Have you ever wondered if art is a commodity like oil and gas or pork bellies?
Seriously. Think about the last piece of art you bought. Most people buy art because it appeals to them, not because of monetary value. Considering that most of us buy art online or from a box store is essential when contemplating this question.
Unless you buy directly from the artist, are you playing into the commercialization of art? Pour yourself some strong black coffee and adjust your beret as we dive into this question.
What Is a Commodity?
Before we get too far into this discussion, it may be helpful to define commodity. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are several definitions of the word. The first is “an economic good such as agriculture or mass-produced, unspecialized product.” Not a good description of art, right? Let’s move on.
The second definition gets a little closer. “Something useful or valued.” Suitable for folk art when the art object has to function in some way. Value, of course, is subjective. Whoever sells the art assigns a price. If the market will bear it, that price becomes the value of the art. Moving down the list, definition number four is right on the nose.
“An economic good that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market.” Those two words, exchange and exploit, say a lot about the discussion around whether art is a commodity or not. For many artists, their work is an external expression of an internal idea. If that idea becomes a commodity, does the artist simply become another producer?
How Does Something Become a Commodity?
For something like art to become a commodity, there must be a system of exchange. You could look as far back as barter-based societies for this concept. In a modern capitalist culture, things like water, animals, education, information, and human life have value. When building a society, the decision to assign value to something means that, in essence, the thing is its value.
And this is simple if you have use for an object. Need bread? Go to the store and buy a loaf for $4. If you want a special kind of bread, you have to be willing to pay more. With all its seeds and grains, Dave’s Killer Bread will set you back $6 or $7, depending on the market. Artisan bread made by a boutique bakery might go as high as $12 for a single loaf.
In our bread example, each loaf performs the same function. They have different qualities and nutrition, but they all feed you. But you have assigned a value to it, the store has too, and it’s now a commodity. That artisan baker may spend 36 hours on their process and even name their sourdough starter, but in the end, it’s bread.
Let’s say you need art for your home. You aren’t a monk after all. If you want to go to a box store and buy a piece of art for your walls, you can do that. Someone else might have the same print on their wall, but you’ve decided that’s not important to you.
That art, created by someone, has lost its connection to the artist. We assume the artist got paid for selling their art to the box store for reproduction. In that way, the artist chooses to commodify their work so they can afford that fancy artisan loaf.
The Case for Art Being a Commodity
There are many examples in modern society of non-functional objects as commodities. Sports, for instance, grew out of the human need to compete and be entertained. Until recently, professional athletes usually had other jobs, were expected to serve in the military, and participate in social obligations.
Now, professional athletes are demi-gods. But let’s focus on art, our subject, and see what we can say about that.
Before the Renaissance, art served a simple function. The rich paid artists to create work that made their homes, or castles, more livable. Paint a portrait, carve a statue, but I’m the one who paid you to make it, so it belongs to me.
Art, for art’s sake, didn’t really play into things. Art we appreciate as simply beautiful today served a social function at the time. It made Catholicism attractive. It was a commercial.
Contemporary artists face similar challenges. How are they to live in a capitalist society and spend the necessary time creating art? The simple answer is to sell their art. Their labor is their value.
Folk and Outsider artists create work for the pleasure of it. They don’t expect to make a living. Professional artists, those making a living at their art, must be paid for their work, or they’ll cease to create it.
For a professional artist, accepting the reality that their work is a product is the first step to success. Once that realization happens, it’s much easier to put art into the marketplace.
A select group of wealthy individuals then decide what’s worth spending money on and what’s not. Art then becomes a commodity. Whatever the work sold at is the value. Like anything else used to store assets, art has longevity.
Unless you’re talking about NFTs, the object itself is the commodity. And, except for artists aspiring to some pure ideal of self-expression, that’s a good thing. Creators should get paid for their work, and commodification ensures that happens.
The Case Against Art Being a Commodity
Ok. But let’s say you’re an artist. You create work for yourself and sell it at local art markets and craft shows. Maybe you even went to art school and hold an advanced degree in art. You aren’t manufacturing at scale, but you’re making enough money to get by. Local gallery owners start picking up your work. Are you creating art or manufacturing a commodity?
To us, this seems to fall into the category of art. Let’s go back to definitions. “The expression of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form, appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
If you’re doing work your audience finds pleasing, for whatever reason, then you’re creating art. If you make work on a massive scale for a broad audience, that’s still art. If I buy your piece at a box store because I like it, I decide it’s art.
Creativity is necessary for art to exist. All artists aspire to express themselves through creativity. And if the artist knows that their work might be purchased and loved by one person for their lifetime, that’s fantastic. That’s art.
But if an art agent approaches that same artist and buys the work for licensing purposes, what happens? Now thousands of people will enjoy the art, and, hopefully, the artist makes more on the licensing deal than just one sale. They now can create more art than they would have been able to otherwise. The impulse itself doesn’t change, simply the means of production.
Is Art a Commodity?
Contradictions abound! Is it art, or is it a commodity?
The old trope, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” stands true. What classifies as art falls to the viewer. How that work is bought and sold doesn’t affect the creative impulse that brought it to life. Even if the artist uses their creativity for gaming the system and producing work on a massive scale, it’s still art.
So keep that Warhol print on your wall and the Haring mug in your cabinet. Art is for us to enjoy, regardless of the definition.
What do you think about art being a commodity? Let us know in the comments!