Have You Properly Masticated Your Art Today?: Problems with Art as a Consumable Supply

Having gotten through the “season of giving,” I’ve come home with a small stack of contemporary novels I’ve borrowed from my sister, and several CDs of music another family member burned for me of new bands he is listening to.

As I started to listen to the music and browse through the chapters of a Sherman Alexie novel, I recalled an afternoon, not too long ago, when I got mad at a co-worker for talking about burning a few DVDs for a friend of some movies he had bootlegged. There was the silly argument of “It’s just a Hollywood movie, they are making tons of money. I’d never bootleg an indie movie.”  Well, real “indie” movies are hard to find, much less bootleg. And yes, big film studios do make a lot of money, but have you actually sat through the credits for one of these movies? Obviously, they are paying salaries to a lot of people to make those movies. True, some actors, execs, etc., get paid way more than any human being should, but it still doesn’t justify piracy. Of any movie. Period.

Let me get off my movie piracy soapbox for just a moment to get back to the point. Here I was, bitching at someone for burning copies of DVDs, while I myself had just essentially done the same thing during the holidays: borrowed novels without paying a dime to the publisher or author for my use of them, and willingly accepting the CDs of music for which I had not paid. If the basis for “stealing” from artists, studios, musicians, writers, publishing houses, etc., is founded on the idea of me as a consumer giving money for the product (the art), then based on my actions, I am no different than my co-worker bootlegging DVDs. Just as he was, I seem to be clearly okay with not paying for some arts and entertainment, and not okay with not paying for other forms. What is the difference? Why is it okay to consume some forms of art for free, and not okay for other types of art? It’s a difficult question to answer, and is really based I think largely on one’s personal relationship with the arts and culture they consume, our society’s perceptions of the value of that form of art, and of “sharing work.” “Bootlegging” just sounds so much more dramatic than “borrowing,” but it is essentially the same thing, when you look at the economics of it.

Mmmm…..music and books galore!

This brings up the larger idea of art today as a consumable item. I should first define “art” as something culturally significant (let’s not go into who deems it to be so, that’s a Pandora’s box of history, sexism, colonialism, etc.), created by one or many people, and packaged and sold to, or used by the general public. And when art becomes as purchasable as a pair of gloves or a package of chips, it gets tricky. Books, music, DVDs can all be created en masse, where as visual art (not prints), or site specific works (theater), are experiential. When the creator of the art cannot charge for the experience (theater tickets, museum admission), and must provide a medium on which to give that experience (CD, DVD), he or she loses control to the whims of the public to distribute that medium as they wish, or, find free ways to access it. We feel we own the book we’ve purchased, but we don’t feel we own the statues in the museum to which we’ve paid admission. Strange difference.

In either example, when art can be commodified, it enters a very dangerous albeit somewhat necessary place for the creator. If he wishes to sell to the largest number of people out there, the creator must become like a manufacturer of a consumable supply, like snack nuts or fruit roll ups. For example, in order to sell the most bags of potato chips, the manufacturer must make a product cheaply, but always trick the consumer into the hype created around the product: “New and Improved Look!” (change the background color of the bag), 25% more (which equates to four more potato chips in a bag filled with mostly air), “New-Nacho-Sour-Cream Onion-South-of-the-Chicken-Fried-Steak-Border-Flavor!” (because we all need another potato chip flavor to add to the 50 that must be out there now.)

Can’t take credit for this. This is from http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/lays-do-us-a-flavor-parodies

Equate this sort of strategy when making a work of art, and the creator is forced to try to guess the mind of the consumer when the work should be created devoid of concern for how many people dislike it. How does a creator hype his work to the customer, to convince her to buy it? If the creator is an actor, they just need to be either extremely talented (Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis) or they just use the techniques of sensationalism and date other celebrities with recurring frequency, while drinking and drugging their way to rehab. The later seems to be the easiest method, unfortunately, but also isn’t so great for one’s liver.

Lovely Lohan.

When the creator is making work that becomes an object to be reproduced and consumed, he must look within the restrictions of genre and second guess how he can fit his work into a successful genre in order to elicit the desire in people to consume it, and, hopefully, get paid. This leads to washed out and tired work, something the consumer forgets about the next day, like eating bland mashed potatoes, instead of some fabulous hand crafted meal that delights the tastebuds.

As an artist, it’s great to get paid. I truly envy the artists that are able to “make a living” from their work, and envy those that can do it without compromising their vision. There are very few of them, it seems, and how they are able to do what they do often reiterates the idea of not just hard work (which is part of the equation, of course), but the uncontrollable aspect of luck that we don’t talk much about in this culture as part of the “formula of success.” And why would we talk about it? North Americans have been told that all one has to do is work hard for a long time and “things will happen.” It’s not that simple, folks.

But, I digress…If I am to raise my anti-piracy voice again, I’ll have to be more careful that I actually purchase every bit of art I want to consume. In light of how I borrow books from people, or share music with friends without actually making a purchase, it’s hard for me to really criticize people who do similar things when they bootleg DVDs. As a creator, it puts me in a strange place to expect people to value my work enough to pay for it, when I don’t always pay for the work I consume myself.

Now, the weather is shit. So it’s back to revising the script How to Eat Pho. (Can you spot my cat assistant?)