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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Art vs. commerce, or: sell yourself for fun and profit! THIS IS NOT A TEST #48 (transcript)

Published November 21, 2015 [Podcast link]

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Hi hi hi and ho ho ho, let’s get ready for Christmas! No, no, not here, don’t worry. This is just me, Michael Phillips, and you’re listening to Radio Lab! Just kidding. You’re really listening to This American Life! No, that’s not it either. You know what it is. It’s THIS IS NOT A TEST, the show that Radio Lab wishes it was. The show that This American Life’s Ira Glass calls, “Heartbreaking and overpowering, flawlessly conceived and executed.” The show that Serial was modeled after, though they left my name off the credits somehow. A minor oversight, they said. Sure. Okay.

I’m going to say a little something about the latest random slaughter in the world, this time in Paris, but I’ll save it for the end. It doesn’t seem – it’s probably not a good way to start this, because it will make what I’m mainly going to talk about sound stupid and trivial. So later for Paris, yeah? You know, Carol was out of town for a few days on an art retreat kind of gathering of some kind, so I thought I’d take a couple of days off work and knock out a couple of podcasts, get myself ahead of the game, get some episodes “in the bank,” as the kids say, so I could relax for a couple of weeks. That didn’t happen, partly because I’m really good at doing nothing, I’m an expert at it if you must know, and it didn’t happen partly because when I try to force one of these things, it just doesn’t come. I can’t pick a random topic from the headlines and whip something together. I wish I could. And I can’t talk about something I don’t care about. What’s the point? But there I was on my days off thinking, “Man, maybe you should do something positive on the next podcast, you know, talk about something that you love instead of just complaining about the things you don’t like.” I thought about that, but I can’t force that either, so I ended up with nothing. Until all of what I’m about to talk about started percolating in my brainspace. That’s what it usually takes, something to provoke me, and that’s usually why so many of these might come across as complaints or rants. Because that’s what sets me off and gets me going.

I’ve seen a lot of good movies lately, and read some good books, heard some good music, but should I talk about that? If I do, then I’m just another person talking about what they like, and who wants to hear that? Where’s the sport in that? You can get that from any podcast. I know by looking at the listener numbers for this thing here that people like things they can relate to. “How to download the same song 15 times,” that’s easy, because everyone can relate to that. Sometimes I know which of these will get a lot of action and which won’t. I mean I almost always know which is which. But you know…sometimes I’ll be trying to do something difficult, like carrying nineteen barely balanced, breakable things through two doors, or picking up a toothpick with my toes and Carol will say, “Let me help you,” and I say no! I like doing it because it’s hard! And that’s me in a nutshell. I like to make things difficult, because then when you get them done it feels good. Check me out, I conquered that – thing – whatever it is. How stupid is that? Only a fool takes that road, but that’s the road I’m on with just about everything, so here we are. You and me on this road. Maybe you’ll like this one, maybe you already turned it off and you’re back on Facebook or ESPN or that site you don’t tell anyone about and delete from your browsing history before you close your browser. And what are you doing closing your browser anyway? That’s for amateurs.

Art vs. commerce, man, that’s the constant struggle, art vs. commerce. I’m not saying what you’re listening to is art, but it is some kind of art. It’s not commerce, I know that, but it’s also not something just anyone can do, so let’s give me the benefit of the doubt for a change. Yeah, the “art” of talking into a microphone. Sure. Well, whatever they do, every artist wants to be “successful,” and everyone’s idea of success is different. For some it means recognition, being heard, getting a message across. For others it means financial success, which is a lot more difficult to achieve, and which almost always involves compromise on some level. Either compromise forced onto you by the people writing the checks, or the compromises needed to appeal to a wider audience. When I was young and naive I thought that all creative people were renegades and artists. People who were going to do what they were going to do whether they made a living at it or not. And to take that a little further, I also thought that if you did that and were consistent and stuck to your guns, that success – and wealth and fame – would naturally follow. How adorable is that? I told you I was naive. Of course when you get out into the real world you see pretty quickly that things don’t work that way. That wealth and fame aren’t in the cards for most of us, and if you’re lucky you get to see that fame isn’t something that any sane person would want anyway.

Yeah, sometimes you get what you want and you find that you don’t want it. Other times you don’t even set out to do something, but you just wind up doing it by accident, and you find yourself thinking, “What am I doing? Why the hell am I doing this?” Have you ever wondered that? I have. In October of 1995, 20 years ago now, I started a website called smog.net. There were less than 20,000 web sites in October of 1995, though it hardly matters now, since your mother probably has her own web site. But as you might imagine, when there are 20,000 websites, or even 100,000 or a million, it’s a lot easier to be noticed than it is when there are more than a billion websites, like there are now. smog.net was like a lot of early websites, a conglomeration of things I thought were cool. Different writers, artists, photographers and some other weird, barely categorizable things. It was cool, the web was very young and we were all just making this shit up as we went along.

But the site became popular, and people started saying to me, “Hey, how’s about you put MY stuff on your site,” whatever that stuff was. And some of it was good, so I’d add it to the site, then more people would ask and I’d look at what they were doing and it wasn’t so good, so I had to say ‘no,’ and when you say no to someone who thinks they are an artist, sometimes they don’t exactly take it the way you might hope. Probably more so over the Internet, but that’s where we were. So when I had to say ‘no’ sometimes that was greeted with a “thanks anyway,” or silence, or a pissy rant about what an idiot and loser I was, and how dare I put myself in a position to judge other people’s work and blah blah blah. Never mind that I hadn’t solicited these people to send me their work. So what eventually happened was I got to the point where I just couldn’t look at any more drawings or paintings or photography, I couldn’t read any more poems or stories, I just didn’t have it in me. I never set out to be a curator, either of poems or dinosaur bones, so at one point when I had about 300 unread emails from people who wanted to see their work on the site, I shut it down.

It had gone from being something I did as a kind of creative outlet to something else. Well, that’s not completely true, the site was the site, it was still full of stuff I liked. It was everything else that came along with a popular site that stunk. It was people feeling entitled to be part of it, people who couldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, it was people, period. People kind of ruined the experience. And after a while, when I hadn’t added anything to the site for a couple of years, it all started to look stale to me, so I killed it. Now when some people get to a point where they’re becoming overwhelmed with people saying “me too,” with people wanting to be seen and heard through whatever method you have to get them seen or heard, they start to charge people a fee to submit their work. You see that a lot where writing is concerned. Because everyone is a writer, you know, and if you’re an outlet for publishing writers, even on the Internet, which isn’t publishing at all, you’re going to be in the same position I was in, saying ‘no’ to hundreds of people. And ain’t nobody got time for that shit! So you institute a “reading fee,” and that does two things: first it reduces the number of submissions, and second it helps to make up for the time you have to spend reading those submissions. Two birds, one stone.

And people suggested that to me when I started talking about pulling the plug on smog.net, but it didn’t make any sense to me. It seems like – well, it doesn’t seem like, it is – a cynical move. Taking money from people when you know that you’re going to say ‘no’ to 99 out of 100 of them. That’s when you cross the line from art to commerce, and that’s a one way street, man, you can’t back down or reverse and go back to the way things were, because that thing doesn’t exist anymore. Now you’re a business and business is business, baby, it ain’t anything else. It sure as hell ain’t art, not in the way I see art anyway. But people who make art, or who think they make art, they’re in a rough spot. How do you get your work seen by people if you don’t try to work every outlet you can find? And if working some of those outlets means paying some fees, well, that’s just the cost of becoming known, yeah? No, but it’s easy to see how someone could think that, looking at the whole art world, such as it is, from the outside. But the whole art world, such as it is, exists because…well, it exists because people like art, but what we’ve got now also exists because it sprung up to fill a void.

A lot of artists find the process of selling to be crass and undignified, either on an idealistic level – because they aren’t making the art to make money, they are making it as a creative outlet – or, probably more commonly, because they lack the social skills that are necessary to be good at selling something. That’s why most of them became artists in the first place, to say things they maybe can’t necessarily say out loud. That leaves a vacuum, and we know that nature abhors a vacuum, so the door is wide open for two other types of people: artists who are perfectly okay with the commerce aspect of art, and business people who might be more naturally inclined sellers of things. So the commerce-averse artist in a bind, because the commerce-minded artists plow right past them, and then they’re left with dealing with the business people who act as middlemen. In a perfect world, and I might argue that the Internet is that perfect world, artists could connect directly with people who like and want to buy their art. But the world isn’t perfect, so the less commercially adept artists are left dealing with the middlemen. This is an established thing in all creative worlds, art, music, writing, everything. Someone has to be the commercial connection between art and money, art and commerce, art as a product.

And unless an artist doesn’t care about money, they’re going to have to come to grips with commerce, or team up with someone who does. That’s just the way the world works and they way it will always work. But there’s also another player in the game, one who isn’t necessarily an art-for-art’s-sake type, or even an artist who can also handle the selling side of things. There’s a whole other genre of human who sees an opportunity to make money in an artistic field, so they become artists. They’re really a combination of the business-minded seller type and someone with a passable amount of artistic ability. They are 100% commerce, and they’re becoming more and more common as the Internet becomes more pervasive. because like I mentioned, the Internet is the prefect world for this kind of person. They don’t want or need a gallery because they don’t want to pay a gallery a cut of the money they make, and since making money is their primary goal, they exist outside of that established art world. Sometimes one of them can sneak in through the back door, but they’re never respected. But wait, sometimes they are respected – you see how confusing the art world is? It’s confusing because only a few people know anything about anything, and everyone else is just following along, writing checks.

So in that way, in that world, art is commerce, they aren’t working at odds with each other, they are the same thing. And to most people in the art world that’s fine, that’s groovy. “Oh my, look at that, how marvelous! A ten foot tall metal balloon animal!” “I know, let’s do a critical study of it!” “Oh yeah, let’s!” And then the art world scratches its nose and says, yep, that’s art all right, and it all goes back to the 60s when those pale, skinny weirdoes started making art that looked like commercial products – not commercial looking art, art that actually looked like the cans and boxes in the supermarket – you know what I’m talking about. And they said, “Darling, this is my art,” and everyone kind of said “What?” and then laughed and said, “Okay, I get it, yes it’s art.” And that was all well and good for a certain time or certain people, but to just continue on along in the same vein is nothing but a bunch of ass monkey howling, but modern artists can get away with it because, again, only a few people know anything about anything, and everyone else just nods and pretends to get it because they don’t want to look foolish or like they don’t understand.

Listen, I don’t know if that’s why galleries came into being, springing up to fill a void, maybe I’m full of shit. I mean I know I’m full of shit, but I didn’t go research how modern galleries got started because I don’t really care how they got started. And I only care about what they are now because Carol is an artist and she deals with galleries and I live with her, so I’m involved through her. But we have wildly different opinions on galleries. And many other things, as you might imagine. She likes them, she likes showing in them, and I think she likes the challenge of getting in to them. Because it is a challenge, maybe not for her as much these days since she’s become kind of known and established here in Los Angeles, but for a fledgling, budding young genius, I suppose it could seem like an almost impossible challenge. It isn’t that way because gallery owners get off on controlling artists, though some of them do, but it’s really that way for the same reason some writing magazines charge reading fees – because there are a finite number of gallery walls and a seemingly infinite number of people making art that they want to see hanging on those walls. So we have wound up with an art world where it’s normal and accepted for the person with the walls to take half of the money when they sell some art off those walls.

Of course a gallery isn’t just walls. In fact the walls are the least important part of a gallery. Anyone can rent a building or a storefront and paint the walls white. It’s the person running the gallery that’s the most important part, and that person’s artistic vision, for lack of a better phrase, and their connections and ability to sell things. A good gallery owner is a people person, a good seller of anything is a people person. And for artists who aren’t necessarily good around other humans, or not into the commerce side of art, a good gallery owner is really a necessity. And if the gallery is well known or respected, some of that respect transfers to the artists who show at the gallery, so there are plenty of potential benefits to the artist in the arrangement. I still don’t think the balance is correct, that 50/50 split – there aren’t many things you can sell and keep half the money…the person selling you your Subaru or Audi ain’t getting half of that money – but that’s the way it is in the art world. Ho hum, no one cares so why should I? I’m not an artist. I don’t hang things in galleries. I mean I physically hang things in galleries sometimes, with a hammer and a level and some nails. So I guess I don’t care. If Carol is okay with it, then it’s none of my business.

But like selling almost anything, there are a bunch of people who get paid when an artist makes a painting and sells it. And don’t get me started on auction houses. You’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you? You’re going to get me started on auction houses. You bastard. Well, if a good gallery owner has to be a good hustler and con artist and shyster, and I say that with all due love and respect, then what does an auction house have to be? Nothing. Nothing is the answer. An auction house does virtually nothing but gather a crowd that’s interested in a certain kind of thing and then sell that thing to them. How much is that worth? Realistically. But if you’ve ever bought art or books or an old baseball glove from an auction house you know that there is what’s called a “buyer’s premium” which is a fee added on to the final price that the auction ends at. So if you buy a painting for a thousand dollars, you really pay $1250. The “buyer’s premium” is typically 20 to 25%, and on really expensive items it applies in increasingly lower tiers, but at the end of the day it’s just a place charging you 25% – I was going to say, for some white walls like a gallery, but they don’t even have that.

But wait, if that sounds like a lot, check this out – most auction houses also have a “seller’s premium.” That’s right, they tack an additional 20 or 25% on to the sale price for the buyer, but they also charge the seller about 20% of that sale price. So if I open up mjp auctions and I can sell a painting for $100,000, I’m going to make $45,000 on that sale. because I’m taking $125,000 from the buyer and giving $80,000 to the seller. Pretty sweet deal, isn’t it. Now make that a million dollar painting or a fifty million dollar painting and you’re talking about real money. I know there’s infrastructure. I know businesses don’t run on good vibes and fresh air. But what’s a fair sucker tax on something like a painting or a book that you sell for someone? The auction house is just a middleman in a transaction after all, so what’s a fair fee for that? It sure as hell isn’t 45% or 40 or 30 or even 20, I don’t think. But such is the world, and everyone just says, “Well, that’s how it works,” and so it works that way. because we let it.

Well, artists gotta eat, man. So art and commerce are always going to have to collide somewhere. It’s just the way everything works. You got no money, you get no soup. But I think for a creative person who can deal with commerce, we’re at the doorstep of a pretty great new era, when you can make connections directly instead of through a middleman, whether that middleman is a gallerist, and auction house or a web site operator. The same way we’ve talked about the selling of music changing before. Artist to consumer, everyone’s happy. Well everyone except the out of work middlemen. But they don’t have to worry too much, especially where art is concerned, because an art gallery isn’t just a place with art hanging up, it’s kind of a social destination, especially on the opening nights, and you can’t do that on the Internet. You can’t gag on cheap, acidic wine or sardine yourself into a room with a hundred hipsters sweating and screaming conversations at each other over the Internet. Not yet anyway, but I’m sure one day they’ll be able to replicate the experience of a gallery opening via computer in your house. You’ll have something like Temple Grandin’s “hug machine” in your closet and you’ll just get in there with a $2 bottle of wine and some kind of helmet…

Speaking of art gallery openings, what’s up with the terrorist attacks? Imagine some 80s hack comic in front of a brick wall talking about women drivers or how bad airplane food is, talking about terrorism. Or don’t. I don’t know, it’s just something that came to me. I used to avoid Facebook, but since summer I’ve been on there, poking around and listening to people I know and don’t know and seeing how people respond to news, real news and fake news, or 10 year old news, all of which seem to be popular on Facebook, but of course when something like the terrorist attack in Paris happens, people have a lot to say. And since it’s the Internet, they feel compelled to say idiotic things in opposition to each other and then argue over which point of view is more idiotic. because that’s just what we do now. But I thought it was interesting that as everyone was mourning over the 130 or so who were killed in Paris, some people came along and said, “You know, this many people died yesterday here or there,” – pick any middle eastern country and you’ll probably be correct – “why aren’t you talking about that? Why don’t you mourn that?”

And maybe predictably that gets the mourners wound up and all sorts of mud is flung back and forth. I understand both sides of that argument. I’ve probably mentioned here before that I find it difficult to mourn the violence we do to each other and the general suffering and horror all over the world, just because there’s too much of it. If I let myself get caught up in that I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. It’s too much. There’s some tragedy to be affected by happening every minute of every day. I can’t do it. Make of that what you will, call me whatever you’d like, but I can’t do it. I can’t dwell on people being butchered in Paris or Syria or Los Angeles or anywhere else. When it’s personal, you can’t help but be affected, I’m not made of stone, but when it isn’t – sorry. I don’t know anyone in Paris, I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I’m not saying I don’t care, I’m saying I can’t care. It’s just a matter of self-preservation.

That’s pretty fucked up, I hear you saying, and you’re probably right. But when I said I understand both sides of the tragedy market, I do. I have a good friend – okay, an ex-girlfriend – who lives in Lebanon in my Facebook feed, and every week or two I see something about a new tragedy there or someplace right next door. So when Facebook loses its collective mind over 130 Parisians, I do have to think, hey, haven’t you heard? This shit goes on every day. There’s an obvious difference, of course. And that is there are a lot of white people in Paris, or in the World Trade Center, and those people being slaughtered every day in the middle east are mostly brown, or even if they are for lack of a better descriptive term, “white,” well, they aren’t really white, are they. Heh heh. Yep. They’re not American or European, the only white that counts. I have your attention now, don’t I. Now you’re mad. Now you’re thinking, “That prick is calling people who mourn the Paris attack racists!” Well I’m not, but if that’s the first thing that came to your mind, you may want to, you know, “explore the possibilities” of some racism inside of you. It’s inside all of us, it’s just a matter of degree. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. Ah, xenophobia, ever heard of that? It’s a fear of outsiders, of people from different countries. And it’s what you see after every terrorist attack. It’s a real fear, but it’s also a convenient way to express racism, you know, if you’re not comfortable being up front about it.

And what’s the deal with people swapping out or appending their Facebook avatars with a Facebook-supplied and approved “overlay of concern.” Like the semi-transparent colors of the French flag, or rainbow stripes to show how much you love the gays? Someone explain that to me. Wait, I’m going back to bad 80s comedian again – what’s the deal with these Facebook avatars? See, this is why I can’t get into things like this, because it opens a can of worms and none of those worms are tasty. All I’m left with is dirt in my mouth and the urge to puke. Even though I said a couple weeks ago that I wanted to execute people who don’t know how to behave in society, I am at heart a peace and love guy. I was drawn to the hippies and I was drawn to the Rastafarians and the peaceniks because I see that as the only way humanity can get out of the endless cycle of horror and misery that its in. But as a realist I know that preaching or promoting peace and love is a fool’s game. Everyone will say, “Yeah, man, groovy! Peace and love!” and then fifteen seconds later they’ll start going on about something that makes you wonder how you could have possibly though peace and love could work. I still believe in the long term that peace and love could work, but about 99% of us will have to die first. And I suppose I include myself in that 99%. But we won’t live to see it in any case. However you slice it or dice it.

It’s just a matter of self-preservation. Yeah. It’s like Bukowski said in a poem 50 years ago:

you keep buying newspapers and reading of
men dying – this man that man this man that man
names they’ve placed before you
until
pretty soon you know they are going to run out of
names and they are going to have to use
you

Maybe that’s why I can’t take in all the tragedy and suffering of the world and come up with some statement about inhumanity or some other breezily profound thing, because it all hits too close to home. It all just reminds me of my own inevitable end – or all of our ends – on a bloody street or on a hospital mattress somewhere. Who wants to think about that? Okay, bye, see you next time.