The Dow of Art: Why Art Still Matters in Our Market-Driven Society

currency collage, money, boat

"Rub a Dub" by Mark Wagner (Photo courtesy smokeinmydreams.com)

Writer Nova Ren Suma has just published a new essay of mine over at “Distraction No. 99.”

Although the assigned topic was “inspiration,” my piece covers a range of subjects, from library book censorship to the financial stresses of being an artist. But the central theme concerns the value of imagination and creative exchange, and how these values are often in conflict with the marketplace.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:

“For many artists, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be smart about the business-side of art making, only that money isn’t our primary motivator.

The concept of creating for its own sake remains a radical concept in our culture. This is one of the central rifts we see playing out now between Wall Street bankers and supporters of the Occupy movement. One camp places a higher value on profits, while the other a higher value on more elusive qualities like imagination, empathy, and justice.

Of course, if you have your money invested in the stock market, then you want your broker to be greedy with your money—you want to earn 6%, not 4% like everyone else. But when it comes to art, greed turns the best ideas sour. It isn’t hard to sniff out the difference between work that was created from a free, deep place, and a blatant commercial commodity.

You may be able sell the end product of art—the concert ticket, the photograph, the book—but the idea itself is free. Art is a gift. It is an elusive mystery that thrives only when it’s shared.

Being an artist is hard because we’re operating in a parallel universeone that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange—one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection…

‘The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,’

[Lewis] Hyde explains. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.'”

You can read the entire article on Nova’s site, Distraction No. 99. There are also a number of guest posts from talented writers like Alexander Chee, Anna Evans, and Laurel Snyder.

Nova Ren Suma is the author of "Imaginary Girls" and "Dani Noir." She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. She grew up in small towns across the Hudson Valley and now lives in New York City.

Nova’s own contribution to the series is also a stand-out. She discusses rejection, the burning need to find her voice, and the long, difficult path to becoming a published writer:

“So how do you rise out of debilitating shyness to show that you are a person worthy of opinions, a person with a voice who has things to say? To show you are worth something. You are someone. How? In my case, you write.”

I particularly love Nova’s description of juggling writing with various day jobs:

“I think of what got me up at five o’clock in the morning so I could take the subway to my writing space before my full-time day job, even if I only had an hour or two before I had to get back on the subway and go to work. I remember those half-asleep mornings, the sky dark as I made my way to the train, only the people begging for change and the people waiting for the nearby methadone clinic to open were awake with me at that hour. I remember falling asleep on the train and then jolting awake when my stop came. I remember sitting at that writing desk with the morning hours ahead of me and feeling so perfectly, wonderfully alive, the inspiration to write worth everything.

It’s important that I remember this.

To remember being at work. At the artist’s studio. At the educational publisher. At the comic-book company. At the children’s publisher, the first one and then the second one. At all of these places over the years, being in the midst of doing my job—checking the mailroom, marking up the proofs, lugging the heavy piles of pages up the stairways—and having to stop in the hallways, in dark stairwells, in corners, or hide myself in bathroom stalls, in elevators, scribbling a few fevered words down. The inspiration to write followed me everywhere.

I think of what kept me at the writing when I had a box of rejections, stuffed full. When staring at a five a.m. dark city morning when all you hear is No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No still seems worth it somehow. Still seems necessary.

I think of what keeps me writing now. Now, when I’m trying to make writing a career. With deadlines. And reviews. And paychecks depending on what I can produce. With all the doubt that threatens to ruin me…

What originally inspired me to write was the simple fact that writing was a way for me to speak when I didn’t know how.

Writing gave me the voice I couldn’t find any other way—and this is where I find my inspiration.”

You can read Nova’s entire piece here and check out her most recent novel, Imaginary Girls below:

 

 

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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

3 Comments

  1. Meghan Sayres December 1, 2011 at 12:58 am

    Thanks for this post, Michelle. I especially liked Lewis Hyde’s quote, it has a centering quality about it.

    • Michelle Aldredge December 1, 2011 at 8:02 am

      Thanks for the positive feedback on the essay and for your comments. I also love Lewis’ thoughts on the commodification of art. Money is an ongoing concern for so many artists, and there is so much to say on the subject. Lewis spends 300+ pages exploring the subject in his book The Gift. Look for more posts on the topic in the future.

  2. Sigrun December 1, 2011 at 2:53 am

    A great essay! Its complicated matter this – art and money … we all have to make a living, yet art is, as you say, about something else than money, its in another sphere, yet art is also, as I see it, what makes life worth living.

    ps: love your Schuleit interview, as you can see I’ve put a link to it in this post:
    http://omstreifer.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/do-you-know/

Comments are closed.