What came first: the chicken, the egg, the art, or the capitalism?

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Aristotle pointed out that while the egg was all potential, the chicken was an actual chicken, and so its importance in the universe was more important. After all, not all eggs hatch. While there is a universe to discuss about chickens, eggs and betting on a person’s potential over a person’s actuality, right now I’d like to bring this around to art and capitalism.

There is a school of thought that you are not a “real” artist until you sell your work, and unless your work sells regularly, your work does not have merit. Ergo, money alone defines your merit as an artist. Despite scores of examples of writers, musicians and artists not appreciated in their own time, we still think of the free market as our defining tool. Yes, it is – because we choose for it to be. But even if I choose to let the free market define my work’s merits (and yes, I actively choose to participate in the system) I do not have the right to insist another person define him or herself by it. While this does not obligate me to buy/support that person just to legitimize him or her (and thus bring that person into the very system s/he resists) it does suggest that the idea that the purchase of artwork legitimizes its validity of art is…flawed.

Not only is art expansive, the stuff we don’t like, often that actively offends us, is still art. Even popular crap like Twilight is art – it’s just bad art. I believe certain moral conventions should place restrictions on art when it comes to harm of life and limb – there’s no excuse for a snuff film or child pornography no matter what your personal religion or creed -  and the stuff we hate is stuff we personally wouldn’t pay for.

It came to me very simply as I wandered around my favorite museum: art came before we even had capitalism.

People began to feel a need to create something besides babies and food before we even had a concept of leisure. The cave painters didn’t see their work as a way to kill some free time, they saw it as a way to transmit vital information about survival (Probably. We can’t really know without being there, and I guess you kind of had to be there.) Much of the ancient artifacts that decorated royal courts and like did indeed add beauty, but were made just as much for the transmission of history as they were for the possible survival of the artisan. The Vatican can’t even sell its art to raise funds for the waterfalls of lawsuits against the Catholic church because the artwork it stores was created for the glory of God, and is therefore not the church’s to sell.  It’s unclear whether the artisans that created that work ever received payment for their creation – likely some did, and some did not.

Artists were important as purveyors of information, as ways to remind ourselves of stuff we needed to know so that we didn’t have to learn the hard way “that lion wants to eat you, too,” every single generation. People created art before there was ever a capitalist system in which to support that art. Those of us of later generations who find this artwork of previous generations don’t typically ask, “Yeah, but how much did that guy get paid to make that?” If we find out he wasn’t paid, we don’t just dismiss it.

This is not to say that artists shouldn’t get paid. No person should EVER be expected to “live on dedication.” Dedication is very poor in vitamins.

But using payment as a yardstick for whether or not something qualifies as art is not a useful system, not for the artist, and not for the person making the purchase.

While the entire question of “What is art?” is pretentious and tiresome, for those of us that try to make a living because our creative needs allow us no other choice, it’s also an unavoidable question in someone else. Not us. Payment is not what defines art, and not what legitimizes an artist. It is an identity you can assume or not, and it is one of those identities people you know will try to control, especially when a)it’s not their business to make ANY such decision for you and b)they struggle with their own identity issues related to art and creativity. I once had someone tell me as a writer I am a “craftsperson” and not an “artist.” This is, of course, absolute bullshit.

I don’t know, and I don’t care what defines art. You yourself know what makes you an artist and whether that rings true. I just know it has nothing to do with whether you sell that first piece.