A week ago, I retweeted the article, Selling Out the Newspaper Comic Strip about the divergent careers of Charles Schultz and Bill Watterson. It’s well written and worth a read. But it also did not sit well with me because it plays directly into a way of framing artistic integrity and the commodification of ideas and labour that I don’t subscribe to. I’ll call it the “artist-sellout complex.”
We all know the master narrative. An artist is a genius following a higher calling, usually toiling in poverty and obscurity. They sacrifice worldly ambitions for the purity of their vision. Should an artist attain any level of recognition, they must shun the trappings of wealth and fame. The sellout is a former artist, now toiling to obtain higher and higher levels of visible success. They sacrifice their principles and artistic integrity for their 15 minutes. A sellout will produce shallow, populist works, even if they don’t agree with them, basking in the trappings of wealth and fame.
Bear with me for a moment, because the artist-sellout complex reminds me of another complex that I loathe: the virgin-whore. Of course there are important differences, but let us for the time being, consider their similarities. (I mean, another term for a sellout is a corporate whore, is it not? And I don’t think it’s coincidental that terms we use to describe a woman’s sexual behaviour, like “purity”, are peppered throughout the linked article above.)
Both artist-sellout and virgin-whore complexes present an individual with a lose-lose proposition; you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Both deal with commodifying things that are not easily commodified. Both divide a group or community that could be more unified (and perhaps in being more unified, be more powerful). And I think both are total fantasies, twisted ways of framing reality that are so much more compelling than reality that the majority of us will subscribe to these frames, will base our judgements and decisions on them, will act accordingly.
What is usually missing from discussions about both complexes is a genuine criticism of the underlying logic that gives rise to these ways of framing reality. Instead, we criticize individuals, trotting out the same, tired arguments in superficial debates that refuse to die because the foundational fallacies of these complexes remain unexamined.*
So what I’d like to do here is examine one aspect of the artist-sellout complex – the act of commodification – in the hopes of directing the reader toward understanding how this way of thinking about artists is about as useful as thinking of all women as virgins or whores.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a commodity? Just like the act of selling something for money does not make you a capitalist, a commodity is not simply something you can buy and sell. Ideal commodities have two important qualities that I want you to consider.
Firstly, they are interchangeable with each other – so if you get green beans from vendor A, they might be slightly different from the green beans you can get from vendor B, but they’re basically all green beans. This is how we can determine a market value for green beans. If green beans on the market were all wildly different, it wouldn’t make sense to be paying roughly the same price for them.
Secondly, commodities are discrete units – so if I buy a pound of beans from vendor A, she no longer has that pound of green beans, they are now mine. And vendor A cannot resell beans she doesn’t have. This might seem obvious, but consider how digital formats completely upends this quality of discreteness and you can see why digital art – pdfs and mp3s that can be endlessly and easily copied and shared – is so difficult to commodify. (Or, perhaps you can see how this logic doesn’t apply to sexual intercourse as a woman taking an additional sexual partner does not mean she no longer has the ability to have sex with her first partner.)
Who or what determines a commodity’s value? Simplistically, in the hypothetical free market, a commodity’s value is determined by two factors: supply and demand. It’s not the amount of labour that goes into a product, nor is it the quality of that product. So if you have slaved years over a masterpiece of a commodity and no one wants it, the value of your commodity is zilch. Or if everyone out there is churning out masterpiece commodities just as awesome as yours, your bargaining power is significantly compromised and your commodity’s value will be pressured by the asking price of the lowest seller so long as everyone is aware of that price point.
Of course, there are many commodities today that are not interchangable and discrete. And the act of commodifying non-commodities like ideas, culture or women’s reproductive power or labour or healthcare or human experiences, etc. is tricky and contentious, such that producers and sellers of non-commodities must find all kinds of bizarro work-arounds to commodify them.
In the case of digital art forms, we’ve resorted to toothless DRM locks, ridiculous IP laws, punitive subscription packages, the shift from branding things to branding people and experiences, the rise of immaterial labour like the hamster wheel of online self-promotion (if we want to be more charitable, we can call it engagement with fans – but whatever we call it, even if artists love doing it, it’s still work they’re not getting paid for while a social media corporation profits) and all kinds of strategies that are not necessary if all you are doing is selling green beans.
So if this is so complicated and illogical (and in the case of commodifying virginity and vaginas, really fucked up), why bother to commodify a non-commodity at all? This is beyond the scope of this post, but I want you to go back to our artist-sellout binary, or our virgin-whore binary and ask yourself these questions: who benefits from the commodification of these non-commodities? and Who or what determines their value and by what means? Don’t cop out with an easy, superficial answer like, “Oh obviously men benefit from seeing women as virgins and whores.” This is incomplete to the point of being incorrect. Take your time to think about it. Because these kinds of questions will help you to see the power structures at play beneath the complexes.
I don’t believe our main concern should be how an individual chooses to navigate their own creative path and how they’re paid for it along the way. I think our obsession with this – just like how our society obsesses over a woman’s sexual history and judges her by it – speaks to the mechanisms of power in which actors within a power system are compelled to police the boundaries that structure an unequal division of resources, even when these boundaries are oppressive to the actors themselves.
So I try to keep my eyes on the prize. Instead of being critical of individuals, especially those who are strangers to me, I remain critical of the logic of commodification and mindful of how attempts to commodify non-commodities are often violent and always incomplete. And even when you encounter a lose-lose proposition, it helps to remember that there is often someone or something that still stands to gain.
*This is actually very common in public discourse. My rule of thumb: if you find the same debate about a social issue being flogged, generally resurfacing and repeating in baroque cycles over the decades, what you are seeing are superficial tensions concealing dominant power structures that do not actually have any internal conflicts. In order to get to what lies underneath, you need to get past the odious moral fervour that usually accompanies such debates and relinquish any superficial tension in your analysis.