Reading List: Art Vs. Commerce

Eternal battle!!!!!

“What Do We Do With the Big Business of Commercial Art?” (Kelsey McKinney, Defector, September 2021)

In case you haven’t seen a bus in a major American city recently, immersive Van Gogh experiences are “essentially big abandoned buildings that instead of becoming Spirit Halloweens, buy a bunch of projectors and display Van Gogh’s paintings (which are public domain at this point) on the walls and floors and ceilings.” Defector’s Kelsey McKinney has come both to bury them and to praise them: “The art world has been building barriers to entry since the Renaissance. Art is for rich people, they want you to believe. Art is hard to understand. Art is only standing silently in front in of a painting, absorbing what it projects, and learning the complex vocabulary to talk about it with other fancy art people. But that’s not what art is.”

“The Days of Duveen” (S.N. Behrman, The New Yorker, September-November 1951)
Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six

It’s the longest of longreads, S.N. Behrman’s 6-part New Yorker series on “the most spectacular art dealer of all time.” Joseph Duveen began buying art in Europe and selling it in America in 1886, when he was seventeen. He died in 1939, a baron and a very wealthy man. He got that way by selling classical and Renaissance art to extremely wealthy men, with names like Hearst, Rockefeller, Mellon and Morgan. His opinion could make or break a sale – “I suppose you are aware that those cherubs are homosexual,” he told a bishop of another dealer’s painting – and many of the greatest treasures of American museums passed through his hands at some point, some of them the worse for it. (Among other sins, he had the Elgin Marbles cleaned.)

“The Problem With Music” (Steve Albini, The Baffler, 1993)

Originally published in The Baffler at the height of the alt-rock feeding frenzy, recording engineer Steve Albini’s pitiless explication of the workings of the record biz was later reprinted in Maximumrocknroll under the headline “Some of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked.” The dollar amounts might be wrong by now… but then again, they might not be. 21 years later Albini declared that the internet had solved the problem with music (by creating another one, as it turns out).

“Will the Stink of Success Ruin The Smell?” (Jessica Hopper, LA Weekly, February 2009)

Jessica Hopper on the irreplaceable treasure that is a local music community, and what happens when the sweeping spotlight of the world finds you and your friends. “It is a matter of inspiration — and great records or live shows are necessary to back it up, to wrap people up in the big idea — the pugnacious do-it-yourself dogma is transmogrified into something urbane and empowering. It’s a rare sort of once-or-twice-a-decade thing, this adjustment, where a band shows us we can be more than fans, and that this can be about something other than entertainment, getting wasted or getting laid, and that community can come true. It is an alchemical shift, where music becomes exactly what you believed it was when your heart was 15 and pure, and all the hope and time you’ve given it pays out.”
Bonus art-and-commerce Hopper: “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock”

“Our Theater Company Could Be Your Life” (Donna Oblongata, Medium, May 2020)

In 2020, when this piece by Philly DIY theatermaker Donna Oblongata was published, I read it as a dispatch from the Before Times – a funny, exciting, painfully poignant memory of a lost era when it suddenly, retrospectively, seemed like anything had been possible, had we but recognized it at the time. Now, “post-COVID,” it seems just as much about the moment it was written, and the pain of having your entire world collapse, and the light that that suddenly lets in. Donna Oblongata’s brilliant group The Missoula Oblongata was my introduction to the electrifying idea of touring a theater piece like a punk band, parking the van outside a different warehouse/garage/back yard every night. “We tried to walk a delicate line between the scrappiness that we identified with, and the belief that our audiences deserved to be treated like they’d paid $75. Like they were worth impressing.” If your previous experience with theater has involved, well, theaters – read on and consider some other thrilling possibilities.

“Selling Out: An Artist’s Search for Money and Meaning” (Hallie Bateman, Big Cartel blog, October 2016)


“How the Upright Citizens Brigade Improvised a Comedy Empire” (Emma Allen, The New Yorker, August 2016)

If you’re early to the gold rush, you can pick the nuggets off the ground. If you come later, try selling pants to miners.

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