Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Whenever I talk about the revolutionary potential of art as a mode of production, I start by talking about live performance. I talk about how music and theatre have transformative potential. How these artists can come to dominate the growing arts and entertainment sector of the economy, and then transfer the efficiencies and different value systems to the material rather than experiential economies, in the same fashion that capitalism started in the material goods and eventually transferred to the agricultural economy.

People doubt the possibility of such a transfer. They say, okay, if musicians and theatre artists take over those industries (and very few will grant me that much) then who is gonna make my clothes and my food? Well, food is a whole nother thing. I can talk your ear off about co-ops, urban farming, buying local and organic trends, etc etc etc. Clothes? That’s when I bring up Faythe Levine.

Faythe has observed and is documenting the growing craft movement in America. Her book and forthcoming movie, Handmade Nation explore this subject and many artists and crafters participating in this movement, often with overt political intentions. I have yet to read the book, but I’ve gone to her exhibits, pecha-kucha presentation, preview screenings and last night a lecture on the subject. It’s really exciting stuff, and one of the increasingly rare things that makes me happy to be living in milwaukee.

Faythe’s lecture and slideshow presented much of the same material I’ve already seen, but to an older and more mainstream (by the looks of em) audience. The bitter curmudgeon in me initially observed the fact that Faythe’s gallery openings are often crowded with pabst drinking hipsters, but when she’s actually giving a lecture about her art and the community, without beer, it’s sparsely attended. But, then, most people who attend her gallery openings assumably already know everything she talked about at the lecture and had no reason to attend. All is not lost. I'd really like to see the DIY arts and crafts community get together for a serious group discussion at some point. Maybe that's just cuz i despise mingling.

Anyway, afterwards, Peter asked Faythe if she thinks the craft movement can challenge, compete with or replace the mass production status quo. She said no, it’d be great if it did, but that’s not realistic. Peter himself is also skeptical, as is anyone I talk to regardless of where they’re coming from. I see it as my job to figger out how this unrealistic thing might happen, and then encourage people like Faythe to be more optimistic. Toward that end I need to outline a simple argument for the process by which this revolution may occur. I have rough drafts in my head, and the conversation after Faythe’s lecture exposed a seeming contradiction.

Here’s a very simple outline of the general argument:

Capitalists make commodities better than artists do.
Artists make art better than capitalists do.
Art is becoming more valuable than commodities.

Artists can beat capitalists in open competition.

That gets us half-way to revolution. All we’d need is open competition. Which is a political cause, that artists will have to tackle once they become more numerous, more unified and more class-conscious (as in conscious of ‘artist’ as a class).

But first, the problems with those initial premises, cuz if they don’t hold true, then my argument is shit:

First, Peter has a problem with collectibles. In the noise scene there are some artists who create limited numbered runs of tapes and sell them on ebay, they end up going for $50 or $100. Peter doesn’t like this because the people buying these tapes don’t value them as music, but as extremely limited-edition music. What they’re purchasing is artificial scarcity and the social status that goes with that. They might as well be purchasing diamonds, or Picasso paintings at an auction. Peter avoids this problem by using recorded music as 1. promotion and 2. cheap souvenirs. So he’s putting the music he records on the internet for free, and selling it at shows for cheap. It’s supplementary to the live performances.

He asked Faythe and Cortney Hiemerel (co-author of Handmade Nation) about this, because the craft movement seems even more vulnerable to this collector problem than the music scene. Every hand-made thing is a limited edition, often a one-of-a-kind. Cortney’s response was that she didn’t think craft was more vulnerable to the problem, because craft itself is more accessible than music. Anyone can learn to crochet in an afternoon, music involves talent and nuanced training. She brought up examples of crafters exchanging patterns, kits, and other information, either for free online, or for sale at low profit margins.

This is excellent. The exchange of information and viral spreading of not commodities, but the knowledge necessary to create things yourself has revolutionary potential. But, it creates a problem with my argument above, which isn’t Cortney, Faythe’s or Peter’s problem, because they don’t subscribe to the possibility of this revolution anyway. But, here, specifically is the problem...

First, if I phrase Peter’s problem with collectability in economic terms, and abstract it to the system wide level I get something like the following. If art escapes commodification by virtue of scarcity and collectability, then it falls into the trap of patronage, a mode of production that pre-dated and was replaced by capitalism. Premise 3 (art is becoming more valuable than commodity) is jeopardized because art is becoming something less valuable than commodity (once you get to the aggregate).

But, art can escape collectability AND commodification if there’s a large enough number of people and each of them produces by hand, a small number of things. This situation can be brought about by Cortney’s solution: creating greater access through information sharing. This solution is based on the idea of crafting being simple and easy to learn. The problem now is, and this might be a wrong assumption, but, if a crafter learns how to make a scarf in an afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that scarf being higher quality (in terms of durability, sophistication of design, or lack of flaws) than a scarf mass produced by a corporation. Premise 2 (artists make art best) is jeopardized.

But, on further discussion, back home, Peter, Kate and I concluded that this could be a transitional period. That following Cortney’s examples to the end result, in the aggregate, you’ll find more and more people making scarves. The more people we have trying to make scarves, the more likely we’ll find a few that are really good at it, the more likely they’ll find valuable innovations, and even if most crafter-made scarves are shoddy, or plain, the few made by the most talented, will be better than any factory-made scarf. These scarves will then likely be valued as collectables. Collectibility is inescapable.

But that’s only for right now. In the future, as more and more of the things we own are handmade and therefore can qualify as “collectables” scarcity itself will no longer have importance. If everyone I know has one-of-a-kind potholders, then my one-of-a-kind potholders are valuable as potholders, not as one-of-a-kind potholders.

Another way to look at it is to admit that all values are socially ascribed values. That even corporate potholders aren’t really valued as potholders (cuz if they were everyone would just use thick plain heat resistant rags) they are valued as an attractive decorative thing in your kitchen that also helps get hot shit out of the oven. And so, when we talk about the value of art over the value of commodities, it’s a matter of this sort of social or highly subjective value, not practical use-value. Under this framework a distinction should be made here, between collector value and ethical value. For collectors, my hand-made potholder is more valuable than a store bought commodity potholder because it’s rare. This sort of value system tends toward patronage as an economic system, ie: feudalism. For ethical consumers, my hand-made potholder is more valuable than a store bought commodity potholder because, in buying it, I supported someone doing something they love, rather than someone reaping a profit on the sweat of exploited laborers. This sort of value system is what has revolutionary potential.

Art being valued based on love for the artists, is different than art being valued based on its scarcity, AND a different thing than commodities being valued based on identicalness, sexiness, and commodity fetishism. So, under this framework, what I am proposing - to reference Che’s famous quote – is an economy based on love.

How wonderful. Now that both my inner curmudgeon and my inner hippie have come out, let’s get to reality. This is scary stuff, because to some degree the viability of the revolutionary economic system depends upon rightly understanding and promoting the correct consumer intention, as well as the correct producer intention. When looking at consumer intentions, there’s a lot of overlap and ambiguity. So artists, even overtly political DIY artists are currently walking a very fine line between collectorism and commodification, sometimes dipping into and profiting from one or the other. If we can keep on the right general path, and promote consumption based on supporting artists (or farmers, or whatever producer) rather than fetishizing scarcity, we may be able to swamp the later with so many different one-of-a-kind potholders that no rare potholder will have significance as a collectable. Patronage will have been dodged and capitalism overcome.


peter j woods said...

A few things:

1. I have decided I dont like the term "Souvenirs." It bugs me. It is its own work, one with intrinsic value due to the music on it. A souvenir is just a plastic reminder that you went somewhere. Now CHEAP mind you, that is something I will stand behind. My cd's almost always cost less than a dollar to make outside of my labor.

2. I still need to be convinced that art is becoming more valuable than commodities.

3. Art is dead, so talking about it is silly. I suggest the following replacement: (1) Build a bridge big enough to have everyone in the world sit under it, (2) have everyone sit under it, (3) dont let anyone sit under it.

Rex Winsome said...

I use the word "art" to describe a process, or objects created by that process.

The process is one defined by contrasting it with the capitalist mode of production. On the production side, it's the opposite of exploitation or appropriation of surplus value (the worker receives the full product of their labor). On the consumption side it's the opposite of commodity fetishism, value based on direct connection with the producer and the production process.

If you want to suggest a term that fits that definition without the baggage the term "art" has, i'll gladly use it.

I understand your aversion to "souvenirs" i guess "merch" is a decent emerging replacement term, but then "merch" needs a definition seperate from "merchandise".