Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Art vs. Commerce

A person buys a ticket to a show.  Well, what is being bought exactly?  What is being sold?  Is the show art?  Can art be sold?  Can even the possibility of art be sold?  Or is a show simply an entertainment commodity no different than any other commodity that  finds itself in the marketplace?  How people answer these questions tends to determine other ramifications of the connection between art and commerce.

In the West, our attitude toward commerce is shaped from youth.  Our belief in the worth of the dollar and an honest day's work for an honest day's wage builds the foundation of our public theology.  In the USA, you can worship at the alter of whichever god you please, but a publicly expressed doubt about the American view of commerce invites derision. At best.  For example, I have not written a single critical remark about this fundamental tenet, but I would be willing to bet that simply articulating this idea has created feelings of 'taboo' in some of the readership - a feeling of getting too close to the ineffable and inexplicable.

In the West, some general attitudes toward art or the arts are shaped by this civic theology about commerce.  Over several years in several locations, this writer has seen publicity campaigns undertaken by arts organizations for financial support. Among the elements of each of those campaigns has been the economic argument that supporting the arts financially is a sound economic decision.  People who attend an arts event also spend money in the surrounding businesses - restaurants, shops, etc.  One 'road house' in the Great Lakes region prominently published the amount of money attracted to the surrounding business district by having the road production of "Phantom of the Opera" in the theatre.  Another producing organization had its workers write an identifying mark on all cash bills that went through the hands of actors, designers, technicians so that the surrounding town could visibly see the economic impact of the theatre.

This attitude toward commerce in this culture may or may not be strongly felt in any given individual, but that doesn't seem to alter its presence in the culture as a whole.  Nor does it make much sense to decry the presence of this tenet in our cultural make-up.  One might as well stand on the delta and prophesy against the Mississippi in flood stage.  It would take a mighty unified effort to stop up the "Father of Waters."  One doesn't see the likelihood of changing something that so often benefits those on its banks.

So far, the reader might be expected to ask, "So what?"  How does this determine the initial questions about art and commerce posed earlier?

Here is a brief summary of a proposed definition of art. Art is the process of perceiving a composition in time, space or a combination of time and space that has: 1) unity, 2) radiance, and 3) provides the observer with a connection with the art work, the artist, and/or other audience members. 

The idea of the unity of a work of art does not seem to be at odds with commerce.  A gem stone has it own unique unity.  A pair of pants has a unity - that is, an observable difference between pants and non-pants.  Likewise, the unity of one hour's work is simply assessed.  The worker labors for an hour.  So, in this way we can say that art is not unlike any other object of commercial consideration.

Likewise, connections between people happen in all facets of life.  Certainly some of these connections are the basis of commercial activity.  So simply the question of one human connecting with another doesn't seem to differentiate art from other objects of commercial consideration.

It is in the second area of the definition of art on which hinges all other questions.  Radiance.  The regard for the work of art as art.   Largely this issue alone determines the ramifications of the combination of art and commerce.

For some observers and practitioners, human regard for art and works of art *should* possess and *does* possess an almost sacred place of existence.  There are some folks who look to art as a kind of sacred thing.  How many folks want to believe in a fundamental connection between actor and shaman?

 As such, art becomes qualitatively separated from other human endeavors and artifacts. For others, art may be a specially particularized artifact -- physically or in time -- but still within the boundaries of how one deals with artifacts in a commercial culture – simply a thing to which a price may be affixed.

In Christianity there are those who hold that the communion bread literally transubstantiates to the host of the Messiah.  Others hold that the bread serves as a remembrance only. Outside the faith, it is simply bread and nothing more.  Each side probably feels valid arguments based on history and/or revelation are theirs to command.  And each may be honest in their defense of their beliefs.  Such an argument can not be settled through the contemporary supposed final arbiter of all arguments - science.  Ultimately, given the fundamental positions of sides, the question is not one of the intellectual reconciliation of two irreconcilable ideas. For some, despite effort toward emotional reconciliation between the sides, the problems of the lack of intellectual reconciliation will rankle some people.

So it is with the idea of art.  Is art something "Other?"  Is art completely different than any other artifact or commodity construed by humans?  If so, then it shouldn't be treated commercially as every other product.  If not, despite its special qualities, art can easily be treated commercially as any other commercial artifact.  The difference between these sides can not be reconciled intellectually. 

So, when people look to the commercial argument about the arts, they'll be bound to trouble.  The beauty of that which reminds us of our common humanity and raises above our individual meanness is worth more than money could ever buy.  I just need to briefly remind folks of that. After all, time is money.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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October 2010

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

October 2010

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