The clash of art and business is a mighty one. It’s one that hits close to home as well.
My mother wanted to be – and is, to be fair – a professional artist when she was growing up. But, like any responsible parent would do, she was told that the life of a professional artist is hard. So when she went to get a college degree she went practical and studied business.
Not a bad idea. In fact, a very smart one.
But years later, after a successful career in business that she gave up to raise my sister and I, she returned to art in a big way. She’d painted all this time here and there, giving paintings away to family and friends. A chance meeting with an old friend of my father lead her to a showing at a gallery, and a women’s workshop, and in Borders bookstores (you can tell how long ago this was). She blended her business sense with her art talent and sold paintings and then through volunteer work got an art director position crafted for her.
That’s rare. It’s hard to make art a career, but my mom, through a zig-zagged path, did just that.
But the legitimization of her passion for art came with its blend into her professional pursuits. The painting and talent were the same for years. She became a blip on others’ radars and that’s how she got the business cards that labeled her a professional artist.
So is that was makes art good? It’s monetary value and it being sold? Is that even the purpose of art – to be good?
Poptimism discusses this in the realm of music and music criticism. The New York Times recently called it “a studied reaction to the musical past. It is … disco, not punk; pop, not rock; synthesizers, not guitars; the music video, not the live show. It is to privilege the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine … Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more ‘serious’ artistic intent. … In this light, poptimism can be seen as an attempt to resuscitate the unified cultural experience of the past, when we were all, at least in theory, listening together to “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Thriller.””
The author then compares it to criticism and “good” art in other genres, finishing with “[n]o matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners.”
My immediate thought is that Thriller was both widely popular and critically acclaimed, and that there are certain pop artists, like Beyonce, or Lorde, that still garner this kind of wide sweep. But being indie doesn’t mean you’re better, just like being widely bought doesn’t mean you’re better. And that in a world where we have access to just about everything, having a Thriller is less and less likely. It’s not that there’s no talent in pop music – it’s that everyone’s pop is different.
The discussion at NPR made me feel much more sane, noting “in a globalized, polycultural, multilateral, warming, mass-migrating world, we have urgent questions such as, ‘Where is the center?’ ‘Which information matters?’ ‘Who benefits?’ ‘What does that make me?’” It states my general thought in more precise language: the discussion of pop music, and thus what is popular, is so much more interesting and valid because “Where is the center?” is a question that’s so much more valid today than ever before. Your taste isn’t bound by your parent’s record collection and the Beta Max/cassettes/CDs your older siblings played in your shared room. It’s bound only by your imagination and your faculties with Google.
Pitchfork also adds a refinement to this and an ancillary concept: “The point is that popularity is a number, but “pop” is a concept. To its enemies it suggests a dystopian image of music served up like condensed food pellets from some uncaring hand, forced into our living rooms and offices, inescapable. To its friends it is something inclusive, a unisex, one-size-fits-all party smock, the thing that draws everyone to the floor.”
The part that’s the most interesting to me is that all of this discussion is based on a dynamic that I saw my mother grapple with when I was small, one that haunted me throughout all my internships where I was giving away my creativity for the pay of $0 and experience cents for months upon months, and even see now as a content creator in the big bad world: money makes art “real,” “appreciated,” and “professional.” And these critics, in their bellyaching about losing their thrones as the arbiters of what people buy under the guise of making the “underappreciated more appreciated” really are just falling into the trap that created the mega popstar in the first place – it’s all about valuing the monetary gains to prove the art you’ve made (or critiqued) as good. Even in the fight against just “cheering on the winners” they rate their success as critics as turning “losers” into new “winners.”
Citing the fact that poptimism – and by extension the popular – must not prove its significance (as its sales have done that) but stress its further impacts, Pitchfork makes the point that I think is the most important one that I’ve read. “I sometimes worry that serious music can only be served by serious talk, or worse, that people who like serious music can only have serious reasons for doing so. The truth is that you will probably meet just as many shallow people at a National show as you will at a Miley Cyrus show, the difference being that people at the National show are more likely to think they’re important, while people at a Miley Cyrus show are more likely to think they’re having fun.”
So does the world think that good art is valued by expertise in execution or especially good economic returns? In the abstract people would say quality, but in real terms, even the art critics allow their good work to be valued in monetary terms. Is that good? I doubt it, but I know that even after reading tons of art-flavored poptimism that would encourage me to lean Dali or Pollock rather than Woodberry, I love my mother’s paintings with a ferocity that only slightly outweighs how hard I bump “**Flawless” from time to time. And that’s OK, because I’m going to the Cyrus fan route and having fun.