Jettisoning aesthetic fundamentals

[18 April 2008]

By Rob Horning

This Felix Salmon post made me wonder about the occasional claim that selling out can be some kind of high ironic art form. And it also shed some light on how musicians could perhaps capitalize on selling out’s currently fashionable profile.

The first thing musicians should do is stop making their own music. Salmon writes,

if you think of the artists who are famous for having assistants make their art for them, starting with Andy Warhol and moving on through the likes of Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, there’s no indication that taking away the artist’s touch has any kind of negative effect on the value of the art. If anything, the opposite seems to be true.
Part of the reason is that these artists have turned themselves into businesses. Both artists and collectors have at this point embraced the idea that there’s nothing wrong with artists being motivated by money, and indeed they’ve created something of a virtuous cycle: an artist creates the kind of art that rich collectors want, which fuels demand for that artist, which drives up his prices, which makes him even more desirable, and so on. Eventually, collectors, especially hedge-fund managers, start buying an artist like they might a momentum stock: they place faith in the management of the company to continue to maximize shareholder value. And in doing so, of course, they only drive prices higher.

In this rarefied realm, artists are brand managers and recognized as being better investments because of it. Svengali music producers once played this role in pop music perhaps, and that was probably what Warhol had in mind in promoting the Velvet Underground. He would guarantee the quality and reap the reputational rewards. Quality of music, as with the contemporary art, is sort of beside the point, as are any questions of authenticity. So bands should somehow figure out how to capitalize on not having to actually make the music they are selling as their creation—electronic music and DJ-style laptop music are good steps in this direction. As long as your craft as a musician is not displayed and can’t be evaluated, and your brand floats on pure assertion and chutzpah. It’s the equivalent of the wealthy eschewing work to send the message about their exalted class status. For haute artists, actually making art is beneath them. By becoming brands, artists can preempt any attention that their individual works might garner: As Salmon explains, “The normal mode of looking at art is reversed: you don’t think ‘I like that, I wonder who the artist is’ but rather ‘Oh, there’s a Koons, I wonder if I’ll like it’.

Pop music has worked along similar lines for a long time; megastars’ albums always attract notice and comment regardless of their quality, because they have had their significance to our zeitgeist preordained. And quality is subjective and irrelevant, particular in the face of the very large numbers involved with the top tier of performers.

Salmon wonders whether “these brands might suffer enormously when the art market crashes, just because their values are supported more by branding than by aesthetic fundamentals.” Of course, if you have learned the lessons of deconstruction, you know that there are no aesthetic fundamentals, so certainly you shouldn’t spend any time worrying about them. What you do have to consider is market positioning and creating the appropriate class associations. For musicians this means selling out to the right sorts of advertisers and so on. Or simply selling out, period, establishing cultural zeitgeisty significance in that way. Bands with grand ambitions will likely begin actively promoting their promotional duties.

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