I have always thought of myself as an artist. Nothing has given me as much blissful and boundless euphoria as painting for hours on end, ideating in unspoken dialects, and watching my creative impulses realised through spectacles. Art is an abode for me; whenever I find myself fumbling in the dark, I create to balance my inner psychic disorder, to become one. I know you’ve felt the same too – perhaps the memory of the ferocious doodling you’d do when bored springs to mind, or the awe of seeing your symmetry butterfly kindle with life after you’d painted one half and folded the paper. Deep down, we are all artists, whether through our brushes, pens, or performances; we’re all trying to channel, perhaps rediscover, some lost realm of wonder and curiosity within each of us through the simple act of creation. And art is noble because of that–because it is a universally human characteristic. It is as inalienable to the human spirit as religion, morality, or perhaps the afternoon tea may be to you.
Our social fascination with the artist is centred on that universal truth – there is an inherent magnetism between the infinite, human imagination and those who capture it. It’s why I have such a fascination with van Gogh. ‘Starry Night’ is not static, van Gogh’s swirling blues give voice to silent winds, and connote more of a moving ocean than a sky, so the starlight feels like ripples in a pond. Being a major canonical post-impressionist, van Gogh sought not to replicate reality but to create his own version of it, focusing on form, symbolism, and modified, unnatural colours. ‘Starry night’ is the embodiment of that; an artist unchained by traditionalist artist techniques, carving his own path forward, depicting the sky as only he knew it.
That’s what an artist is–a luminary force, a seeker of their own truth. A true piece of art is born through the sincerity and spirituality of the artist–their imagination unbounded by tradition, their space insular, divorced from the confines of the modern world, purely personal in their pursuits. This link between art and spirituality is complex, but perhaps it is simply this: at nearly every point in history, people have looked inwardly to the depths of their souls and found something worth communicating through visual forms and images. Each group has had different manners of spiritual creation–the Shamans, with their seminal cave engravings, used psychedelics to obtain knowledge, and the Romantics were sincere and solitary in pursuit of truth. Each is nonetheless part of a beautiful mythology of human beings with a hunger to communicate deep, inner truths.
Sadly, that great mythology has been eroded away. Modern society, with its economic, and scientific ‘innovations,’ has destroyed and poisoned society’s notion of art, sinking it from its role as a spiritual anchor to a commodity, something to be bought, sold, owned, and not truly experienced. Artists, once concerned with sincere self-expression and discovery, have been forced to prioritise a ‘what is popular?’ and ‘what will sell?’ mindset over their creativity. The erasure of the spiritual dimension in favour of creations that exist for material gain has meant the degradation of art’s noble mission and the gruesome death of the artist. Interrogating the historical roots of that erasure and the consequences of a capitalistic consciousness illuminates how art’s mythology has been morphed and maybe, how we can work to reclaim it.
The past 300 years have seen phenomenal leaps in global social, political, and economic discourse and structures. Financialization and the pursuit of profit have saturated the pores of modern-day life. Anything capable of economic value has been turned into a financial asset: relationships into transactions, creations into commodities, humans into labourers. People have turned a blind eye to the injustices and social ills that plague our world for generations and as such, contemporary art has become a distraction, divorced from its inherent ability to help us realise truth underneath the infinite layers of falsehood. The profit-motivated emphasis on wealth acquisition has debased art from its spiritual roots and shifted it into a commercial vehicle. With it, the artistic potential to realise and understand our world and identities with authenticity and sensitivity has become undermined. And many artists are complicit in the degradation of art, through the pursuit of money and popularity.
When artists create purely to sell or become popular, the result is a death sentence to art as a vehicle of emotional and intellectual value, for both creator and spectator. Rather than a greater, deeper purpose as the impetus for creative genesis, material gain has suffused many artists’ minds and placed them in stranglehold. Though working to support oneself is a noble tradition, artists concerned purely with making money will likely give up their initial dreams of passionate self-discovery and expression and submit their craft to the whims and standards of the system. Few artists can remain authentic before the lucrative schemes and promotions come rolling in. And the capitalist world is compulsive; it hems people into acute financial pressure and forces them to make a living off anything and everything. Artists willingly prostitute their craft on gig economies and online marketplaces, where they’re paid peanuts for the solely money-driven work they’re creating over and over again, with no passion or pursuit of a higher ideal. That’s what the nightmare of materialism does - there's a reason artists, especially music, produce their best pieces when they’re young—they’re hungrier and more passionate, unblemished from the appeal of money.
Many think those artists are ‘sellouts,’ which many are, but in our current economic climate, creating what is popular and sells, and not the personal and human, is a practical solution for those who have little economic leverage. It’s a frightening ultimatum for anyone, really - the only way to eat, to live, to exist, is to commodify and make transact what is sacred to you. And artists sooner or later become productive labourers, whose craft is only as valuable as its popularity and capacity to generate profit. Their art is created to survive, and not to live. Real creativity is leashed, and with it, their personhood and identity dissolves away.
All of this is reflected in contemporary art markets, which disempower and manipulate artists’ work through the overlay of that mightily deceptive word: success. As contemporary artists tread the only path to economic stability, through commodifying their craft, many lose themselves in the pursuit of vanity and money. The way to do that? Enter the art markets - that’s where the ego-lauding, high-profit shows lie, after all. Artists must enter the dealership system to enter the market, where merchants and galleries act as intermediaries for artists in entering the market. Artists must please these dealers for baseline consideration, and herein lies the dilemma. As artists adjust their work to suit a dealer’s interest, they have to shift their unique and diverse talents to a homogenized, repetitive style that the market demands and deems popular. And since the market finished works, the organic and free flow that defines art is disrupted, leaving little room for the exploration of new or novel ideas. The markets are also inordinately influenced by the greed of the ultra-wealthy. It’s much like the property market — where art is just a stock investment, subject to the trading of hedge fund managers, collectors, and bankers. The astronomic and unjustified sums paid for works inevitably distort the perception of what true value a piece holds–a certain banana taped to a wall springs to mind - and people start to conflate artistic power with auction potential. A market-oriented artist is favoured whilst the sincere artist is side-lined and thrown out of a system because the work is not in line with market interest.
A market commodity and the sincere practice of art are two very different things. As artists increasingly are forced to play in the arena of market logic, they become disempowered and suffer in pursuit of success. As money and favour consume their minds, they forget their spiritual and cultural duties. They treat their works as a portfolio of people-pleasing commodities, so slowly but surely open themselves to exploitation and becoming trivialities. It’s that precise plight that has led to the rampant commercialisation of artists from Frida Kahlo to Van Gogh. In the former case, the Mexican painter’s portrait has been reproduced on products from enamel keyrings to sock collections, to the point where her identity, her voice has become attenuated amongst all the mass-produced faff.
The consumerist and capitalist framework is corrosive to artistic identity, and has made us numb to lies, and desensitised to spiritual life. The interesting question is, exactly, how we got to this point, where the artist’s voice became mute as the overlays of money and capitalism came to be— which is no easy task. Maybe its roots lie in the changes ushered in by the scientific and industrial revolution centuries ago, when people were increasingly seen as person-less, units of production. Of course, many would argue that art and money have been entwined for centuries, that art has always been a commodity—but artists were never commodified. Artists and the state were still to some extent unified in aesthetic consideration. Even during early capitalism, artists were valued for the spiritual merit of their work. Yet, that relationship between the artist and the bourgeoisie started to disintegrate during the 19th century as the latter plutocrats and aristocrats weaponised art for the narcissistic promotion of their political images, as opposed to genuine aesthetic consideration. The 19th century, as such, has its fair share of artists fighting for self-determination against the rules of the market and government, like Beethoven and Cézanne. The rise of European imperialism in the 1700s meant that artistic commodities were not valued according to symbolic depth or level of skill, but the fact they were created by artists only accessible to the upper class, meaning art was not available for experience by all social classes. The dealership system and art market is our modern-day version of these historical systems, in which artists are mere instruments to greedy one-percenters whose immense wealth does nothing to provide spiritual or emotional value to the works, only emphasising the narcissistic self-images they preserve like those old French aristocrats. The usual free-market pattern touted capitalists have no real interest in freedom or real innovative ideas, rather, it’s to control the markets, artists, and rack up as much wealth as they can.
Of course, out there are a group of bohemians and rebels, as in every generation, resistant to the vapid commercialisation of art, and the socio-economic forces that have commodified the craft and obliterated creativity. The artist behind the above painting, Wassily Kandinsky, said that true artists “send light into the darkness of men’s hearts,” and maybe that’s it. The remedy to the nightmare of materialism that has long plagued our minds is art - the unencumbered, truest kind. As a species, we like to exert with vociferous force our control over the world—but our mortality, our trials and glories that give our lives worth are enough of a fertile basis from which art can be revitalised and reclaimed.
Many young artists, like myself, can get lost in a world of self-indulgence. We chase followers, likes and engagement numbers, which our media ecosystems reward and promote. But what’s the point in creating if we judge it according to an outward necessity - by a market, a price tag, or whether someone will like it or not? You’ll always end up unsatisfied and feeling inferior when you pursue those metrics - you’ll rob yourself of the kind of free-spirited ecstasy that is the joy of art. We forget that our truest, most creative moments are when we are free from constraints, from pressures, when we simply give ourselves the permission to be creative. The cycle we’re setting up for future generations is brutal — by placing a premium on monetisation and the profitable ‘product’ over the aesthetic and spiritual experience of art, we deny ourselves contentment and happiness. Our current education landscape reflects that backwards philosophy that has undervalued and commercialised art. Our humanities and arts courses lose funding because they’re seen as less profitable industries, so those vital organs of life - art, poetry, literature, and philosophy - are judged not to a spiritual or emotional standard, but a commercial one.
Art’s mission is destroyed once artists uphold and become enslaved by a for-profit economic consciousness and exist solely to satisfy a consumer. Once we commodify our art, art becomes a throwaway item. And so does our personhood - we lose our voice, our creativity, and so we lose what makes us human. We unknowingly kill the inner artist in each of us.
As children, we created out of love. Out of necessity, sometimes. It lifted us up and helped us realise who we were and what we could do. A powerful bliss would engulf us as before us laid an empty sheet of paper and a cup of Berol felt tips. We were creative because we were personal. We were sensitive to our creative possibilities and selfhood. We were artists.
Art is noble. It is a wonderful, pure expression of our inner rhythm and beauty. Rather than create for survival or favour, let’s create with sincerity. Our art and creations should serve as a reminder of that child-like wonder we’re tending to. We can, always, do better. And that starts with our creativity.
Edited and Reviewed by Tanish Bagga.
References/ Further Reading:
Art and the Challenge of Markets Volumes 1 & 2 - Book edited by VICTORIA D. ALEXANDER, SAMULI HÄGG, SIMO HÄYRYNEN, and ERKKI SEVÄNEN
Concerning the Spiritual in Art - Book by Wassily Kandinsky
Art and alienation: a reply to John Molyneux - Issue by Chris Nineham
How Capitalism Invades the Aura of the Arts - Canales, Susana, Long Island University
Damien Hirst and the Commodification of Art - Vas Avramidis