26. “Success” in the Arts

A weighty deterrent for a person undertaking an artistic activity is to devote time and effort to a type of work that is not considered to be work by society. An activity is accepted to be work only when it can be tied to some tangible gain, which happens to be at odds with the basic incentive for artistic activities. Even the activities known to be pastime or hobby have a more legitimate place in society since they are presumed to be personal pursuits essentially not intended to be “sold.” (One may see the artists’ nonconformist and eccentric behaviors and appearances as ways of justification of their peculiar occupations.)

Beginning with the urbanization and technological developments in Europe, the arts have been subjected to a “commodification” process in the past three hundred years which I see as a form of “mimetic isomorphism,” a term used in organization theory. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of it: 

Mimetic isomorphism in organization theory refers to the tendency of an organization to imitate another organization’s structure because of the belief that the structure of the latter organization is beneficial. This behavior happens primarily when an organization’s goals or means of achieving these goals is unclear.

A simple example: Say there are two companies, one produces air conditioners and the other fans. The former has a detailed, elaborate operational structure including departments for market research, R&D, consumer affairs, etc. and its earnings are good. The fan company, which is in poor shape, decides to transform (morph) itself by imitating the structure of the air conditioner company and then goes bankrupt. The reason lies in the nature of the products: they both serve as coolers but a fan has a simpler and less efficient construct and, therefore, much lower profit margin than an air conditioner.

In the commodification of the arts, the principles and procedures of the production-consumption system have been superimposed on a unique human activity that essentially manifests itself by being unnecessary, free and communicative. The communicated outcome (the message) has turned into a product and its perception into a form of consumption. Yet, what is considered to be the “product” in the arts is incomparably dissimilar from the commodities traded in other areas – so irrelevant that it can make the air conditioner and the fan in the above example look like identical twins.

A work of art is a communicative act or entity presented for visual and/or aural perception (the view that forms the trigger point of this website). Basically, it constitutes a message (a “text,” in academic parlance). It is created as a sign or a chain of signs for which only task is to share meaning – which may or may not be perceived as intended. The lack of other functions renders the works of art “useless”: their absence does not have a tangible effect on the flow of life. This, fundamentally, is the very main reason for the existence of the arts. The inutility of the artistic activities is precisely what necessitates them (see “Point of Departure”).

An industrial product that sells well ends up being mass-produced and is often copied by others as much as the patent laws allow. Duplication and imitation are not issues in the marketplace: the consumer generally buys the most reasonably priced item that fulfills a particular function. Indeed, fashion often results from the production and marketing of specific goods for masses.

On the other hand, a work of art is identified essentially by its originality and uniqueness. Walter Benjamin, in his famous 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” pointed at the loss of the traditional “aura” of the originator of the work and the authenticity of it as a result of reproduction made possible by developing technologies. Now the technologies of the digital age have brought reproduction as well as dissemination of images and sounds to inconceivable levels. The “aura” in the pre-reproduction days is certainly gone but novelty of the origin remains to be the main criterion when determining if the work is worthy of attention and perception – even if a work ends up being reproduced endlessly, even if a work is produced primarily for sale. Redundancy and repetition in the arts are as pointless as repeating the same sentence over and over again, since the works of art are nothing but vehicles of communication.

The commodifying system inevitably aims at establishing norms and standards as yardsticks in the “valuation” of the products in the marketplace. For instance, the discretionary aspect of artistic activity gets pushed aside and “production” is proclaimed to be compulsory for the artist’s livelihood. The system infuses the idea that an artist should be compensated for the meaning that s/he shares and should aim at generating income solely from his/her artistic activity to be considered successful.

Similarly, the system has carried in the concept of “profession” from the emulated fields. Now it is generally accepted that if a person wants to become an artist, s/he needs to receive education to learn how to produce the products in the particular area s/he is interested in. Those who want to become painters go to visual arts schools, musicians go to music schools, dancers go to dance schools, actors go to acting schools. Just like those who go to medical schools to become doctors. In other words, they are expected to be educated in the standards established by the system.

When a person successfully completes the courses of study, s/he receives a certificate, officially becoming a painter, a sculptor, an actor, a pianist, a photographer, etc. For instance, a painter (at least theoretically) can be considered to know how to produce a “valuable” painting and to be able to tell the difference between a good painting and a bad one. Just like a civil engineer who learns how to build and test a bridge.

When the time comes to make a living off the profession, a teaching job is probably the most convenient route sought by artists. Many others find jobs in the “industry”: painters work as graphic designers, dancers give yoga or pilates lessons, actors act in commercials, photographers shoot product or fashion photos. These are seen as inevitable but not too remote compromises.

The majority of artists, however, accredited or not, work in “unrelated” areas. It would be logical to expect new, experimental and daring works to come from this group since they are not obliged to produce and sell art for a living. Yet, most of them tend not to question the status quo and do not search for alternative routes: they see their income-generating work as a temporary irrelevance and hope that some day one of the standard paths will open up and that they will begin to practice and live off their real professions. The most typical justification of this mindset and life style is the “success” of a very small number of artists who have “made it.” (Personally I find the artists’ sensitivity about having to work at jobs unrelated to the arts rather noteworthy since millions in the world have to work two jobs to get by.) 

It is important to note that when the system tries to control the “content” (the meanings delivered by the works of art) through the norms and standards it imposes on artistic activities, it cannot succeed.  Therefore, the system concentrates on building, designing and organizing the matrixes around the works, modeling them after the mimicked configurations, but the “content” is always determined by an ongoing societal, at times global “discussion” (as opposed to schools, facilities, presenters, marketers, assessors and so forth, which constitute the matrixes).

I use the word “discussion” to point at the broad conceptual traffic that forms the primary route travelled by vehicles of communication, often called the “canon” in the arts. Possibly the most interesting aspects of this discussion are its wide scope, anonymity and incessancy under all circumstances. To quote Erwin Panofsky, “(Content of a work of art) is the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion–all this unconsciously qualified by one personality, and condensed into one work.” (Panofsky, 14) 

The system tends to refer to the artistic canon as a line of progression. For example, we often run into “the arts,” listed along with science, technology, industrialization, etc., in the evaluation of a country’s developmental status. Such assessments represent another mimetic artificiality in possibly the only field of activity where the concept of “advancement” is irrelevant. Existence of a symphony orchestra and several concert halls in every sizeable city of a country point at the advanced economic conditions but do not mean that there will be significant contributions to the “discussion” and the canon. Similarly, complexities that require vast knowledge and expertise are not determining factors in the arts: a musical style that consists of repeating arpeggios or a simple painting of a mundane object may find a significant place in the canon if they constitute a unique and relevant “comment” in the current state of the discussion. 

Then, how can we define “success” in the arts if we leave the imported values from the mimicked areas aside? 

To repeat, in my view, artistic activities constitute a unique human activity that essentially manifests itself by being unnecessary, free and communicative. A work of art is created to transmit meaning to perceivers and this indispensable aspect is (ideally) the only force that controls the freedom of the practitioner: s/he has to make plans taking all factors that affect the reception of the message into consideration. In that respect, if necessary, I can think of only one criterion to judge a work of art to be successful or not: Does the work communicate as intended or not?

This is a highly inclusive and generous criterion that is completely independent of the subject matter, of the number and identity of the senders and receivers, and of the context. And, clearly, it is not a functional yardstick that can be utilized in the order that pretends to be part of the production-consumption system.