Cornel West fired off an interesting tweet this week: "The challenge artists face today is whether to be an underground, unheard genius, or to dilute their art for the marketplace." In less than 140 characters West placed his finger on one of the more important questions of our time: Can we escape the commodification of everything? Is there a point at which art becomes so corrupted that the truly profound will only reach us from our own neighborhood -- the underground? West is a powerful iconoclast. His knack for exposing how our social ecosystem impacts the most vulnerable segments of society has won him a loyal following, and many vocal detractors. In this particular case his perceptive bead was drawn upon one of the most important figures in any culture: the artist.
The moment it is marketed, every work of art dies a little bit. This raises a bevy of perplexing questions for the artist. Does marketing corrupt the entire creative process? What if art doesn't die, it just changes? If it changes, is it ruined? Is it still art? Or does it become categorically different like a product or widget?
One thing is for sure: The evaluation and appreciation of art seems to have fully evolved -- perhaps devolved -- into pure commerce. Most of what we describe as "art" now behaves more like a commercial enterprise than an evocative force. Even indie-art is not impervious to the forces of commercial success. When Arcade Fire became the first indie band to win the Grammy for album of the year, you can be sure that hipsters everywhere felt validated. Will anything Arcade Fire accomplishes after that kind of recognition be the same? They were perennial underdogs -- that's over now. Expectations will be high. Will success and high expectations keep them from producing something real?
West's words expose the inevitable rub between capitalism and art, proving it is at once painful and healthy to name the paradox. Once a work of art is sold it becomes, by definition, a commodity. Yet, if the artist refuses to allow their art to sell, then how can they support themselves and remain completely devoted to the work their art requires?
Even Cornel West's tweet does not escape the paradox. His words were instantly published to more than 215,000 followers via Twitter. The moment it was posted, his comment became a sort of commodity. How can West maintain his iconoclastic stance when he can publish his every thought to nearly a quarter of a million people instantly, when he has dozens of books on sale at Amazon.com and when he receives honorariums for his talks? How can anyone? And even if that is all true, does it invalidate anything he said? Maybe West is not wrong. Maybe artists must simply come to terms with the fact that we are all a part of the same hypocrisy. In our society, artists do not stand above or apart from anything.
Struggle is essential to art. Artists are like mothers: They carry their creations for months, allowing them to gestate, and then birth them, often through intense pain. Through the artist something unique and as yet unseen is brought into the world. If mothers stop bearing children, it is the end of the human race. The stakes are every bit as high for the artist. The world depends upon the artist for its survival. Every society in human history has created artists. Artists are the ones who compel us to consider the nature of our own existence; who have the courage to creep to the edge of the canyon on their bellies and stare into the abyss, and then come back and tell us what they saw. When we force artists to become good capitalists, we run the risk of destroying them and ourselves in the process. When we tell ourselves a work of art is only valid when it sells a hundred thousand units... Check that, when we first decide it is OK to call them "units," we have derailed. We have placed an insurmountable obstacle between ourselves, and our ability to imagine a better world.
If West is right, the artist has a decision to make: Do I want to be rich, or do I want to be an artist? Yet I believe there is an even more important question implicit in his comment; one which must be answered by our society as a whole: Will we make room for the artist? Are we willing to renegotiate the role of the artist in the 21st century? If not, we will surely succumb to the maxim of our capitalistic evaluation of art: "The more it sells -- the better it is."