The Notion of Art as a Commodity
During my early years of high school—around the time that I started annotating Lolita, and watched American Beauty for the first time—I decided that I was an intellectual. This, of course, was a massive realization for me, and I needed to convey to everyone that I had decided to become an artist. That’s when the notion of aesthetics entered into my life. The idea that one has to look like an artist before one can be an artist is best described by David Lynch, discussing his early development into painting in the documentary The Art Life. He describes this phenomenon as the idea that to become an artist, “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint, and that’s it.” This kind of juvenile idea of having to conform to a specific lifestyle in order to thrive in an arts community is what makes so much of the arts community so vapid and leads to the commodification of art.
It seems like art today is valued for its beauty and ability to sell rather than for drawing attention to the political or social motivations behind it. The mass media has held a hand in appropriating artists, primarily turning artists like Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Keith Haring, and Frida Kahlo into pop stars or posthumous celebrities. It would be unusual for me to walk through a college campus sporting a Kahlo tote bag without anyone recognizing her purposefully grown out unibrow, even though it’s considered to be ugly by European beauty standards. Never mind Kahlo’s anti-capitalist views and the fact that she would would roll over in her grave if she knew CVS had branded her to a lipstick. Although some of this commodification has helped a new generation become aware of the legacy of these artists, a lot of the messages, platforms, and authority that these artists stood up for has been diluted by consumerism. We no longer hold these people as icons because of their innovation in the arts, but we celebrate them because of their ability to sell products and be recognized by the masses. These artists have had their work diminished into mediated images for the purpose of producing and selling products such as pens, wallets, t-shirts, shoes, backpacks, hats, umbrellas, lipsticks, coats, notebooks, phone cases, socks, you name it. The act of turning art into capital has made these artists incredibly commemorated figures (even though this always happens after death) and has gained them hundreds of thousands of fans, many of which who wouldn’t have had quite the introduction to art without it, but have we commoditized their art to the point that it takes away from their life’s work or waters down the message that they conveyed in the first place?
Since the origins of the AIDS epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV. Keith Haring was one of them. His legacy of fighting against the AIDS crisis and the United States government’s delayed and lackluster investigation into the fatal outbreak has been widely washed out in remembrance of him. The t-shirts at Urban Outfitters meant to commemorate his life as an artist leave out the important details of his career, including his street work for the message “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” and the countless images he made for safe sex advocacy, information on the AIDS crisis, and his last work called Unfinished Painting, a purposefully unfinished self portrait meant to comment on how the lack of government help during the crisis prematurely ended his life and career.
We all fall victim to this vapid capitalism without realizing it. We commodify art because we think we are paying homage to it, when in reality we are celebrating the business that reproduced the image rather than the actual artists, their legacies, and the messages that they stood for. We have to be smart consumers; we have to understand where our money is going before we spend it. This can be applied to all aspects of our lives, not just when we are consuming art. Making and spending money is a violent act, and we have the ability within that act to make sure that people are being properly paid and remembered for their work. Telling the truth in art is brave, and people like Keith Haring deserve to be remembered for their activism, rather than purely for the aesthetic value of their work.
Art by: Alyssa Geissler