On Art, Commercialism, and Elitism

Art and capitalism have a very dubious relationship.

Art can be defined in countless ways; it’s commonly defined as something created solely to be admired for its own sake outside of any other purpose. This is why some types of music are sometimes not considered “art music”; dance music exists to get people moving their hips. Film music exists to accompany and accentuate a motion picture. They do not (primarily) exist to be studied and contemplated on their own terms.

Commercial pop music also is often not considered art by many afficionados. As opposed to art music, it’s crafted for mass commercial consumption, to reach the widest audience possible. Often it caters to the lowest common denominator, and is therefore, by definition, generic. That said, art can serve dual purposes. IDM, for example, tends to have a great deal of detailed, studiable thought put into it despite its existence primarily as commercial pop music (although it definitely appeals to a slightly more niche audience).

Art, on the other hand, tends to be produced for a smaller audience; it’s created primarily to appeal to the artist’s own sensibilities, and perhaps second to any patrons or performers. Often appealing to these people is very secondary, indeed; some of the most professional performers regularly perform music that they do not enjoy per se. On a personal note, I think this is quite a good thing; it means that composers and artists and their works that may be more challenging can say what they want or even on some level need to say. But even then, on some level, even if the artist is not appealing to someone else’s personal aesthetic, they would then be appealing to their patrons’ personal philosophies.

To say that art is not made for money would not only be a misguided statement, it would be outright false. Beethoven, Michaelangelo, James Joyce; they were all paid (a sizable sum of money) for the art they made. There are, of course, very notable artists who made little-to-no money from what they created: Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Ives to name a couple. But there are also people that create what some might call “art” even though its aesthetic falls more in line with what has generally been considered “pop.” What do we call this? Where do we place it?

Artists want to make a living somehow. Sometimes that living is supplemented by a day job, or by a modern aristocracy (as it was by Charles Ives and Giacinto Scelsi respectively). Some switch modes, sometimes making art that speaks directly from the creator’s heart, while supplementing this with more “commercial” work or “art” produced for some other purpose (eg, concept art, music for films/games). Some don’t worry about the “art” part so much and work more on making something that will appeal to the maximum number of people possible based on the latest trends and fads and sensibilities and general zeitgeist.

Others still try to find a compromise in there, getting as close as possible to their own hearts while trying to touch the hearts of others and put food on their plates. It’s a difficult and exhausting balancing act that few ever manage to pull off effectively, but it can be extremely rewarding when done well.

Art is hard. Excepting perhaps those that produce commercial art solely for maximum appeal and maximum cash, I don’t fault anyone for following whatever path on that spectrum they choose to follow when they’re working on their art. There’s a good deal of elitism in all artforms when it comes to the line (or lack thereof) between pop and art, between the commercial and the personal. Maybe we should worry less about whether it’s really art and worry more about speaking from the heart, making it great, and surviving.

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