After five years of working alongside, being associated with and thankfully developing friendships with visual artists, and since I avoided art school where perhaps a lot of this comes from, I find myself a bit vexed by a certain impulse I’ve noticed in them from time to time: Many deeply want to commodify their work, desperately want to commodify their imagery. And I don’t mean make a lot of money creating work after work of art and developing a great body of work in collections everywhere. I mean the opposite. I mean transforming their imagery into aprons, coffee cups, calendars, greeting cards, puzzles…schlock basically.
This isn’t the growing development of an artist through years and years. It’s getting good enough to create a singular image that everyone wants and then just creating that image over and over again for as much money as possible.
I can certainly see why. It’s more money for less work, an enterprise I have jokingly said I have desired for many years. You create one image that gives people their emotional need (“This New Orleans scene makes me soooo happy! It reminds me of when I was there!”) with their practical need (“How am I going to keep this food from getting all over my clothes? I know! An apron!”) and that is where art gets very lucrative. But it certainly isn’t the only way to do so. Look at Rodrigue, who has done well for himself while doing his best to control his imagery and, time-after-time, rejecting the commodification of his Blue Dog image. But then, the richest painter of all time did indeed do this and made a ton of money in the process. Though, he wasn’t spiritually rich.
I always wondered why Rodrigue never made a Blue Dog plush. Now I know. He “kept it real.”
What has happened time after time though, in conversation after conversation with artists, has been this alpha priority, over being compelled by the Muse, to commodify the art from the get-go. There is no bliss following. I have even spoken with a fellow salvaged-wood artist who was looking into making resin renderings of his wooden wall hanging sculptures. That’s fake, plastic salvaged wood made in China. Some artists want to find that image that sells and mass produce it either by making those awful “series” of prints or by putting it on as many Chinese-produced products as possible. Ties, mousepads, iPhone covers, if you can put R2-D2 on it, they would put their art on it. At that point, is it really art anymore? Or is it a product? And is the artist a producer?
For something to be mass-produced and to be successful, it needs to be a pretty tame image. It can’t really challenge you in any way. And it must be consistently appealing. So no one is really evoked. The person buying it is safe. The artist / producer is safe. Whoever the third party is, is safe.
And let’s not forget this third party. Or the fourth party. Or however many parties there are going to be between the artist and the buyer. By the time the art lands in the buyer’s hands there will be such a separation between the artist and buyer they will relate to each other about as much as they relate to the Chinese factory worker making the shit.
And I suppose that is ultimately what is bothersome to me about mass produced art and it’s commodification. It’s also why Jackson Square or any outdoor market is such a great place to buy and sell art. There is a direct connection between the artist and the Universe he or she is tasked with capturing . You meet the people and if you did your job right, you exchange an idea or two with them. It’s suspicious to me why this richness would want to be exchanged for some other kind.