Money Talking Art

Does cash corrupt or communicate?


Perhaps the most interesting part of the Derriere Guard Festival was the symposium dedicated to "Selling Out: Art, Audiences, and Money in America." It was here, where panelists grappled publicly with the sort of uncomfortable art-meets-money questions that aesthetes usually try to avoid, that the event most made noises like a revolutionary art uprising. Participants challenged the status quo–that filthy lucre automatically corrupts art–and suggested that, as systems of mutual exchange, markets and art have much in common.

The panel kicked off with a poem set to music, words by Dana Gioia, music by Paul Salerni. "Money," sang soprano Debra Field, "the long green,/cash, stash, rhino, jack,/or just plain dough." The same language turns up in Gioia's provocative essay, "Business and Poetry," which explores the work of poets who were also businessmen, such as T.S. Eliot, James Dickey, and especially Wallace Stevens. (It was Stevens who once said–without elaboration–that "Money is a kind of poetry.") "Money. You don't know where it's been,/but you put it where your mouth is./And it talks," finished Field.

Then the panel began "Selling Out" by exploring the multiple meanings of the phrase. There's selling out, said moderator Daniel L. Selden, which means "selling yourself to some program," or "capitulating" intellectually or artistically; and then there's selling out, which has "the theatrical sense of selling the house out" to ticket buyers. What, Selden wanted to know from his panel, was the relationship between these meanings? Must you be guilty of the first to achieve the second?

Selden's day job is as a classics professor, so thinking rhetorically is a professional reflex. But it was a good transition from the poem. Both poetry and rhetoric, as Selden might have noted, once shared the same status. They both used to be "arts." Of course, rhetoric has long ceased to be one, or even to have its former meaning of "effective persuasion"–it is now understood to be merely manipulative lies. In fact, the content of the "arts" has been plundered of so many once-understood attributes that no one is quite sure of its content anymore. A hierarchy of credentialed art professionals makes its seasonal decisions, and the rest of us remove our hats.

Restoring meaning to the mutilated term art is ultimately what the Derriere Guard Festival was about. Precisely what meanings must be restored wasn't wholly resolved during its four days in Chelsea, but there's a good reason for that. The Derriere Guard's umbrella has been opened over a very disparate gathering of artists. As a group, they currently define themselves primarily in terms of their cultural enemies: Those critics, curators, museum administrators, and others who deny that their embrace of technique has any legitimacy. Definition-by-enemy is an inherently unstable position on the artists' part. You can make only martyrdom out of being denied, not meaning.

But as Selling Out participants discussed the interrelated roles of artist, patron, and audience, the Derriere Guard took on a more distinct aesthetic viewpoint. "What does it mean," asked Selden, moderator and rhetor, "when art becomes, as it has in the last several centuries, a commodity that has to be sold on the market?"

The common answer to this formulation is that when art is a commodity, the artist is a whore; that nothing can be both art and commodity because, as commodity, art is leeched of its transcendent qualities.

But several of the Guardists on the panel replied in quite a different voice. When art is part of a market process, they said, it means that someone wants it. Stefania de Kenessey, composer, defender of melodic value, and founder of the Derriere Guard, put it this way: "These ideological discussions about the marketplace make it seem something other than what it is…which is simply a constant process of communication, give and take, with one's potential audience."

Dana Gioia, the poet of "Money," was also on this panel, and went further, arguing that the market process could, despite itself, yield material that was realized after the fact to be art. Go anywhere, he said–Finland, Korea, Kenya, Armenia–and ask, What are the major cultural contributions America has made? "They would give you a list," Gioia said, and no matter what else was on it, "the top two would be movies and jazz. Jazz, which really began in dance clubs and bordellos, brokered by the most dishonest recording agents possible, sold by companies for the lowest of motives, exploited by the managers, leaders exploiting their own sidemen. Somehow, out of this chaos of the marketplace grew something." Nor, added Gioia, is anyone under the illusion that Hollywood has ever been interested in much beyond money. "Somehow that market–and the kind of dynamic relationship it created with a real audience–created art."

Frederick Turner, scholar, poet, critic, has made a career of restoring meaning. He too was on this panel, and his perspective on the marketplace was unambiguously celebratory. There is no natural tension between art and the market, he argued, because if the former is spiritual, the latter is moral. "The deep vocabulary of the market," he offered, "is the vocabulary of the morality of human interaction." He had an array of examples. "The words of the market are: trust, grace, redemption, good, bond, interest, honor, obligation; all of those words refer to some of our basic moral activities as social beings." The restoration of art's social role, he suggested, would hinge on the understanding of the meaning of exchange itself, no matter the market. "Are there ways of reshaping, reconceiving the market in such a way that the hidden metaphorical meaning could come out again?" he asked.

Readers may recognize some of Turner's argument; he offered a version of it in REASON in "The Merchant of Avon" (March), in which he viewed the market through Shakespeare's works. Nor was Turner the only panel member with a libertarian cultural perspective. Dana Gioia, for example, did time as literary editor of Inquiry, the Cato Institute's magazine of the '70s and early '80s. There were times, in other words, when the Derriere Guard sounded rather like the voice of classical liberalism mounting a challenge to the modernist aesthetic establishment.

Only one anti-market seat was filled. Donald Kuspit, a professor of art history and philosophy, was present to sing the familiar song of money as the corruptor. Kuspit is to be complimented for taking the part when he was so outnumbered, because in the end his role was less to attempt to overwhelm his antagonists–this was after all their show–than it was to force them to sharpen their own presentations.

This he did by arguing that "buying art is a form of laundering money" and "a way of cleaning up filthy lucre." Kuspit offered a theory of "the ecstatically consumed art object of capitalist desire," which addressed the apparent paradox of high art's spirituality as opposed to its staggering potential market value. Kuspit illustrated the theory with the case of the Japanese insurance man who paid $58 million for a Van Gogh, and who was "so enamored of it that he wanted it burned when he died, and the ashes mixed with his ashes." This sort of thing was not so much a problem of anybody selling out, he suggested, as of those who want to buy in.

Kuspit became excited only over cultural subsidies, which he approved of when they derived from taxes (the art they generate is a welcome alternative to that distributed through the for-profit media, he said), but of which he was suspicious when they came from corporate profits. The line of thought was useful, however, because it led the Guardists on the panel to explore what art becomes in the absence of exchange: a "phantom" culture lacking an interested audience.

Gioia has addressed this, in terms of subsidized poetry, in a much-debated 1992 article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Can Poetry Matter?" Moderator Selden quoted from it: "Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed." Asked to expand, Gioia said, "You see people publishing magazines that no one reads. Books that no one reads. People get a copy of a magazine in which they published a poem, they read their own poem, but no one else's." Gioia dubbed this phenomenon "a phantom literature," and added that "you could read any of the modern high arts into the template I set for poetry."

Kuspit, for his part, wondered "if poetry simply hasn't become another specialized activity, like all other activities in our society?" adding that "maybe only specialists understand specialists in some sense." Gioia's deadpan response was that that had been his point. Subsidized culture, freed of audience interaction, becomes insular.

Anyway, composer de Kenessey argued, the growth of cultural subsidies did not reflect social complexity or specialization; it was, rather, medieval in its exercise of the power of taste. "In the Middle Ages," she said, "the composer had only to please the bishop who was commissioning the work…and the situation, ironically, is quite medieval at the end of the 20th century, precisely because classical music operates much in the same realm. In fact, the decision over whether to recommission a composer will not be dependent on audience response, because [the music] is unlikely to make it into the marketplace….The so-called high arts are very much tailored to, and governed by, the small professional elite."

None of the Guardists was suggesting that subsidized work was necessarily bad, or even that subsidies are inherently wrong. Nor were they saying that whatever a mass audience approves is good. They argued only that those cultures that become dependent on elite aesthetic judgment lose a vital relationship with their audience, and threaten to become moribund. This would seem to be a controversial view only within the cultural establishment itself, which regards it as bizarre. But then that establishment doesn't know where its money has been, and doesn't want to put it where its mouth is. Because it talks.

Charles Paul Freund (cpf@his.com) is a REASON senior editor.