How Art and Economy Intersect (notes for an essay)

This short entry comes from overflow notes from an essay I wrote for FOCI Arts in November.

I am an artist, through economic use-value in society. I am a performer, composer, writer, accompanist, teacher, discussion moderator, engraver, and perhaps others that I am forgetting. It is in all of these ways that my musical commodity is rendered economically useful, through exchange with others for their commodities.

As an artist, I feel a tinge of embarrassment when defining myself through “use-value.” And when thinking of economy, I have a tinge of embarrassment in having emotion, generally. These embarrassments are due to shortcomings in these two different ways of viewing life–mutually shared shortcomings that compromise their ability to meet. One shortcoming of the pure field of economics is that it does not value creativity in its analytical processes; One shortcoming of art is that it ignores the commodification of itself, and fails to learn from it. Perhaps a dialogic equilibrium can be achieved between artists and economists here in a transaction that benefits both equally.[1] Where artists fall short, economists can pick up slack, and vice versa. Cherry-picking thoughts from both art and economy, I will attempt to manufacture a dialogue between the two fields of study that is mutually beneficial.

Economics is a massive field of study that studies relationships of people and the objects between them, and the very meaning of value and worth. Art, surprisingly, strives to do the same. The only difference is approach: Economics takes a cultured reading–the further cultured the better–of the human experience, while art strives to be comparatively un-cultured, pure, direct, visceral.[2] Economics acts to define relationships between people and things, while art, explores the undefined, and sometimes even actively un-defines the previously defined. Economics makes definitions while art reacts to definitions. In this sense, economics is a more innovative field than art.

Despite direct commonalities and a constellation of complementary differences, economics and art still suffer from an uneven relationship, and as a result, hold some antipathy towards one another. This is because art is subjected to economic influence. Economy flexes its muscles in order assert its domination over art, through a highly criticized Wells Fargo ad and a highly criticized Old Navy T-Shirt design. Equally, artists fight back constantly to this prejudicial treatment, through such anti-currency statements such as “all money is dirty” (Nikki Giovanni, from Gemini) and “money is stupid and cowardly.” (Werner Herzog) Violence begets violence.

Perhaps a truce needs to be struck, in order to be mutually productive. Neither art nor economy, as we know it, can exist without society, so perhaps society itself can act as a common denominator. Perhaps the final recommendation is for both art and economy to be more socially engaged.

[2] I am thinking of Smith’s definition of “equilibrium.”
[1] I am thinking of Veblen’s use of the word “savage.”

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