Art, the non-Garfunkel variety

There’s been some fiery back and forth in the comments in this post on the selling of art (specifically music) and I thought it was worth bringing it out into the open.

Julene said: Um, wow. So if art is sold – it is no longer that artist’s work? I think what you are trying to say is that commissioned work for a specific ad or commercial reason is different than art created for for oneself or art’s sake and ended up being purchased.

No, I’m saying that if you create art ostensibly for yourself or under the auspices of a set of ideas (the way, say, Jeff Tweedy writes music as a part of Wilco) and then allow it to be used for commercial purposes, then be prepared for people to have a very different idea about what your art is or even who you are. Does anyone else think of The Caesars as anything other than “the iPod band?”

Now, this isn’t a value judgment. When you are commissioned to do public art, you are operating under a specific set of circumstances and creating art within them. It can still be striking, moving art. But this is different than creating art for its own sake. The motivations behind its creation and then how it’s perceived are fundamentally different.

Julene’s absolutely correct in saying that an artist does not have complete control over how his or her art is perceived whether it was created as a commission or for its own sake (witness the way the meaning of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” has been lost behind a fist-pumping chorus). When I said “artists need to be OK with is the notion that it is no longer their art when it is sold” I meant that they are placing that art they created for its own sake within a different context than the one in which it’s created. So the feelings behind it are no longer purely their own. It’s seen as Apple’s or Volkswagen’s.

There’s a giant gaping hole in my argument here that anyone is welcome to exploit and that’s this: most musicians don’t just create art for its own sake, it’s created in the hopes that they can make a living (a.k.a. money). My short retort to this argument is that most often music that can also be called art (not all of it can) is still created for its own sake in the hopes that someone will be willing to put up money to support that artist’s efforts without compromising the creation of the art. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the artist is complicit in this, sometimes the artist is not.

But that’s a whole other post, even though I’ve now opened this can and dumped the worms are all over the place.

My man in Memphis, Kerry Hayes, has a related post at his blog Rural Free Delivery, where he points out that Kevin Barnes, lead singer of Of Montreal, posted about this issue on Stereogum. I read Barnes’s missive after my original post but found his logic so lacking in…well, logic that it didn’t seem worth it to post a counter-argument.

Addendum 2: Thanks to a referral link, I just found this piece by Anne Elizabeth Moore on this topic that’s a response to the Miles Raymer column that started this whole jag.

1 comment for “Art, the non-Garfunkel variety

  1. Julene
    November 27, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    I’ve clearly been thinking about this way too much, as well. For me, the whole issue of licensing a song for use doesn’t change my opinion of a song (or the “art”) and doesn’t really change my opinion of the “artist”. More than likely if I like a song – my opinion of it won’t change until some personal experience forces the meaning of the song to change for me, i.e. I find my significant other sleeping with someone else while my favorite song is playing or something. I’m usually happy that someone somewhere got to make some cash for their art and hopefully make a living off of something that they love doing. In response to The Caesars comment, does anyone only think of U2 as that iPod band? No, because we have been exposed to more of their songs before they did the commercial. I tend to look at song use in advertising, movies or television shows as a way to find out about different music. I think the whole sell-out argument is the same as the hipster/yuppie or indie/majors argument – neverending. Most artists are starving – let them eat cake, dammit!

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