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.
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.