Art, Commerce, and Mistaken Premises

In his thought provoking and inspiring page-a-day book Secret Agenda (Hermetic Press, 2010) the great magical artist-teacher Roberto Giobbi addresses the subject of “Commerce Versus Art” with an entry for April 16 that begins with these words:

Commerce is about taking. You take more money, more market shares, more work, more customers, more frequent turnover, more profit, more power, etc.

Art is about giving and communicating with an audience, experiencing something unique with them. The artist shares passion, emotions and ideas. He invites the spectators to join him in his “life workshop” and shares his work with them.

These lines are representative of many similar kinds of comments and assertions I’ve seen and heard from fellow performing artists over many years. The tension between meaningful artistic value and crass commercialism is a favorite topic for artists. I often agree with many of my peers about the way certain specific programs, products, or performances might be categorized. I certainly believe there are meaningful distinctions to be made in the way we attribute different kinds of value to those things.

I think, however, that the way the distinction is framed above is fundamentally flawed. So I will respond with that favorite philosophical test: we must check our premises.

 

An Allegory of Art and Commerce
Johann Heiss (1640-1704)

Commerce is not about taking.

The first sentence contains the first flawed premise. Commerce is not about taking. Theft is about taking. Commerce, on the other hand, is about exchanging; i.e., trading value for value in a way that benefits both parties, satisfying the desire that each of them has for something the other has.

Because it allows for exchange, the meeting of need, and the satisfaction of desire without war or violence, I contend that commerce is itself a beautiful invention, a worthwhile institution, and one of the great achievements of humankind. The word begins with “com,” obviously suggesting that togetherness and interaction are in play. The rest of the word comes from “mercium,” or merchandise — or to put it even more generally, it refers to some productive output that has a shared value.

To portray commerce or business as being purely about taking, or to suggest it is intrinsically an outgrowth of greed, or to frame it as inherently evil because it includes the concept of profiting from one’s productive output is not only mistaken but also reveals a blind spot on the part of the performer who is also seeking to profit, materially and/or psychologically, from his or her performances and self-expression. The producer of a business venture is compelled to express his or her creativity and drive in much the same way as the performer.

The accusatory words used to describe commerce in the next sentence seem to spring from the mistaken premise that only the seller benefits from a sale.

More money? One doesn’t receive more money unless one sells more items to more people who want them, or unless the item purchased is deemed to have more value by the purchaser, who wouldn’t otherwise trade their resources for it. More market share? How is it a bad thing if you have something that attracts the interest of a larger audience? Every performer wants more market share, too!

More work? More customers? Neither are negative; we all seek them. More frequent turnover? This particular item in the list isn’t defined enough to critique. Turnover in staff? In inventory? In equipment? As for staff turnover, it can be argued that the only thing worse than the cost of losing a productive team member is the cost of keeping an unproductive one.

In other cases staff turnover is often related to people growing beyond their current role and intentionally seeking a better opportunity, which is hardly a bad thing for the employee. If it is related to people quitting because they prefer different work, or a better wage, or even a better manager, then bring on the turnover!

More power? More power to do what? To serve more people or families? To grow different lines of products or services? To express creativity through new designs, research, or manufacturing of novel solutions to problems? The idea of gaining more power to affect or influence one’s audience, environment, or circumstances isn’t intrinsically wrong or we wouldn’t teach our children to read. The question is, to what end? What is the objective of the wielder of the power?

All of these things can be made negative by abuse, of course – by either workers, managers, or executives who do not treat all of the roles with the respect rightfully due to each. So also can the stage be abused by artists whose ego and aim are misguided or malevolent. But a considered review of the listed ideas reveals that none of them automatically deserves the implied scorn.

 

Art and commerce are both about giving, communicating, and experiencing.

Let’s look at the next segment, focusing on the characteristics of the artist. “Giving” and “communicating” and “experiencing” are all excellent and admirable… and they apply to the merchant or business owner as much as they do to the artist! If not, we wouldn’t have such things as departments and staff dedicated to public relations, charitable giving, marketing departments, advertising, or customer experience or employee experience initiatives — all of which are immensely important to businesses large and small all over the world.

I would venture that we all know multiple business owners who make regular charitable donations to groups or organizations to which they feel a connection. I suspect nearly every business person we know has spent hours thinking about how to communicate more effectively with his or her tribe. Many business owners and leaders spend more time and resources learning to and attempting to communicate with their audiences than many performers have ever attempted! Further, I think that most business owners, operators, merchants, managers, and employees are always looking for ways for their transactions to be as mutually rewarding as that of a performer whose audience applauds with joy for the exchange they have had with the artist. Nobody is doing what they do with no hope or expectation of reward, be it internal or external — or most likely both. What’s more, there is nothing unvirtuous about that hope or expectation; it is, in fact, just and virtuous for the workman, salesman, artist, or creative producer to be rewarded through a beneficial exchange of value.

The artist is not the only person who is sharing his or her life with an audience. The woman who runs a sign shop, or the man who manufactures engine valves, or the owner of a transportation company, or the engineer who builds planes or trains or bridges, or the young insurance salesman whose name has just appeared on the door of his first office… all of these people are inviting their own audiences to take notice of what they have to exchange with them. They are doing neither more nor less than the performer who has walked onto a stage to share with an audience. The stages are different, the spotlights are different, but the desires are parallel.

 

Art is a form of commerce.

I suggest that, rather than to set art versus commerce, a more helpful framework is to recognize that art is, in important ways, a form of commerce. It is an exchange of value for value. It is the pursuit of advantage from the transaction by all parties involved. It can be augmented or diminished by the moral shortcomings of the performer, but the goals of trade, exchange, profit, and self-benefit are not themselves worthy of the negativity with which some of us may imbue them through our own biases or presuppositions.

Check your premises.

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24 Responses

  1. Nailed it!!

    What a great article, Joe.
    I’ve been surrounded by those who make the same argument as Mr. Giobbi, for as long as I can remember. Seeing it summed up as art vs. greed has always left a bad taste in my mouth, and honestly occasionally made me question other premises by the same writers.

    1. Thanks West. I admire and agree with almost everything Mr. Giobbi has written, but this particular entry seemed to be based so fully on a complete misrepresentation of commerce that I was compelled to respond.

  2. 💥 I have felt this way for a long time. You nicely laid out thoughts methodically for those who don’t. Hopefully it changes some minds, because it’s an unfortunate and misguided mindset.

    1. Thank you, Nabil. My goal was simply to correct what I thought was a mistaken framing of the concepts. I appreciate your response!

  3. Joe — great thinking here. I have one additional thought. You wrote “ Art and commerce are both about giving, communicating, and experiencing.”
    I would add mutual satisfaction.

    1. Thanks, Rolando. I responded point-by-point to Mr. Giobbi’s writing, but your addition is a major insight that I was trying to get at with regard to the internal and external rewards that performers seek. We all want mutual satisfaction, whether supplier/customer or performer/audience. Thanks again!

  4. Joe -Superb! A most incisive analysis of the concepts & semantics. Contrary to some opinions Capitalism is not evil. In fact , it encapsulates the Teachings of many great Religious & Secular figures. It is the unacceptable face of Capitalism – i.e- wanton greed with no care or thought for one’s fellow beings that is unacceptable. Art in all its forms , Performance Artists especially, does share; part of that sharing involves an exchange. I concur that Roberto Giobbi is an excellent Performance Artist but has not grasped the basic fundamental concepts. Excellent piece! Congratulations.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Anthony. Every human construct can be abused. I do think Mr. Giobbi achieved the most important goal of his piece, which was to make the reader think about it. This reader certainly did!

  5. There is a saying in the business world: “A truly good deal is when both parties walk away convinced they got the best part of it.” As a performer, my goal at each show is to bond artistically and emotionally with my guests through the theater of the unexpected. Hopefully, that mutual ‘bond’ creates a desire in the guests to respond graciously and with enthusiasm. In the end, their evening has been filled with humor and surprises, and in return, my soul and bank account get a welcomed boost. We all walk away pleased and happy with the deal.

    I do not understand artists, who live by and take every advantage of capitalism principles, hold it in disdain.

    1. Agreed. I think there is clearly some cultural conditioning within some quarters that deems the arts more divine or elite, and the trades or business somehow vulgar or common, but we are all just trying to take our own gifts to our own stages for our own audiences.

  6. Wonderful post on this Joe. I was actually pretty surprised by the definition I read in the beginning. I think too many people likely see it that way. Very nice reframe.

    1. Thanks Andrea. I think perhaps the original writer’s goal was to be provocative. I was compelled to respond, even though it’s eleven years after publication. Hope you are doing well!

  7. The article is great, Joe. A couple of thoughts…
    Art and commerce are not always mutually exclusive, but there are divisions. Art seems to be only commerce if the intention is to sell it.. unless another form of exchange can be given the honor of having value. There are times when art is created for no other reason than its creation.
    Commerce of course may also include guys like Bernie Madoff, who were selling the illusion of value. The exchange was obviously one-sided regarding value.
    It may very well be possible that Mr. Giobbi is confusing commerce with capitalism, and his particular political views may have a dim viewpoint of capitalism.

    1. I don’t know what his politics may be, so I’m just limiting my analysis to the statements as written. I think the self-satisfaction of creating a piece of art is a self-focused benefit that an artist seeks that cannot be ignored. Going further, I think it’s a rare piece of art indeed that is created without the objective of it being experienced by others, whose attention is a form of currency. After all, we want people to “pay” attention. So there are “self-focused” profit motives for the creation of art, even if it is created outside the exchange of money specifically.

  8. Nice article. I agree. And the companies who do well by doing good seem to stick around. It’s all about that exchange. There is an excellent book called The Experience Economy that talks about how companies can create more of an experience instead of a transaction, which blurs that line between business and performance.

    1. Thank you, Brent! I will take a look at the book you recommend. The parallels between performing arts/stage and business/marketplace have been the crux of my keynoting for the last decade.

  9. Great article, Joe. As a business owner, I know that we entrepreneurs are creative, just like artists, and our motives are indeed giving. Explanation—an entrepreneur wants to create goods and services that are attractive to, or improve the lives of consumers. If the creation benefits consumers, they will buy it, and the business owner can use the income to produce more beneficial products/services, improving the lives of more consumers (this concept is not original with me; I’m quoting/paraphrasing Charles Payne of FBN). And the business owner receives two rewards—the satisfaction that their creation has value, and profit, both well deserved.

    How’s that different from the sale of a clever, artistic collage of electronic images to the highest bidder for tens of million dollars to give the buyer pleasure? Nice profit taken by the artist!

    Here’s an example of commercial giving. As an environmental engineer, my passion is to assist my clients (private industry and DOD) achieve zero emissions and sustainability. Some Fortune 50 industries have already established timelines to achieve those goals, and the performance metrics for their units reflect them. Also, they apply their US standards to their international operations. The ultimate benefits from their efforts are the protection of worldwide human health and the environment. What was originally enforced by government agencies has evolved into an ethical business practice. That’s universal, commercial giving.

    Commerce gives and takes; art gives and takes. Seems balanced to me.

    1. Thanks for contributing this comment and the real-world experience of a creative, generous, and successful engineer-preneur.

  10. Very well written, Joe. I find myself in agreement with your observations. I suspect that Giobbi’s dim view of free market commerce as it relates to art is a reflection of his larger political/economic world view. Many artists today are of the opinion that “true art”, whatever that is, should be unfettered by economic constraints, and that placing a monetary value on a creative product somehow cheapens that product.
    Thus, we have public funding for the arts.

    Thought provoking and enjoyable read. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I don’t know anything specific about Mr. Giobbi’s political or economic views, so I won’t speculate beyond responding to what I read in his book, which, I note, cost me about $55. That was an exchange of value-for-value that I hope he found beneficial because I know I did. If he doesn’t want the money, I’ll take it back with no argument.

  11. Recently some artists have turned to NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) as an alternative way to traditional commercialization their work. Most of the takes by mainstream media have been predictably bad, focusing on obscene bidding wars and supposed energy waste. But I think we may see it evolve into something that truly benefits artists by offering a way to delegate the commercial aspects to other stakeholders. An early example would be Zach Lona, who is directing the first NFT funded film, with the NFT owner receiving a 50% streaming revenue share that transfers on re-sell

    1. Thanks for that, Leah. I have been following the NFT trend and am curious to see where it leads. Whatever form it takes, or how it is administered, value-for-value exchanges are how things get done whether the value is paid in money, time, attention, or even pure artistic satisfaction. I think nobody does anything they do for no reward at all, and what’s more, that’s fine and virtuous.

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