Art (and Science) in the Marketplace
In the present difficult economic times, art (along with the poor, the ill, the young, and the old) finds itself vulnerable. Challenges even to the very modest governmental arts budget, cuts to the schools arts programs (both in class and extracurricular), loss of private funding, and shrinking discretionary expenditures by consumers, have backed the arts into a corner. In response, arts advocates have often aped the rhetoric of the chamber of commerce, touting the arts as an engine of urban renewal, offering both a potential for reuse of industrial buildings and a lure to attract tourists and high-income residents, with a high “multiplier effect” for every dollar invested.
While understandable as a grant-catching dodge, this sort of language is false to the nature of the arts themselves. Artistic production, indeed, intellectual work in general, is essentially self-justifying, and in this it differs from other forms of labor. One grows wheat in order to produce food; one designs bicycles to enable people more efficiently to ride; one teaches to prepare the young. Each of these activities is functional – it is justified by its result, and each of these results may be quantified in economic terms.
The theoretical scientist, though, along with the historian, the poet, and the painter are obliged to work without the prospect of such a measurable return. The physicist doing basic research and the composer completing his symphony both work without expecting much in the way of extrinsic rewards; most find the work itself gratifying. Similarly one who reads of new findings of the interactions of subatomic particles without jealousy will feel only admiration at the perspicacity of his colleague and, perhaps, at the marvels of the cosmos as well. Money doesn’t enter in. The concert-goer who hears the symphony will have no thought of the balance sheets of the composer, the ensemble, or the hall. He will feel only the beauty of the music. The fact that neither the scientist nor the composer will ever reach a mass audience, that most people will be wholly ignorant of the work of either, has nothing whatever to do with the value of their work.
The fact is that human beings are distinguished from other beasts by our ability to manipulate symbols. Language is only the most elaborately sophisticated of our semiotic systems. The growth of science and of art rests upon this ability to play with information, using the data of real lived experience either to discern patterns in nature (science) or to record one’s vision (art). The people who focus on these activities are realizing the fullest potential of what it is to be homo sapiens, as the sniffing dog, the exploring honey-bee, and the fly that alights within minutes on the newly dead are all enacting their genetic potential, enjoying, we may guess, the full use of their inherent powers.
Not all people, of course, make art, but, in a sense, those who do justify those who do not, surely more effectively than our celebrity athletes serve their fans. It is perhaps rather more like the contemplatives of the Middle Ages who imagined that their prayers were a dynamo of power sustaining the secular world. Few people read poetry books, but who would have them vanish? The Metropolitan Opera requires immense sums of money from foundations and governmental agencies and charges over a hundred dollars for most tickets, yet its place is secure. To be fully human, we must have some specialists whose job is to approach Reality whether through conning the mathematical mantras of the galaxy or by setting in the durable form of art a vision of what it is to be alive.
Of course I speak here generally of the pursuit of art and knowledge in themselves. I do not mean to deny that researcher and artist alike require some income; that patents and books are bought and sold; that Darwin and Newton, Shakespeare and Dickens may have aimed at popular recognition; that many researchers work for interested corporations and many creative people for television and advertising outfits. These intersections of art and commerce need not enervate the artist, but they are irrelevant to art’s ultimate ends. The Brandenburg Concerti were presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt and written while Bach held a post as Kapellmeister, but these facts do not affect today’s listener for whom the pieces might as well have been written on a grant from Target Stores.
A commodity is justified by its role in commerce, and art often passes through the marketplace, sometimes lingering and haggling and evaluating the competition, but art at the end of the day is something other than a commodity, something different, yet which in human development has proven equally universal, equally useful.