Consumption in the Shadow of Art

After devouring gnocchi in buttery balsamic reduction, I walked around the Metropolitan Museum looking at people’s faces as they looked at the art. I thought of Plato’s forms, the idea that most people’s reality is merely shadow play, a projection of a reality out there that we can’t directly sense, but playing on the most intricately muscled surface of the human form, a surface which could at times be as inscrutable as a cave wall.

I was less interested in the expressions themselves than I was the intense, silent communication, the shadowy chasm in between.

Later, in a place far from New York, after a plate of pulled pork smothered in corn-syrupy sauce and washed down with several Pabsts, I watched the patrons at a Wal-Mart as they browsed mass-market paperbacks. Compared to the faces at the museum, the shadow-play was dispassionate to say the least. This was a literal judging-of-the-book. In that cool warehouse dressed up like a friendly market, I saw a value judgment happening, but not one based on an attempt to understand.

Then I was on a redeye flight from Amsterdam to New York, awake after the manicotti, getting tired of the in-flight entertainment, too uncomfortable to sleep. Most passengers were down, but I was up. And so was a woman across the aisle, her overhead light illuminating the pages of some book in her lap. She was holding one hand over her heart as she read. Her face was comparable to the faces I saw at the museum. Her mouth slightly ajar. Her bottom lip trembling as she mouthed the words she was reading. Her eyes were red, her brow creased. I didn’t know what book it was, and never would. Was it a potboiler? A Jackie Collins novel? The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold? Madame Bovary? Did it matter? I would also never know what was resonating in her mind. Nevertheless, the effect of the transmission was obvious.

In rural cultures in the US, there is an abundance of a certain kind of extreme pragmatism, where the intrinsic value of things is based on consumption, not production. It’s at the heart of a lot of political ideologies, and so it has a real effect on us as citizens, especially in the long run. And its essential foolishness as doctrine can easily be seen when it’s extrapolated ad absurdum: the value of personal labor drops along with the cost of materials. Diamonds and gold determine the value of jewelry more than personal attention to detail or unique vision. A mass-market gold wedding band is perceived as more “worth the money” to a small-town mindset than a unique ring designed by a local artisan who uses only materials she can afford. This particular kind of “low-price lockdown” is why box stores can and do thrive in such areas: it’s the ability to consume at the lowest possible overall cost as well as the lowest possible opportunity cost. The idea of “value” becomes almost entirely extrinsic: i/e, the main question becomes what do I need this for now?, rather than what’s the lasting value of this?.

Likewise, questions about lasting impact are almost never considered when making purchase decisions. What’s the impact of consuming only foreign-made goods on our economy and our overall global market power? What’s the impact of producing and distributing these goods at the lowest possible cost, on a global scale? What’s the impact of this on the small business operations of my neighbors? Those things don’t factor into any question about a thing’s inherent “value.” It’s a bottom-line mentality, and it’s applied all-too-readily to art as well.

There are always exceptions, as long as there are exceptional people. Great artists and art patrons certainly exist in those areas. Unfortunately, it’s the generalizations about places that end up making the biggest difference for the rest of us, not the exceptions to the norm. In certain places, art is perceived as personally valuable property and sometimes a valuable investment, but paradoxically, the artist is perceived as a waste of oxygen and tax dollars. Your value as an artist, if you choose to work in those areas, is based solely on your ability to sell your art, to “make a living” at it. You also need to be able to “afford” to do it. If you can’t “afford” to be an artist, then you should choose another profession: you’re doing the wrong thing. This is not to say that art is not seen as having any value, just that it can have no value outside of the free market.

Art is done when its creator exhausts all possibilities in making improvements to it. It’s not about how many hours it’s taken, and not about how many pages or words are written, and not about how many people read it or how much money it makes, or even about what other people think of it. It’s about inherent value, not actual worth. It’s ineffable, just like the space in between a painting and the sense-organs perceiving it.

There’s some comfort in comparing financial opportunities, but it’s not a sustaining comfort. It’s not enough to do the hard work that’s needed. In the end all artistic vocations collapse down to one source of hope, and every artist has to find and depend on it. In the end, it’s just the appraisal of one’s own efforts that matters. Everything else is just shadows.