Friday, January 11, 2013

Markets and Art: The Commodification of Music Destroys Art

"Man really attains the state of complete humanity when he produces, without being forced by physical need to sell himself as a commodity."
— Che Guevara

A recent Truthdig article found here, caught my attention because of the similarities in the views of artist Robert Shetterly, a painter of activists, and my own views on the commodification of art.  Although I've already written before on the subject here, in a post about Music and Industry, I have decided to revisit the subject spurred by some very piercing quotes about art by Shetterly.

He says, "Artists today, are using the dominant culture system to determine how they value themselves and I think that’s a very dangerous thing for artists. ... Art is one of the few places where critical voices can live. Even in universities these days it can’t live with so much political pressure. The real voice is lost.”

Shetterly continues, “Art, is one of the last places where people can have the freedom to live outside the system, or at least on its scraps, instead of trying to be one with it, which robs you of your voice finally. It’s so easy to be co-opted.  This system will take anything from anybody and if it can commodify it, it will embrace it.”

The general point I think Shetterly is making is that artists are losing their true voice in order to turn their art into a commodity.  It's important that we define specifically what we mean by a commodity.  A commodity is any good or service that is produced by human labour and offered for general sale on the market.  Commodities also have specific characteristics that help us further define, and conceptualize commodities.

A commodity is something that has a value, which can be further subdivided into use value and exchange value, as well as a price.  Use value is simply the utility of use a good has, which differs from it's exchange value, although Marx's concept of use value is somewhat different from more classical definitions (I will abstain from going into too much detail on the subject, but highly recommend reading A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx).   A common example of this is a diamond which although it may have a high value of exchange, it doesn't serve much of a purpose as a  utilitarian item.  A commodity has a use value because, by its intrinsic characteristics, it can satisfy some human need or want, physical or ideal.  Use value also means that the commodity has social value, or that it is useful not just to the producer itself, but has a use for others generally.

The exchange value of a commodity means, that the commodity can be traded for other commodities, and thus the owner of a commodity can benefit from others labour.  It differs from price value which is the monetary manifestation of exchange value.  In other words, exchange value could be seen as the trading ratio between two commodities without using money as a medium of exchange.  Perhaps a few examples will illustrate these points better.

If I create music with my bass and make it a tradable product of human work (like capturing music on a CD) with social value and offer it to the market, it is a commodity.  However, me playing my bass in the music room of my home where no one else can hear, then it has no use to anyone else and therefore is not a commodity.  If I invite a friend to listen to me play my bass as a gift to them, it is not a commodity because it has no exchange value even if it serves a utilitarian use to that person (assuming they have a use for what they hear).  If I invite many people over to listen to me play a concert and require an exchange of either money or another commodity to play for many people, then the music I produce is certainly a commodity.  This is because it is being traded and has both use value, and exchange value that will probably have a set price as well (often called a cover).  Even though the act of me vibrating the wooden top of my bass by coaxing my strings to oscillate, a tree consisting of the same type wood as my bass, vibrating because of natural phenomena, which may cause it to creak or fall over, (no matter how pleasant the sounds may be) are not a commodity (unless of course I perhaps recorded and sold these sound recordings).  Nor is the bass by itself a commodity if it's only use is for firewood, unless I specifically trade or sell the bass as firewood.

So as artistic as my own or anyone else's playing may be, there is a specific process by which we turn this art into a commodity.  However, commodities often have another peculiar characteristic which is the lack of qualitative differentiation.  The term fungibility is used to describe this similarity of quality which implies that certain goods or services can have full or partial mutual substitution.  As Marx states in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, "From the taste of wheat it is not possible to tell who produced it, a Russian serf, a French peasant or an English capitalist."  Now perhaps this is why I find the blind fold tests in DownBeat (a feature were jazz musicians are played records without being told what is being played, and asked to comment on the music, who they think it could be, and give it a rating) to be so interesting especially in the last ten years.  Often the musician being tested doesn't recognize the recording straight off, or a specific individual sound of a musician.  Comments along the lines of "it sounds like" or "it could be anyone", or my favorite "it's somebody sounding like..." are all too common.   I would wager that in many cases with the amount of technically proficient jazz musicians out there in the world, even the most knowledgeable studied jazz fanatic would have a hard time telling who produced which bit of jazz music, and often (at least with more mainstream or traditional jazz) whether they were French, American, or African in similar sensory tests.

Why this seems to be the case has to do more with the process of making the music (and the business of recording the music) than it has to do with the end result or product.  In Marx's analogy on who grew the wheat, one would have to submit that although different soil types and physical environments would definitely perhaps provide very subtle notes to someone with a very refined palette for tasting wheat, to society as a whole this difference would be nearly impossible to detect.  Even if they could distinguish the differences it would be very difficult to assign the wheat with a country of origin.  Perhaps it is due to the fact that during the 19th century the process for growing grain was very similar from region to region.  Even with the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used to grow crops, in study after study, organic vs. conventional (a qualitative difference in price at nearly any grocery store) consumers given sensory tests usually cannot tell conclusively which is organic or conventional, and the results to which is preferred are pretty evenly mixed.  However, I have on a few occasions taken a sip of milk which didn't taste quite right, (I'm an avid drinker of only organic milk) and was able to tell I was starting to ingest conventionally produced milk.

Are the processes by which we make art really coalescing and homogenizing to the point that we can actually say that the qualitative differences between different musicians are being reduced to a point of full or partial mutual substitution?  Since commodities are defined not just by the utility that the commodity has to the producer of the commodity, it has to have some larger social value.  What's clear, at least within the record industry, is that the company who is financing and distributing a record often could care less about what type of music is being sold, or how artistic the music on the recording is.  They simply care about how many units are being sold.  Although there may be some record labels that only market specific types of music or music that represents a certain set of ethics (i.e. ECM), but if they want to stay in business they have to factor in how many units are going to be sold.  Similarly, a restaurant that has live music or any music venue must concern themselves with how many people are showing up at the door and paying a cover, or patronizing their business in order to continue as a business entity.  This in and of itself leads to the disappearance of qualitative differences making music played for the entertainment or enjoyment of others and for money, most definitely a commodity that has at least partial ability for mutual substitution.  If one band can draw an audience the same size or of similar size to another, the utilitarian purpose they serve of drawing a crowd is the same as any other no matter how well or artistically they perform.

What this means is that artists survive by adhering to market rules and a market based ideology.  This leaves artists to replicate the obsessions of society and popular cultural ideas (even when the dominate culture is a culture that is destroying the very earth we live on).  Obsessions of this society may include the extreme obsession with falling in love (often lyrics in music concentrate on gaining or losing someone in terms of a possession with an extremely narcissistic attitude of how this make them feel), or even superhuman musical feats of playing an extremely large amount of notes in a very short amount of time with (and sometimes without) an underlying logical structure.  They champion the self and the heroism of the soloist, whether in jazz or in rock, while almost all forms of aboriginal music champion group or communal participation over individual performance.  The last point is perhaps best shown by the famous story Dave Liebman tells about when he asked Miles Davis "why he had a saxophone" in his band.  Miles responded to Dave, "Because people like to see you move your fingers!”  Perhaps that's the reason some people also like incomprehensibly fast "shredding" metal guitar.  Mostly in the jazz world at least there is a very heavy concentration on aesthetics.

“But aesthetics are a means to an end,” says Shetterly. “When they become the end themselves it becomes tiresomely academic [which does not] invite us to think and feel about something human. Instead it’s about composition, color and brushstroke. Those things are a means to delivering the message. If a painting is only about its own medium, it becomes very narcissistic and ingrown. ... It is either academic or about titillation ... it’s about flash. It’s about turning our nerves on but not our minds. It’s really about distraction. ... It all goes by so quickly and it’s exciting and feels good, but it also takes us away from what is important.”

I doubt I could begin to count the number of jazz or modern classical music concerts I've been to that Shetterly's quote would be a perfect review for.  There is a serious fetishization of the quality of the performance we give in the here and now, with the constant shadow of every other jazz musician and jazz performance ever made (even and especially the recordings) for direct comparison, both within the performer, (often to the point of it being a plague to the music itself amongst the less experienced) and the seasoned listener.  Musicians in the field often concentrate more on crushing time feels, face melting solos, and other aesthetic ideals in the music than conveying a sense of humanity or a message greater than the sum of its parts.  However, the part that I found most intriguing about his quote is that he calls out most of the commodified art for what it really is, a distraction.  Art that expresses little beyond perhaps individual, self reflecting, and inward looking emotional content that also fetishizes mastery of aesthetics, serves little purpose to society at large beyond momentarily distracting us from the real state of the world around us.  Further, the musicians who blatantly commoditize themselves and their music, are often those who produce trivial musical content that is mostly about titillating the audience.  This can be seen in pop music, as scantly dressed singers dance in an erotic fashion while singing songs that contain the musical and lyrical depth of an emotionally disturbed toddler.  Even amongst artists who reach for higher aesthetic beauty and lyricism, the musician is often well removed from the realities of both the world and their culture in favor of creating some sort of transcendent momentary escape from social conditions and even mortality.

Very few artists who are in any way able to make a living within the performing arts, are willing to tell the truths of the world both within and outside of their art.  You don't here too many songs about the fact that 90% of the large fish in the ocean are extinct, or that industrial civilization, using the once vast stores of fossil fuels, is leading to severe climate change that threatens life on earth as we know it.  The reasons may seem obvious as very few people want to buy this kind of music, and specifically within the more artistic traditions in the US, jazz, and modern classical music, the marketability is already so small it is becoming nearly impossible to survive on their performance "career" alone.  There may be something to be said for not just reducing music or art to protest music, but if the music doesn't even serve the purpose of getting the audience to at least begin to question their own existence or self, what purpose does the music serve?

The article continues, "Shetterly says that people who have a genuine interest in art are often beaten down and stripped of their ability to pursue the truth. The commoditization of art, if it hasn’t already reeled you into its arms, exiles you to the world of academic theory and nonreality, where you do not have the capacity to rebel against the free market. Either you adhere to the rules or you are cast into an irrelevant pool of degree-holding artists who have left the real world in search of vague ideas like space, subjectivism and postmodernist expression."

In my own personal experience with music that first sentence couldn't ring in any truer.  Whether it's instructors that insisted the music isn't as popular or happening because the players and music today just isn't as good, or whether it's setting aside any personal artistic goals or approaches to the art form, and instead focusing on playing more like the people who they came up listening to on records.  However, the blame can't be placed squarely on the shoulders of teachers and professors as usually they're just trying to relate to you the real world facts of the music business, which is that you must succumb to the market and the demands of the field or you will not survive as an artist.  People wanted me to play like the guys on the "great" records because that's what everyone is used to hearing and that's what gets you work.  They don't beat your individual creativity down for fun, but they realize at least on some level that until you obtain a certain level of respect within the clique of your specific craft and more importantly within the general market for music (the consumers), no one will care about your search for truth.  Some of them have spent countless hours pursuing their own musical truth in the face of market conditions that could care less about their art.  Not relating that same thing to you in advance would be cheating you of the advance knowledge that it takes adaption to the market in order to make a living, no matter how meager it may be.

Those who have other means of support often find themselves relegated to pursuing meaningless advancements to the tradition, whether it be blending genres or styles, adapting their music to current pop trends, or worse, pursuing total abstractedness that serves not even the producer.  It does nothing for  bringing people together, but instead pushes people further away from music, partially because it is entirely foreign to the general listener.  Those that pursue music along the lines of this total abstraction often are guilty of making it obviously clear that they have little or no purpose for why they produce such music beyond narcissism and to distract themselves and others from pursuing anything meaningful in their lives.  It is a music where there cannot be an objective, or even truly a subjective good or bad, but also masks any intent the performer lacks for seeking truth with their art, while at the same time allowing them to claim to be the hippest thing around.

The article continues "If university art departments haven’t already shrunk, they’ve transitioned from the traditional style of instruction to one that is based in abstraction and historiography."  The truth is often hard to take, but jazz departments across the US, as well as any modern music department, focuses in on the historical development of music as a linear history leading us up to the current time, not simply to enlighten the student, but to help them find a place to fit into the relevant musical trends.  It's focused on helping students find success within the trends and often, as previously stated, pushes aside personal ideals of finding a voice within themselves to finding a niche within the scene.  This is purely a market dominated process by which universities seek to help students find a way to achieve marketable success as that is just about the only thing left to be attained.  Often, rather than having a student really seek an individual voice, they push homogenizing many voices from within the tradition into some sort of cohesive voice they can label as their own.

“So many people today know that there’s a lot wrong but it’s not being articulated for them so that they can act on it,” Shetterly says about young artists like Samuel Scharf. “Art should do that. It gives you the permission to act. But it’s been removed on purpose because it has an effect on the consciousness of people. It verifies what they sense is wrong, but cannot articulate for themselves.”  In other words we can use music to express the wrongness of our culture with purpose, just as we can use music to express the rightness of love or any other thing.  However, there is a purposeful denial of using art to express often even purposeful individualistic emotion in favor of a focus on aesthetic and the commonly accepted values of musical traditions as they relate to style.

“A person who painted a portrait for a king,” Shetterly says, “was painting what the client wanted to see. A person who’s painting for the rewards of an economic system is painting, similarly, for what the client wants to see.”  The difference between then and now, Shetterly says, is that art today is not about superiority and propaganda, as with royal portraits, but about turning our brains off. It is about silencing pain and suffering, and distracting ourselves with images that bring short-term pleasure, surprise, and satisfaction.  Mainstream culture, Shetterly says, keeps us distracted from the fact that our luxury, for example, comes at the expense of cotton farmers in India, garment makers in Bangladesh and Hispanic tomato pickers in Florida. The goods we buy at retail stores and supermarkets are cheap because the labor used to cultivate those products is underpaid.   “Our culture has been taking a lot of warmth and comfort from the rest of the world in a very exploitative way,” Shetterly says, “so that we can live that way while other people don’t.”

Once again, the art of today pushes us into the world of the surreal asking us not to engage with either each other, face our own selves, or face the deteriorating planet, but to shut ourselves off to the world in order to use the music like we're shooting up dope.  Stick your earbuds in when you're walking in the city to avoid having the homeless ask you for money while you transplant yourself into an individualist pleasure seeking state riding the melodic lines of your favorite artist, while the sounds of poverty and the increasingly disconnected modern age pass you by.  Shut yourself in a room and place much of the value of your identity on your ability to make changes on the tunes everyone must know and play at increasingly faster tempo for hours.  Forget the fact that without drastic action, climate change will make the earth uninhabitable in any comparable way to its present state, and make sure you transcribe and learn yet another "god of music's" first chorus so you can wow future audiences with stylings you stole from them.  Most of all don't focus your music or your life on anything that can't be marketed to others or you risk falling into obscurity.

The article closes with, "Art today is about protecting the consumer. It is no longer propaganda for those in power, as art has been for most of history. It is about reassuring customers that there is nothing wrong, as long as they continue to shop."  As some would say, why worry about the real state of affairs when it comes to art.  Just escape the harsh realities of the world with your art because after all the world will eventually be swallowed up by the sun at some point anyway, and why spend your life not always trying to be happy?  Meanwhile, the same people that espouse this philosophy will continue in a marginally unhappy existence at best, while ignoring the very real steps and actions that humanity could take to erase the causes of much of this suffering.  Indeed, it is akin to drug use as more and more youth and adults alike, buy into musical or artistic escapism in order to dull the realities of a world with suffering.  I'm reminded of the history of work songs that the African American slaves created in order to make bearable the pain of working as a slave in the fields of the American south.  While I do believe that music can and should at times be used in a role of transcending the horrific circumstances of life, the work songs have little in common with modern market driven music that is created not to build a sense of community amongst workers and lend voice to others suffering, but to convince everyone that it's all okay, and if you order another drink the fine establishment we're playing at will be happier.

Also, the fact that the sun will eventually destroy the earth is of little importance or meaning to the fact that the earth is being systematically destroyed by industrial civilization.  If I tied down the person you loved most and began to slowly dismember them toe by toe and finger by finger behind a locked door I suspect you would find an object to break the door down and try to stop me, not concede that they're going to die someday anyway.  We as human beings need to stand for something (as one of my teachers constantly told me), and the other millions of species on earth along with our future generations of humans that depend on clean air, water, and the planet at large, are worth standing up for.

Before anyone gets too angry at me for attacking either their livelihood, or their probably deeply held views about the importance of their own artistic expression and that of others, I'd like to clarify a few things.  First, I don't think it's impossible to receive some sort of exchange for music or art in order for someone who spends much of their time pursuing musical truth to survive in a decent manner.  There are plenty of sphere's of non-market based exchanges that happen constantly within our own society and which dominate other cultures.  This post is specifically about the fact that we as artists are being forced not to be able to seek truth through music and art, but to conform to market principles in order to get a piece of the ever shrinking music markets, especially for performers of live music.

Second, there is no reason why we should have to subject ourselves, and our art, to being forced into these very same market principles.  Although I could write an entirely new entry on this, it is easily imaginable that as a society we could support ourselves with the necessary needs that we have such as food, water, shelter, clothing, and sociable environments needed for proper brain development in a non-violent society with plenty of time left over for pursuing our own artistic truths.  There would even be time for exploring both our individual place in the universe, as well as societies through music and art.  Aboriginal cultures in many climates spend drastically less amounts of time as do modern cultures providing for their basic needs.  It's not impossible for us to adopt a different system.

Third, the thing that is missing from music, despite the constant complaints of those in the music profession about lack of culture and interest in art music, is a sense of community.  We do not socialize our music, we market our music.  Anyone with more than a few musician friends on Facebook understands the gig-spam problem of marketing themselves rather than sharing and socializing themselves and their music with others.  Some people give the gift of music to others and do so out of love for their art.  Their songs are about what life in the real world is like to them, only expecting to hopefully affect others with their music positively, and live off any scraps that get thrown their way.  Even if I would applaud a musician expressing something beyond their individual feeling about the world it is more commendable than those who are motivated in large part by market forces.

Fourth, if you care about music, whether it's jazz or modern art music, it's up to us to change the culture that surrounds it.  I'm reminded of the all too frequent psychosis of the modern parent who seeks to protect and shield their child from anything bad in the world, rather than pursuing the true role of a parent, which is to socialize their child, and turn them into a capable adult.  It's ridiculous because even if one does somehow manage the impossible feat of shielding their child from all that is bad in the world, at some point they're going to grow up and leave your house (although that time seems to be coming later and later in life for the youth of today, especially with males).  Then they're going to have to step into the real world, sooner or later, and deal with all those evils of the world.  If the culture is so bad that we can't entrust our children to it, then perhaps we need to build a culture of resistance towards the destructive dominant culture, and work towards changing our own communities into a place we feel comfortable enough to socialize our children in.

The same could be said of the world of music and art.  We may constantly try to protect our music or art from those that seek to profit off it or change our art away from the truth, but the fact remains that if we intend to survive from it, we need a piece of the pie or at least some scraps.  If the musical world makes playing art music untenable, we should be actively trying to change the musical landscape that surrounds us.  This means that we have to do something about the incredible centralization of capital in the music industry, the centralization of the media that market music in both radio and TV, and that we connect to each other within our community in more meaningful ways than those dictated by market incentives and motives of profit.  The musical dumbing down of the populace has not only affected the musical quality within the general popular culture, but as I've argued it has changed the purposes for playing jazz, and even "folk" music, which are two examples of truly american music.  It's up to us to realize that music is connected to more than just a tradition of the music itself and it's aesthetic ideals, but that it intertwines itself into everything else about our culture from economics, to social issues.  If it's not working, we need to make changes, not just spend our time making the "changes".

Finally, I appreciate, on what I feel is a deep level, the music of jazz and contemporary or modern classical music when it is at it's best and have marveled, at how much of an affect music can have on me personally.  It can force me into both self reflective and culturally reflective states which brings about a change not just psychologically, but a change that manifests in my daily actions.  However, this is a rare occasion and often I hear/d this type of purposeful music at gigs and venues that were ill attended, with little pay offered for the musicians.  The vast amount of vapid jazz and modern music I've taken in over the years since I became somewhat obsessive over music, far outweighs the meaningful music that compels me beyond a sense of momentary titillation.  The culture of narcissism and the extreme fetishization of aesthetics are what I want to see gone, not a tradition or musical art form, and it is these things I'm speaking out against.  I'm reminded of a jam session I played where a saxophonist called a bebop standard at a nearly unplayable tempo for the rhythm section, not in an order to create music of a high magnitude with the other musicians, but to cut the band members and to provide a sense of self worship and reward for the unnamed musician, who was merely flaunting his daily practice routine.  If we're not even interested in making quality music with the people we play with over sounding "good", then we have no right to call ourselves artists let alone perform compellingly for the listeners.  While all the aesthetics of music are important we need to realize they are a means to an end and stand for a deeper purpose behind why we create music, and work to install that ethic in our surrounding culture.

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