Art and the Profit Motive

I can’t face the idea of writing another 3,000-word book review, so I’ll blog Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World as I’m reading it. I haven’t even got past the introduction yet, but I’ve already found one sentence which is probably a lot more interesting than Thornton intended:

Even the most businesslike dealers will tell you that making money should be a byproduct of art, not its main goal. Art needs motives that are more profound than profit if it is to maintain its difference from–and position above–other cultural forms.

I wish I knew a bit more about what Thornton had in mind here, because frankly art’s "difference from–and position above–other cultural forms" has already been severely eroded, insofar as it ever existed in the first place. Here in Berlin, DVDs comprising four hours’ worth of people dancing on YouTube are being sold for $22,250 apiece, thanks to being editioned and sold off as the work of Assume Vivid Astro Focus.

Elsewhere, the lines between fine art and other media have been blurring since long before Andy Warhol designed an album cover for the Velvet Underground, and even before Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec put his considerable talents to work designing posters for the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th Century. At this point, the dividing lines are all but indiscernible: if Julian Schnabel is an artist-turned-film-director, and John Waters is a film-director-turned-artist, what is Matthew Barney? And what is Chris Cunningham, whose music videos get more play in art shows than they do on MTV? I could come up with similar examples for any other "cultural form" Thornton cared to mention, from theater to music to dance and even fireworks shows. (I might have difficulty with standup comedy, but you get the general idea.)

In each of these examples, I doubt many practitioners of the art in question would meekly agree that art was "positioned above" themselves, just because they don’t exhibit in galleries. And they would all lay claim to "motives more profound than profit".

If there is a difference with fine art, it’s that the collectors are particularly concerned about the profit motive — or at least they often can be. For all that music fans complain about artists "selling out", no one really mind if musicians make a lot of money. And in the film industry, being ridiculously highly-paid is never an obstacle to artistic credibility.

But fine art motivated by profit is considered somehow ignoble. Why, those artists, they just toil away in their studios, doing whatever it is that their creative drive impels them to do; the dirty job of selling their product is outsourced to their gallerists, and the artists would never interfere in that side of things, or deliberately make work just because it will sell for large amounts of money. This fiction clearly it serves a purpose, or else it wouldn’t have made its way into Thornton’s book.

The purpose, I think, is that collectors never want to be reminded that they’re consumers. After all, this is a world where anybody can make their own Damien Hirst spot painting: when a collector buys one for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they’re buying the branding more than they are the object. (When Stevie Cohen bought the first Hirst shark, he even went so far as to throw the original away and get a new one flown in: so long as Hirst signed off on the switch, it was entirely kosher.)

In such a world, insecurities abound — and one way of reassuring collectors that they’re not blowing millions of dollars on the art-world equivalent of Crocs stock is by telling them that, really, it’s not about the money at all. Yes, art might be expensive, but there are lots of things which are expensive. Art, by contrast, has more profound motives. No wonder Thornton describes it as "a kind of alternative religion for atheists".

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