Art, utility and bohemianism: The challenge for the modern artist

The biggest challenge for a writer and an artist these days is persistence. The sad truth of the matter is that as artists we are engaged in activities that don’t have immediate value in the market of exchange.

The artist is engaged in the celebration of life, not necessarily its enhancement, and his or her work is only valued in as much as it is a relief, a tonic to the business and pressure of the marketplace.

This means not only that our work cannot be valued in the same way as typical commercial products, but also that our work culture is different.

The first thing to remember in this battle is that there is actually a divide, between the values of beauty and the market. For sure they overlap, and they have been successfully combined at rare moments in civilisation. The Renaissance being one of them. And there remain pockets in contemporary life where examples of this overlap are very prominent.

Some of the older university colleges maintain a culture based on beauty and contemplation, while still offering value to the marketplace, for example. Some art galleries maintain a commitment to beauty for its own sake, and are a celebration of older, more permanent values, while they still function in the world as commercially viable enterprises.

These are rare examples, however, and in each of them the battle to preserve non-commercial values is ongoing. The beautiful for its own sake is always being infringed upon, and you can see that most starkly in places like London, where heritage buildings are never left alone by local councils. There is always some kind of tinkering and modification going on in the name of “accessibility” and “community education”.

It’s almost as if the price we have to pay for not demolishing old buildings (just for the crime of being old) is to allow the philistines to have their say, to leave their scars upon the heritage of beauty. It’s only way to placate the monster of modernity.

So how does the individual live in this world? How do we preserve those parts of ourselves that are of no utility, but of the deepest significance?

It’s very hard, because science and technology have reached a stage if unprecedented arrogance, and they have convinced the world that there is no underlying value other than utility.

However, the reality of being human doesn’t match up to their supercilious simplicities. The very fact that churches will be packed to the rafters this weekend is one example of this hidden, inexplicable dimension of human reality.

Another example is the tourist industry. Why do people flock to historic sites, to the Vatican, to London’s galleries, to the old monasteries of Scotland, if utility is the only permanent value worth integrating into culture and education?

Another slightly more ironic example is the fact that once people have enough money, having committed to the market their time and labour, they flock to older parts of cities, to more ornate houses built pre-modernism. The problem of gentrification in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Shoreditch, speaks directly to this problem. Utility does not seem to be enough to those aspiring to climb the hierarchy of the market.

The best sign of status in the marketplace, seems to be the ability to exhibit non-market-based or utilitarian values. This could just be a kind of aristocratic self-indulgence. Or it could be proof of the fact that people demand more from their life than utility. Perhaps beauty and civilisation are of inherently higher value than the market?

None of this helps the artist, or the creator of those buildings, and thinkers of ideas, that become the sought-after artefacts of status. The artist as individual is stuck trying to prove his or her worth to the world of the market.

Not only that, but a modern artist understands that the true holy grail of their craft is to affect the market in a non-market way, to re-establish the values of beauty, contemplation and civilisation as a kind of guerilla assault on the marketplace.

For those who simply want to confine themselves to the cloisters, to puzzle away on useless problems, or who are content to sit in the quietude of creative privacy, it is enough to put up a barrier between the beautiful and the market.

For the artist, who sees herself as part of a tradition, who feels anxious about preserving the heritage of the culture, life is not so easy. You have to live in the market, but not of it.

This living in, but not of, the marketplace was what was once called bohemianism. Bohemians were neither bourgeois (though often they came from the middle classes, which is different), nor are they working class dissenters of the trade union, Marxist type.

The bohemian does not conform to, nor demolish, the marketplace. The first true bohemian could be said to be Socrates – a man who devoted the same energies most of us devote to survival, to ideas and the search for truth.

Jesus Christ, too, was a bohemian. Oscar Wilde called him the first Romantic, for calling on people to live “flower-like lives”. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to abandon the demands of the marketplace, and to live with “no thought for the morrow”. That is, not to get caught up in the busyness of trade and ambition, but to live for the enrichment of the spirit, to nourish the highest aspects of ourselves.

The Marxist Terry Eagleton has said that the commodification of culture has robbed culture of one of its most vital functions – to offer a critique of the marketplace. Eagleton says that culture has in fact become an engine of the marketplace – through public relations, the creative industries, advertising – rather than a counterbalance to it.

This explains why it is so hard to be a bohemian artist in the current economic culture. There is no room for a dissenting way of life manifested in creative values, because consumerism has subsumed dissent into itself.

This is the exact phenomenon we see in the recent outrage over the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert. The language of critique and dissent is used for the propaganda of commodities. The imagery of resistance is used to induce capitulation.

The most prophetic example of this was the legendary Apple Mac Superbowl advert from 1985, whereby IMB was portrayed as the evil Big Brother state, and Mac users were shown to be the free-spirited individualists, emancipated by their personal computers.

How, then, does the artist live? How do we keep our spirits enraptured to our values, when anything that is said by an artist is subsumed into the marketplace?

The only way to live is to live ironically. That is, to accept the sorry state of affairs for what it is, but to refuse to let the marketplace have the final say.

This will require toughening up a bit. We have to become immune to accusations of delusion, madness and naivete. We have to abandon the need to prove our worth the a world that doesn’t deserve such efforts.

But finally, we have to keep working. There is a certain amount of trust involved. In truth, there has always been such an element of faith in the work of any great artist.

Michelangelo and Shakespeare were both adept at winning patronage in the marketplace of their times. However, their compromises probably came from viewing their work on a historic plane. They were okay doing a dance with the devil, for the long-term gain of imprinting their art on the cultural heritage.

It only seems harder to live as a bohemian, if you accept the view that contemporary, utilitarian values, are the end-of-history, final say of cultural evolution. The ironic shift in perspective necessary for an artist comes from finding emancipation in a private dialogue with history, with spending as much time in the timeless realm of ideas as possible.

This quiet, unobtrusive dissent will actually raise us up to the level of great artists, but it will do so to the scorn and ridicule of the world. We have to abandon the “cool”, we have to shun the group, and we have to resist the moronic need to prove the utility of our daily work.

Advertisements