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Lost In Contemplation, Drowned In Meditation

December 29, 2011

Good Morning, Macketeers! (and spambots)

Okay, it has come to my attention that you guys are getting bored and want something new to do besides just reading my little blog. I can understand that. I mean, really, I’m sure there are plenty of things we could all be doing besides showing up here every day. I just, you know, haven’t thought of any.

What? You too? Well okay then. I guess I’ll just write this blog entry then.

Today, I think I’m going to talk about something that has been on my mind too much these days, and the effect it’s had on my work: Money.

I don’t know how things are in Europe, Asia or Africa, visa the divide between art and commerce, but I’ve heard a little about how it is in Australia, and of course, I’ve got a pretty good idea of how things work here in Canada, and my friends in the U.S. Keep me apprised of how it is south of the border. Over here, we’re kind of obsessed with making money. It’s pretty much what we’re talking about when we’re discussing making anything, really.

When we’re young, we might not think of commercial enterprise as the driving force behind our work; in truth, quite a few of us were thinking about sex with non-existent art groupies (I had a few, actually, but there was no sex to be had), but very few of us reach our 30s without catching on that people are expecting us to either make it pay off, or to give up and get a job in a bank. Many of us, myself included, try to hold on to our Bohemian idealism, but these values get eroded over time, particularly if we get married and/or have to support a family.

So what does that do to the creative work? Well, a casual observer might say that it causes the work of a Creative to suffer in the area of originality, because the main drive of commercially viable work is to create the illusion of freshness while providing a piece that is both aesthetically pleasing and familiar. The Creative might find these challenges momentarily stimulating; creating within specific guidelines can be a very gratifying experience for those who wish to be admired for their technical prowess. However, for the Creative who spends their life guided by muses and has little interest in either technique or commercial appreciation, the idea of creating to spec can be horrifying at worst, or confusing and confounding at the very least.

But I think the worst thing that happens as a result of all this commercial consideration is what it’s taught our audience to expect. At this point, the general reading, listening, theater-going, gallery visiting/art-buying public thinks they know exactly what to expect, and can grade everything they experience based on the relative commercial success of similar pieces. It’s probably been like that for a few centuries, but there have been periods where mavericks could break out from the pack and really shake things up. The mavericks are still out there, but they have to couch everything they do in terms of how avant garde they are, and hope there are enough snobs left in the world who want a piece of the dangerous stuff to show off to their cultural lessers. It’s not a healthy way to be, really.

I’m not saying commercial enterprise is wrong, or that creating works specifically for some specific audience is somehow artistically invalid. However, I’m inclined to think that a lot of the self-expression, the exploration, the daring to be unique, has been ruthlessly beaten out of us. We all consider a certain level of gloss and a certain amount of train spotting to be the norm, and not very many of us argue the validity of creating calculated spectacle for profit. It’s just how we’re all conditioned to think of art today. Where once a bold and unprecedented work might arrest a generation and say things in such a new way that it practically inspires a paradigm shift in human thinking, now we have coffee table books and prints and tee shirts and coffee mugs to commemorate the greats, and modern works just sort of pass or fail based on how well they ape the masters without looking too derivative to be credited.

Understand, I’m only griping because I tend to always approach my work—even my really commercial work—with a certain level of child-like naivete and inner vision, refusing to let go of any work until it has something special that makes me genuinely happy with it… unless it’s just not possible to be pleased with the work because it is so compromised by commercial or professional considerations. And yet even I can’t claim to be the most original or bold of Creatives. Many of my works are in some way derivative of other more famous Creatives. Even when I do something I feel is my most original work, heavy traces of the giants who have come before me show through.

This is common to all artists, right from the moment the second Homo Sapiens took up a frayed twig to paint his rendition of hunters killing bison, upon seeing and comprehending the first cave paintings. However, in these cynical, jaded times, we’ve hailed the mantra ‘nothing new under the sun’ as if it were somehow spiritually enlightened, rather than an excuse not to try. And that’s what seems to happen in every field of creative endeavour these days. Not every Creative, mind you, and not even every commercially successful Creative; but enough of us have given in to the conventional wisdom that all creative endeavours must have bottom line considerations, or are no longer artistically valid.

I know this is just me saying all of this, but it’s an underlying message I’ve been picking up for quite a while. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. It’s not a message about the importance of commercial value. It’s not a message about critical acceptance. It’s a message about the social value (or lack thereof) of creative work if it isn’t commercially available and exploitable by the masses. We have been valuing the great works by their monetary value for the last half century, but it’s really changed how we look at new and homegrown works. Here in North America, we tend to undersell our Creatives who rely on grants and endowments. We tend to really only give credit to those who ‘pull themselves up by their boot straps’, which in our time means ‘makes lots of sales’.

So, the questions on my mind are:
1) Is this just me talking out my arse, or have some of you folks noticed this too?
2) When did it become not merely socially acceptable but critically laudable to treat creativity so cynically?
And 3) What is your favourite modern piece of creative work that doesn’t feel (too much) like ‘product’?

Time to get back to work. Thank you for reading.


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