloody well. His work ethic and his work go hand in hand, and what they say about him is that he’s an artist more concerned with art than with money. He’s an artist with integrity, and I think that integrity is seriously important to people’s appreciation of art.

Exhibit B is Amanda Palmer, and the Kickstarter to raise money for her new album and art tour. She asked for $100,000 to go towards the costs of recording CDs and being able to tour in the way she thought was the best way to do it. She was given nearly twelve times that, by nearly 25000 people – her final count was $1,192,793 – and she wrote an amazing post explaining where all the money will go. Everyone who donated to the Kickstarter gets stuff, and they’re also selling stuff like an art book to go along with the album, and they’re touring art galleries as well as doing regular gigs – which sounds AWESOME, but expesnive. Part of what she points out is that the Kickstarter is not a donation, it’s an exchange of her services for money, which is what earning is. And she points out that it’s helping her maintain her artistic integrity:

i’m CHOOSING to tour this way. EXPENSIVELY.

i could send you all cheap-ass jewel case CDs, fire my staff, make a cheap book on xerox paper, and tour just with a solo piano…with no crew, no band….and RAKE IN THE DOUGH.
i mean: i could potentially do that and walk with close to half a million dollars. but the products would suck and the tour would be a solo piano tour. and nobody would ever trust me again.

And if nobody ever trusted her again? It wouldn’t be worth trying to be an artist, because even if she suddenly started producing amazing stuff, she’d have sold out this time, which means she’d have lost her artistic integrity. The point is not to make money, it’s to make art – which is also why her Kickstarter was so phenomenally, wildly successful. Amanda Palmer lives her life on the internet, has a particularly honest and intimate relationship with her fans, and her artistic integrity is practically made of diamond because you know that’s what she is and she’s never going to compromise her love of art simply in order to get money. I seriously think that that’s a fundamental part of why people love her so much – it’s not just her music, it’s that you can believe in her and her love of art in a way that you can’t believe in a corporation, because they have no face and all the money and secretly we think they have an agenda of their own.

So I think integrity is a seriously underrated virtue, and I think it should be celebrated, because it sounds so stuffy and old-fashioned but it’s real. We love things when they’re real, when they have principles that they don’t compromise just for money. I love Joss Whedon and Amanda Palmer because I don’t believe they’ll ever sell out, which makes all of their art more worthy because their art is what they love and what they do. And considering things in terms of integrity is a great way to cleanse them from the taint of commerce.

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