Archive for December 7th, 2011

Artistic freedom, and why capitalism is a necessary evil

I was reading recently that:
1. Art is never pure when it’s created for money or fame.
2. Art is influenced by the state of power (capital, church, aristocrats etc).
3. Popular art mirrors the average brain capacity of the society of its time.

I must say that I agree with all these points, but I believe that we are currently living in a unique point of time in our history, where at least two of the three points above aren’t necessarily true anymore.

In the olden days, a piece of art would most likely exist only if some patron paid for it. Also, the kind of art that was created was highly influenced by the power of the time: medieval art was purely church-influenced, Renaissance and classical period was influenced by the aristocrats or the intellectuals, and today, the capitalistic market decides the type of art we consume.

Look at Hollywood movies for example, or popular music: the traits between the different works are more alike than different. You watch a Steve Carell comedy, or a Ben Stiller one, and the technical construction of the movie, along the “morals” served to the audience, are exactly the same. You listen to Gaga or Rihanna, and their “vibe” is the same. And if Hollywood or the music labels have an agenda (as The Guardian recently claimed), this can easily influence the sheep masses towards a specific mindset or opinion.

However, what about this “new” music, and this new kind of “film” appearing on sites like Bandcamp, Vimeo, or SoundCloud? These aren’t created for money but for love (they are offered completely for free), and they do not serve the agenda of capital. I’m talking about underground indie bands, usually recording in their bedrooms, using their computers. And I’m also talking about that other crop of artists, who use their dSLRs to make photographic or video art in a completely different way than what the mainstream audience is accustomed to. There are some of these pieces online that, in my opinion, rival professional works in quality. Speaking for myself, 90% of the music I listen to these days is downloaded from Bandcamp, for free. It sounds fresh, and current, not like a canned, formulaic piece of crap, which is how 99% of the mainstream and even “popular indie” music is. These bands don’t get mentioned by the Rolling Stone magazine, not even the king of indie music, Pitchfork, but mostly from much smaller blogs — which are also run for love and not for profit.

We must consider how we got here though, mostly within the last 10 years. How an 18 year old kid was able to put together an EP and give it away for free, without a label behind him, a producer, or a sound engineer. And the answer to this is this: through the commoditization of technology. Buying a $400 laptop, a $150 synthesizer, and then using the free version of Reaper, and countless free VST plugins & samples, is enough to create something magical and new — should the talent is present (technical expertise is usually patched together with knowledge acquired at forums or tutorials online, also for free). Similarly in the photography and video world, when the first affordable large-sensor dSLRs came around, and later HD video became fast-enough to edit, we got countless amazing pieces of works. Look on FlickR for example, or for video, check Vimeo’s Matthew Brown, or Charlie McCarthy.

In other words, there was a certain “democratization” that occurred in the current “fascism” of capitalism, via means of technology. I personally do not believe that such a commoditization of technology can happen in a strictly communistic state today. If USSR is an example, its art sucked pretty bad for the most part, and it was scarce to find anyway. While they had rad space satellites, technological innovation for the masses was not common either, and its citizens became poorer than before at the very end. Bedroom-pop (“Chillwave”), or “Vimeo-style filmmaking” would never exist in such an environment — at least not in the incarnation of communism USSR had.

This is not to say that capitalism is great either. Capitalism mass-produces art, thus having to average its radical elements to the IQ of the average consumer (making it mostly crap). What is called “pop sensibility” is simply an average barometer of the society’s needs or intelligence, expressed through pop-art. Make your art smarter, the masses can’t follow it anymore, and you will be called a “hipster”. Make it dumber, and you will be called “old”. There’s definitely a balance to be found, for those who crave to please the masses. Personally, I am not an avid promoter of “popularizing” (aka dumbing-down) art or science, just so people can follow your truth, or buy your record/movie. If the art is radical, then it’s the consumers who must do the effort to understand these new concepts. If they are not willing to do the effort, then they’re passive sheep, dragging everyone else down too. Passive sheep never get to run a company, or a country. They just consume for the sake of consuming. This doesn’t mean that I want art to be experimental/inaccessible all the time. I just believe that it has to be “edgy-enough” so it pushes people to make an effort to understand it.

Additionally, capitalism promotes the diminishing of ethics among the citizens — a heavy cost, no doubt. You can’t “make it” in a capitalistic environment by playing nice. I personally favor a somewhat socialist system, something in between of various popular ideologies: if so many people are fanatics for completely different political and economical ideologies, then where all these ideologies meet, it must be the sweet spot. Πάν μέτρον άριστον, the ancient Greeks used to say.

For now though, for better or worse, accessible technology does thrive in this capitalistic environment we live in. Technology might become the catalyst that could reset this diminishing of ethics. Some examples: freedom of information on the internet, future robot workers, machines that make food out of thin air, cybernetics and alteration of functions in the brain, etc. Such advancements can have a paramount effect on any political or economical system.

So my theory is that while capitalism has many negative effects, its very nature of producing “stuff” for the Market, some of these “products” end up fixing back some of capitalism’s bad points. In our case at hand, the electronics industry & market provided the tools to kill off the Music Industry, an Industry that ran on capital without a shred of love for art. Nothing happened on purpose of course, but it did happen as a natural consequence of our advancement. And it makes me happy that it happened. Because art should be free in order to re-affirm its pureness. And for the kinds of art that still require high amounts of capital to exist (e.g. a $200mil Pixar movie, or a large statue), technology eventually will get there to provide affordable solutions.

I know that some people will say that I put too much faith in technology, which itself can be manipulated to do “bad” as it can do “good”, but I believe that when technology is accessible by the common citizen, for every “bad” guy, there’s a “good” one too. For every computer virus that exists, there’s a wikipedia article too.

It all balances out most of the time, but it usually gets worse before it gets better. I truly believe that society is a living thing. It grows, it makes mistakes, it matures. Our society is not the same as the one of 10 years, or 100, or 1000 ago. You can’t force a population to suddenly become altruists for example, or to not break some law — instead, the society must learn right from wrong on its own. In 1000 years, or in 10,000 years from now, our society as a whole might be ready for some form of “utopia”. But in order to learn and get there, it has to suffer first. Capitalism is simply just a small part in this suffering-and-learning evolution. It’s just what we have right now, but I don’t believe capitalism will be with us forever.

Going back to art and society, for me, art is not just an aesthetic pleasure, but also a way to break new ground, to initiate more progress in many different directions. The faster we progress, the faster we will find our “utopia” (even if we have to get bruised in the process). We just have to keep pushing the envelop. Every. Single. Day.