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Art and Commerce

[ 2 ] May 20, 2007 |

Like many commenters, I have to offer a dissent from my colleague’s arguments here. I don’t really care about artists selling their music to advertisers, for a couple of reasons. First of all is my general agreement with the late Christopher Moltisanti’s dictum that unless they’re paying your nut nobody has the right to tell anyone how to earn a living. Professional musicians are, er, professionals, and I don’t see how this particular way of making money is worse than any other. I don’t think most Shins fans will associate them with McDonald’s, and those that do would otherwise not know their music at all. (And if Modest Mouse used the money to hire that mercenary old fart Johnny Marr, great–the artistic results were terrific.) The second is my well-known belief that “authenticity”–and I think most arguments about selling out are about this at bottom–is useless as a criterion of value. Art is what it is; the motives behind producing it are essentially beside the point. As I’ve said before, plenty of terrific music has been produced highly interested in using music to get rich, get famous, and get laid (not necessarily in any order) and lots of dreary music has been made by artists with pure motives for little money on tiny indie labels. Great songs used in ads are still great songs (you might get sick of hearing them, but that overexposure can happen in a lot of ways.) Lenny Kravitz songs suck on your IPod, the suck on the radio, and they suck as car commercials. Fugazi are a very fine band, but I don’t care about their concept of “artistic purity” any more than I care about the other parts of their unappealing “straight-edge” asceticism, except insofar as it lead motivated good music. Which would remain no better and no worse if MacKaye sells “Give Me The Cure” to Viagra.

The middle position staked out in comments seems to be that it might be OK for struggling bands who otherwise wouldn’t be able to earn a living, but bad for artists who don’t really “need” the money. My take is that Bob Dylan has accomplished more and certainly given me much more pleasure than most really rich people; if he wants to get paid in a capitalist society fine with me. (I note that his decision to start selling his music happened to coincide with a shocking artistic revival.) If this encourages people to focus on his music rather than on ultimately irrelevant “voice of a generation” bullshit, all the better.

…As part of the great conversation that Media Czech generated, Ina Iansiti says that “I bought into the whole ‘don’t sell out’ dogma as a kid. But the boundaries between high and low art, which have been blurring at least since the 19th century, are now indistinguishable.” I think a lot of this is about drawing lines between “good” non-commercial art and “bad” commercial art. This both a distinction that should be seen as odd within a discussion of popular music most of us think will live as art and also I think attributes a purity of motive to “high” artists that was never there, even among great artists that weren’t commercially successful. It’s not as if Melville didn’t want to be read or didn’t want to earn a living from his writing.

…of course, had I checked Pandagon first I pretty much could have skipped writing this.

Matt makes a good point here. I can see the argument that, all things being equal, a high level of artistic autonomy is better than a lower level. Let’s stipulate that this is true. Nonetheless, I think it’s true that 1)there are too many exceptions for this to be reliable (Matt may be appalled, but I think that not only In Utero and Nevermind but the gimmicky MTV unplugged thing are better records than Bleach, say) and 2)what matters in the end is the music, not the motivation. I see little reason to judge the a priori motivation when one can judge the finished work.