Positioning Art Within Economy

Shi An Costello

My Positioning

I am paid money for certain things. I am paid $45 per hour to teach piano lessons, and $60-70 per hour to teach independently. I am given between $200 and $400 per article as a freelance writer. I am typically paid somewhere between $500 and $1,500 for a solo or chamber recital as a pianist. I am paid between $600 and $800 to compose music by commission. As an accompanist, I am paid between $25 and $80 per hour. As a studio musician, I am paid $100 per hour on average. These are the things that society pays me money to do. These assumed identities and associative price tags are how I am economically defined as art, and artistically defined within economy.

I write in a passive voice (“I am paid […]” rather than “I make,” “I earn,” “I receive,” etc.) because economy is done unto us. We do not confront economy on our own terms, rather, economy confronts us on its. These terms under which we are confronted are shifting, complex, often abstract ones the field of economics uses to describe itself (commodities, labor, value, etc.). Art is responsive (rather than initiative) to the economy it functions within.

My passivity is characteristically artistic, too. I have come to understand, through my latest composition, that music simply bemoans or celebrates what already exists, rather than create real change. Music does not initiate anything upon anyone or anything―it merely occupies a space within the world around it.[i] My artistic place within economy in particular is similar: it is merely placed within it. What art can do to and for economy, however, is understand and react to that environment. These reactions can be beneficial to economics. Equally so, artists can benefit from a sobering view of the principles of economics, to better understand themselves and their privileged position within economics. The position of art within economy, as well as an artistic reading of economy, can enrich each respective field of thought.

An Abrupt Shift

To me, this analytical approach (mutually enriching perspectives through reclaiming a marginalized voice and putting it in dialogue with a seemingly incompatible one) is fundamentally intersectionally feminist. These words about art and economy were going to be feminist-minded, without ever explicitly saying so. However, our new president of the United States is openly misogynist, which profoundly changes the climate of our world and words about it, as well as the unraveling of this particular discourse, at this particular time.

A Critical Look at Positions and Privilege
(instead of the other stuff I was going to talk about) 

The original drafts of my article addressed the positioning of art and artists within some major economic texts. But given the election of Donald Trump, one issue demanded attention above all others. Instead of “what position do I take?”, the issue should be framed more fundamentally: when examining one’s own place in economy as an artist, one must address privilege. What does it mean to position oneself within a system, versus simply being positioned? The basic agency of being an artist is a privilege that allows me to function within economy in a term I have given to myself by self-organizing a career: “artist.”

In the opening paragraph, I had the choice to position myself actively or passively. I chose a passive position. This was nothing more than choosing a team in a shallow game. I have the privilege to render myself passive or active within the public eye, and so if I choose to render myself passive, it is not a genuine passivity. Artists are fundamentally not oppressed, not rendered passive to economy, because they have chosen to be what they are. Economic oppression is real, and it does not apply to the socio-economically volunteered identity of the artist. My passive stance was not passive, because I actively conjured that stance in an exercise of privilege.

Paradoxically, money is a black sheep to artists. This is paradoxical because money is what allows an artist to be an artist at all. “Money is stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative,” says Werner Herzog. “All money is dirty. Dirty, lazy, filthy lucre,” says Nikki Giovanni. [iii] Yes, these are some of money’s profound truths. But nowhere in the vicinity of either Giovanni’s or Herzog’s statements on money do we find the obvious, glaring upside: it’s good to have money. Avoidance of the positive aspects, while myopic focus on the negative is a common sentiment of artists towards money: the privilege of liberalism affords its adherents to make acute criticisms upon a thing, while simultaneously enjoying chosen, fundamental, and often clandestinely reaped benefits from that very thing.

The foundation for all that I have said in this essay, as an artist writing about economy, falls under privileged liberalism. But the only difference between myself, a liberal, and a liberal-ist is that I have chosen to make my fundamental benefits within economy painfully aware to all, rendering them categorically not clandestine. I may be liberal but I’m not a liberalist. The price values I list in the first paragraph are the only concrete truths of my relationship to money. The rest is privileged, liberally-driven ruminations on money, which is something an artist cannot escape. My listing of exact numerical values may be crude, but they are crude truths. Economics, a field that is more fundamentally innovative than art, teaches us that truths are not always refined or imaginative―indeed, they can be crude.

Epilogue – A More Soulful Economy

As promised, I will offer how art can also affect economics. Since art primarily functions in response to economy, and can only function within economy versus the other way around, my criticism of economy as an artist is meager, and simple: economy does not have enough soul. Art is simply nothing but soul… if there is no soul in it, it is not art. It is the job of economists, and economically-driven individuals to better understand what it means to have soul, on their own terms. Grasping this aspect of humanity would better equip them with understanding the dynamic forces that govern the relationships between people and the objects between those relationships, and how the undying presence of soul within relationships of people and objects affect the very meaning of value.

[i] This composition is called On Behalf of the Failure to Create Collaborations that Are Truly Equal Due to Inherent Privileges that Cannot Be Erased, for violin and piano, commissioned by Brianna Matzke and Hajnal Pivnick, as part of The Response Project: On Behalf. Below is the excerpt of a letter to the performers that is pertinent to the claim that art is limited to celebrating and bemoaning what already exists:

“This piece is negative in that it focuses on the failure to reconcile, in light of collaboration, this long list of privileges we three hold over one another. Privileges are ugly and frustrating. These privileges are inescapable because they are woven into the very identity of your instruments, and into my very role as composer. Thinking more broadly, classical music itself is a genre of music fundamentally reliant, currently and historically, on royal, holy, bourgeois, and otherwise wealthy supporters. The ability to support and be supported is a fundamental privilege this genre of music maintains.

“But to put socio-political stuff to the side, this piece isn’t really about activism, as I am not explicitly advocating on behalf of a person, place or thing. Real activism that creates social change exists only in joining organizations, signing petitions, volunteering one’s body and time, showing up for hearings, debates, discussions, rallies, marches, walk-outs, sit-ins… Music does none of these things. Music does not create movements nor does it change society. Music does not create change.

“But what I feel music can do is bemoan and celebrate the things that do exist. This piece does exactly that: it celebrates collaboration and bemoans privilege that is inextricably linked to collaboration;it celebrates that we have been brought together, and bemoans what still holds us apart. It accepts our failure to achieve a utopia where everyone and everything is equal. I certainly tried to do that in this piece, and I failed. I have always hoped that music could do this for me, create a utopia that is. But on this level, I have failed music and music has failed me. This piece bemoans and celebrates that.”

[ii] Primary texts for this abandoned analysis included Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Karl Marx’s Capital, Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

[iii] The quote is from the book Gemini.

Books that Contributed To This Essay

The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard
Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis
Women, Culture & Politics, Angela Davis
Society of Spectacle, Guy Debord
Passions within Reason, Robert H. Frank
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire
Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, Sigmund Freud
Wealth and Poverty, George Gilder
Gemini, Nikki Giovanni
The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels
Capital, Vol. 1, Karl Marx
The Coming American Renaissance, Michael Moynihan
Scènes de la vie de bohème, Henri Murger
Why Jazz Happened, Marc Myers
Music Genres and Corporate Cultures, Keith Negus
The Artist’s Reality, Mark Rothko
Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
The Roaring Nineties, Joseph Stiglitz
The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen
The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe