What is Art For?

I read with interest the article “What is Art For?” by Daniel Smith in the NYT magazine this past weekend. It is about the not-very-well-known author Lewis Hyde (I had never heard of him) who nonetheless is kind of famous among creative types for his 1983 book “The Gift”, which Smith writes, “tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy.” Smith writes that

for nearly a decade [Hyde] had been struggling to explain – to his family, to nonartist friends, to himself – why he devoted so much of his time and energy to something as nonremunerative as poetry. The literature on gift exchange – tales, for example, of South Sea tribesman circulating shells and necklaces in a slow-moving, broad circle around the Trobriand Islands – gave him the conceptual tool he needed to understand his predicament, which was, he came to believe, the predicament of all artists living ‘in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities.’ For centuries people have been speaking of talent and inspiration as gifts; Hyde’s basic argument was that this language must extend to the products of talent and inspiration too. Unlike a commodity, whose value begins to decline the moment it changes hands, an artwork gain in value from the act of being circulated – published, shown, written about, passed from generation to generation – from being, at its core, an offering.

This really resonated with me, and it made me think again about the woman who asked me at Open Studios what I wanted to do with my art (and about my imagined, sarcastic answer), and I realized that when I’m done with a painting, I’m really finished with it – I don’t have anything more that I want to do to it, or with it. What I want is for other people to do things with it; namely, hopefully, think about it, maybe admire it, even better, buy it and keep it for themselves as some kind of talismanic object, in accordance with their own reasons and desires, which may have little to do with my motivations for making the thing. That others would find a painting of mine valuable in some way in their own lives, if not in quite the same way I do. That is what I most hope to “do” with my art.


The stuff about art versus commodities in a market economy also reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Dave Hickey’s essay, “Dealing”, about his stint as a gallery owner in Austin, Tx.

            Finally, as to my complicity in the hedonistic commodification of art, I can tell you two things: First: Art is not a commodity. It has no intrinsic value or stable application. Corn is a commodity, and so is long-distance service, since the operative difference between bushels of corn and minutes of long-distance service is the price. Price distinguishes commodities that are otherwise similar and destabilizes the market, where price likens works of art that are otherwise dissimilar and stabilizes the market. When I trade a work by Kenny Price for a work by John Baldessari, as I once did, I am not conducting a commodity transaction, I am hopefully engaging in a subtle negotiation of analogous social value.

            Second: Art and money never touch. They exist in parallel universes of value at comparable levels of cultural generalization: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer. Thus, when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another.

            If you can’t tell one universe from the other, that’s your problem, but not an unusual one, since art and money are very much alike, in both embodiment and conception. To put it simply: Art and money are cultural fictions with no intrinsic value.