art and commerce, OR: blogs and google.

Last night I had a dream where I was talking to an old friend who is kind of a punk-anarchist-thinker-believer. He’s an interesting writer and thinker, and in the dream I was telling him it was time to publish that zine he had always wanted to do–but he said, ‘oh zines are dead. We are living in an age of marketability and advertising. Nobody wants to read a zine. Books and writing are disappearing, you can’t do them anymore.’ He said this without a shred of cynicism.

I think the dream was more or less about some of my own fears, but also about some of the lies that come after artists. We are living in a time when communication and tools are so democratized–anyone can have a blog, anyone can make a CD. While some of this helps to take the pretension and exclusivity off of art, it does homogenize unique gifts. This happens in the church as well as the art world. A lot of preachers or ministers, even if their gift is more oral than written, feel pressured to write a book… it is kind of an expected thing in church circles. As a result there is a lot of mediocre writing and teaching in Christianity–not because the teachers are mediocre but because they don’t really understand acutely the areas of their own domain–and so as a result the book has less of an impact than the spoken message. Their domain might not be a book or a blog, but since everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t we? As a result writing as a separate gift from teaching, or preaching, becomes devalued.

There are so many blogs now that review fashion, music, products from a unique voice but they are employed and contracted with advertising. Leave aside the fact that there are now exclusively advertising blogs, many otherwise creative blogs now have Google advertising on their sidebars. This is becoming more common than not. For the purposes of this essay, I want to separate blogs and websites that are used for communication and networking purposes, and blogs that are used for writing and expression. In the latter case the democratization of blogging and websiting has given room to a lot of people who otherwise had no outlet, a new outlet. But because the standards are low, writing on the net gets very sensationalist and cheap. This is why it becomes such an easy target for marketing.

One of the things that was spoken to me in the dream was, “no one wants books anymore.” Which I immediately knew was a lie. People are not going to stop reading The Brothers Karamazov, because it has truth in it. Books are going to keep going, because there will always need to be an alternative to what constitutes most of internet writing, which is becoming more and more market-driven. Art is becoming increasingly a marketing product. Artists are not products, we know this. But because my generation is one of the most creatively-bent generations ever, the lines between art and commerce are increasingly blurred. Most of our gifts are channeled into marketing and design–creating products, selling things. Advertising has become a viable creative field for artists. The most creative films I’ve seen lately are commercials. However, after watching one such commercial, I had a hard time trusting the humor in it. The humor was made to explicitly sell a product. This is the same problem that happened to the Soggy Bottom Boys in O Brother Where Art Thou; their song and even their freedom from jail became manipulated by a politician for his own election.

My point is that advertising and the marketplace, if they are the primary frame behind art, quickly cheapen the creative vision, or overcome the creative vision for the sake of promotion. It is really important for my generation to separate the terms culture and art. What we often call “culture” includes art, but culture is usually a frame through which something is sold and promoted. We often are told to go buy something or visit something because it is interesting culture, or it “has a lot of culture.” Now when we say, “I want to go there because it has a lot of culture,” what exactly does that mean? Sometimes we mean the collective creative expression of a certain place or group of people. Usually, we use it to describe a part of society that promotes the arts. Now that “culture” has become a marketable thing, cities and communities are able to draw people by levying “culture”. Starbucks is “cultural” by that definition, but is it artistic?

There is a place where art and commerce are supposed to intersect, but artists and those in business need to really re-evaluate where that intersection point is. Artists are by natures teachers and demonstrators, and so when commerce is the frame around art, or ministry becomes the frame, whatever, the art quickly loses its value as truth. Both artists and commerce are guilty for this. Truly, artists are often poor, touring around in their beat-up vans, exiled from mainstream culture, scrounging up tools to make their vision. (Just read Van Gogh’s letters to his brother.) This is not always a depressing fact, but it is a fact that artists often produce their most valuable symbolic insights–whether they are writers, visual artists, dancers or musicians–when they are challenging the status quo. The most profound books of the 20th century came often from writers who were either exiled from their own country, or in prison (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom I’m reading right now), or simply without a book contract.

The other day while I was walking about praying, the Lord showed me that artists thrive best in adversity. Not just because they like railing against the system, but because they are meant to break barriers, break conceptions, and ultimately, break open to new areas of truth that have been long neglected by society. When there is a lot of support or even financial comfort around an artist, artists often quickly lose their vision and while they still produce meaningful things their connection and dependence upon commerce for their livelihood is difficult to entangle. For the same reason the church grows the most amazingly when there is persecution.

This is not to say, ‘go seek persecution’ or ‘go seek poverty’ or live without a record contract. Many of my artist friends are going to have a lot of financial and commercial success, and I think this is part of their destiny–because God is giving that to them to give them a platform. However, there should be new ways of supplying artists with their tools, and there needs to be a bit more distance between artist and industry. Starbucks, for example, is now a driving force behind music; however the music becomes “starbucksified” and neutered, in my opinion. There was a time when Leonard Cohen or Muddy Waters were something you discovered in a corner somewhere with a friend, like a delightful surprise, a gem–and it changed the way you looked at things, heard things. But when things get oversaturated and given the homogeneic beatnik tone of a Starbucks frame, they really lose their originality. This is unfortunate for the artists. A live Rothko painting was not meant to be printed out en masse to decorate coffeehouse walls… No matter how hip it is to like abstract expressionism, it takes the emotion and revolutionary energy out of it. I had always seen Rothko prints everywhere and always thought ‘oh that’s nice’, until it became bland and uninteresting. It wasn’t until I got up close to one of these enormous paintings that I nearly cried and realized what it was about.

The world of commerce, and especially the church, need to understand that artists have a job to do, and that they have a vital role in society which is far more than “cultural”–they are not just here to decorate and make things more interesting, they are here to teach us something. Artists on the other hand, need to evaluate the degree to which they actually need the support of google ads. It is really important for artists to have a vision of how far their work should go–is it meant to be on iTunes or is that just an accepted fact of being a musician?

I am in the midst of publishing my first book, and I know that in my life I will make books with more official publishers, but this particular one God told me to spend my own money on it. It is going to be letter-pressed with a gold ink-stamped cover. This is not a cheap project, but he wanted to reinforce to me the beauty of books in his kingdom. In the church, books have become cheap, covers are cheap, design is cheap. Sometimes something does need to be done quickly but some things are meant to take time and honor.

In the case of blogs, there are some things that I write quickly but some things that are real pieces. I spend time on those. I edit them and think about their content. I ask myself if what I’m saying is true, because I realize that as a writer I have the ability to impact people. As well, I also realize that this medium is not my best medium. For that reason, I have saved a lot of mine and Derek’s blog entries which were more “timeless” pieces, and I want to publish them someday as a series of essays. I consider them worth making the leap from blog to book. Even if blogging is not my “best” medium, I still feel like challenging the cheapening of internet writing. Writing is not just a gift, it is something that is meant to be honed. Years ago, when I used to publish columns and poems for newspapers and magazines, I was rejected so many times that I started to wonder if I’d ever be a “writer”–but now I am thankful that I was rejected because rejection really makes you challenge yourself creatively. I’m a much better writer than I was 10 years ago.

So, what I want to say to you, if you have a dream of a punk-anarchist-zine, and that is part of who you are, you should do it. That is where the truth will shine the brightest.

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