Capitalism Won’t Save the Arts—Vocation Will

In our recent discussion about art and commerce, I made a point of expressing my distaste for one way that some artists have sought to earn a living recently–giving away their art in order to sell merchandise. I concurred with Tony Comstock in finding that business strategy ugly at best.

You might think, then, that I would hate Camille Paglia’s recent WSJ column, “How Capitalism Can Save Art.” But you would be wrong.

Paglia’s is concerned about a lack of “creativity and innovation” in studio art. She accuses artists of living in “an airless echo chamber” of liberal political orthodoxy and of perpetuating a pseudo-provocative avante garde. In short, Paglia’s complaint about contemporary art is that it fails to engage generously and openly with a wide audience.

This might seem a problem altogether different than the disappearance of art into marketing that I identified. Indeed, one might argue that the problems are diametrically opposed. Yet I would argue that the same failure lies at the root of both fine art’s stagnation and popular art’s selling out: the failure of the work to be a gift.

Cover of "The Gift: Imagination and the E...

Cover via Amazon

Lewis Hyde has best traced the nature of art as gift in his beautiful book The Gift (the book has had various subtitles over the years; for my money the best one is the original, Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property). Hyde argues that any art must contain an element of gratuity, a value which exceeds the monetary. When artists do their work, they often feel that something in it arrives from beyond them: inspiration, the Muse.

That element of givenness, Hyde says, remains with the work of art even if the work enters into the capitalist marketplace—for the art buyer receives something from the work far beyond the purchase price. What price would we take, after all, for our first experience of a beloved book? A work of art can thus be both gift and commodity. However, this balance can be upset: Hyde insists that “a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.” Harlequin romance novels, he notes, are market researched from cover to cover, thus losing the gift of art due to their commerce-driven manufactured status.

Reading Paglia from this position, we might be tempted by her polemical title to think that she proposes artists subsume the gift to the profit motive. However, this would be a profound mistake. The core of her proposal for the rescue of art lies here:

“We need a revalorization of the trades that would allow students to enter those fields without social prejudice (which often emanates from parents eager for the false cachet of an Ivy League sticker on the car). Among my students at art schools, for example, have been virtuoso woodworkers who were already earning income as craft furniture-makers. Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”

What Paglia proposes here is not, on my reading, the sort of entrepreneurship which satisfies itself with selling a T-shirt or a knick-knack. Instead, it is the sort of business acumen demonstrated by the tradespeople of previous generations—smiths and woodworkers, potters and builders. These entrepreneurs did work that was beautiful as well as practical, even if it was never intended for a gallery. That it has sometimes showed up there many years later is a testament to the gift that the work always possessed. For Paglia, the contemporary inheritance of such work appears not just in traditional fields such as woodworking, but in industrial design and “the applied arts”—fields which unite beauty and usefulness.

You’ll note that Hyde’s criteria for art, unlike many common conceptions, does not insist on a work being without use: a cup, a shovel, or a smartphone could be works of art provided that they provide joy beyond their monetary value. So there is no moral or aesthetic imperative that an artist shun commerce and practicality. However, whatever commercial steps the artist takes must work in harmony with the nature of the gift itself. A well-made chair is an expression of the artist’s gift as a commemorative T-shirt is not.

Although Hyde remains vague about the source of the artist’s gift, a Christian can easily identify it through the theology of vocation. On this, I cannot improve on Wendell Berry: “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.” To say that artists ought to remain faithful to their gift is thus to propose that they choose vocation over salesmanship.

This is a demanding path, but since it means doing a work for which we are “particularly fitted,” it should also be deeply satisfying. A person with a vocation for art is not necessarily particularly fitted for political commentary or marketing clothing. Though we all must find our daily bread somehow, it behooves us to try to find good work, work that fulfills our vocations and does not work against our gift. Artists who follow Paglia’s exhortation back to the applied arts may find a way to do just that.

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  • David Ryan

    Tony Comstock also said:

    “Camile Paglia plays meta-dominatrix to a certain kind of liberal while a certain kind of conservative sits in a nearby chair and meta-masturbates.”

    • http://giftsoutright.tumblr.com/ Matthew Miller

      David, I should have specified in the piece that I actually think Paglia’s critique of contemporary art is exaggerated, perhaps WAY exaggerated. (I subscribe to the terrific contemporary art journal Image, which demonstrates four times a year that the state of highbrow art isn’t as dire as Paglia thinks.) But I think she’s right to suggest that the applied arts are a neglected path for people of talent, and it’s that part of her argument that I sought to endorse..

  • Joseph Rhea

    This is a really interesting piece; thanks for notifying us for Paglia’s work and for your own thoughts on it. I have two thoughts:

    - I love the idea of conceiving and making art “generously” and “openly” for the people. It seems that, beginning with or thriving in modernism (at least in literature, the medium I know best), an ethos grew of artists creating art for artists only: seeking the praise and respect of the community of arts alone rather than the people. The view of the public became increasingly disdainful, and works like “Ulysses” or “The Waste Land” almost insult the reader who is not familiar with the writer’s horde of obscure references. That perhaps more than anything else has led to the “liberalization” (which really just reflects the current trend) of the artistic world: increasingly it’s an entire community incurvatus in se.

    Aristocratic is maybe the best word for it, to think about it. Or Artistocratic.

    - I think the idea of gifting (and, conversely, pandering for money) is related to that. I’m sure Berry would say this, but I think there’s an extra step to vocation that Frederick Buechner nails: “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We are communal creatures; especially as Christians, we need to understand that vocation is not meant to serve me (or those like me) only; it’s meant to serve the world.

    But the right gift, true vocation, DOES serve the world. And that’s where we as artists can monetize our work in good conscience. If my art is truly a gift – not just a gift for me, but a gift for others through me – then I can confidently hope that I might one day be compensated somewhat for it; that it might be worthwhile. It’s an anxious place to be to not get paid for doing what I love – but like the art students who craft furniture, we can be entrepreneurial about learning to sell our gift (or sell something else while we cultivate our gift and give it anyways, because no true artist can ever really just stop creating). And that’s worthwhile, honorable: much more so than selling knickknacks and teddy bears infected with our art in the hope that somebody will catch our disease.

    • http://giftsoutright.tumblr.com/ Matthew Miller

      Thanks for these reflections, Joseph. Hyde says “The gift must always move,” so your thoughts on community are right on.

  • David Ryan

    One thing to keep in mind when reading Paglia on creativity and commerce:

    By her own admission, she is dependent on her teaching salary for the lion’s share of her income and could not get by on the proceeds from her writing alone. So whatever suggestions she might have about how creative people might make a living, rest assured those suggestions are pitched to what sounds provocative, what will garner her some attention, and have no basis in any life she’s lived.

    Also we launched MON TIKI this weekend and it didn’t sink!

    • http://giftsoutright.tumblr.com/ Matthew Miller

      Sure, Paglia is a provocateur, but that’s just an ad hominem argument. Whether or not she makes a living in area she’s discussing is immaterial to whether her ideas are correct. But if you want someone with some skin in the game, as it were: my wife works full-time as a potter, making functional-though-individual work. And we know people who have been doing this kind of thing for many years. Many of them have supplemented their income in various ways, sure. But more people going into these sorts of fields actually can create more opportunity.

      Congratulations on the launch! I saw the pictures on League of Ordinary Gentlemen–she’s lovely.

  • David Ryan

    You’ve got the horse in front of the cart, Matt.

    Paglia’s ideas are moronic. Looking at her circumstances helps us understand where her moronic ideas come from. ;-)

  • http://metapundit.net/ simeon

    I don’t know about conservative appreciation but obviously Camile really bugs certain kinds of liberals!