Your “Merit” Entitles You to Absolutely Nothing

Hurt about “what passes for music” these days and how unappreciated your brilliance is?

“Shouldn’t art sell ON ITS OWN MERIT?”

I recently came across a post from the art world about painters displaying their own naked bodies alongside their works, and questioning how such an approach impacts the validity of the artistic process, the art itself, and sales.

I talk about music because it’s what I know but it applies equally to any field in which people who choose to be bitter make similar remarks.

The unexamined philosophy behind “Shouldn’t art sell on its own merit?” is based on the erroneous, illogical idea that artistic quality (100% subjective) and market success should have a direct relationship, and that indeed they would, if people just let the art sell “on its own merit” (I’ll put that phrase in quotes every time, because as you’ll see it encapsulates a pernicious, bullshit, violent and just freaking dumb idea that needs a name).  Even if “merit” and sales even COULD have a direct relationship (and they can’t, because of the subjectivity issue), they don’t.

“Shouldn’t art sell on its own merit?” is a knot of confusion I scarcely know where to begin untangling.  It’s an idea based on an imaginary vacuum where a thing, any thing, in this case a specific piece of art like say a painting, can exist on its own, outside of all context.

LET’S GET ONE THING STRAIGHT:  If art rose or fell “on its own merit” then a great painting (“great”) could just sit in a closet and people would be magnetically drawn to it and its greatness- by the power of its “merit.”  “Heck dang, see all them art lovers zombie-stumblin’ towards that house over on Elm St where that hermit lady nobody knows anything about lives?  Must be some real meritorious art going on in there!”

If art should succeed or fail “only on its own merit,” then no one should post their art to social media, because plenty of artists globally don’t have that advantage.  Good looking people shouldn’t be able to have their faces shown with their works because that’s hardly the art’s own merit, right?

It also supposes some direct relation between “merit” and sales.  As if, all other things being equal (if everyone had to play by the same rules, no nudie stuff, all work magically became equally accessible, etc.), then work of greater “merit” would sell more than that of lesser.  This is not the case.  There is no direct relationship between these things.

Ah more merit talk.  Art should sell on its own merit, right?  So an artist shouldn’t buy ads, right?  Hardly selling on its own merit.  And so on.

TL;DR:

the “merit” notion is as Pollyanna as it is ignorant, and unfair to artists. It would make some sense in a world where everyone had equal opportunity, and where merit and sales had a direct relationship.

Neither of those things is real.

Next, the whole idea of selling art, hate to break it to whoever is still in this merit wonderland (the more I talk about it the more of that spoiled orange juice-y upchuck feeling I have in my mouth), but the moment one decides to put any piece of art into the marketplace (up for sale) they have created a product. It can go on being art, but it’s now also a product, and products exist in a market and are subject to all the “unfairness” of markets. “Better” products lose out to lesser ones all. The. Time. For any variety of reasons, which boil down to marketing (an enormous umbrella of a term).

So what we have in the “merit” lecture is this high school fantasy: “REAL art should be made by REAL artists who should only care about REAL things and TBH they really shouldn’t even be trying to SELL it anyway because can you really even sell anything without SELLING OUT?…MAAAAANNN?”.

Are you annoyed yet?  You should be quite annoyed, because this is attitude sits on the very top shelf of intoxicating ignorance.  It’s one of the most patronizing attitudes anyone can hold, and at the end of the day it’s violent to artists, who are people, who need to live and for gosh sake should have the chance to make money over and above what they need if that’s what they wanna try and do.  This is America for Chrissake.

BRANDING AND PERCEPTION

Now from a pragmatic perspective, we all have to live with what we have presented to the world.  If someone poses nude with their newest work each time they post in their store, well then they’re gonna be that artist who poses nude with their work.

If I was a gorgeous woman with an envy-inducing bosom and I showed it all off with every artwork, well that may put me at an “unfair” advantage to other artists in similar circles without the same assets.  But 1) life isn’t fair and we have no obligation to shoot our own success in the foot for the sake of someone else’s arbitrary notion of fairness.

But more importantly, again, then I’d be the booby painter/sculptor/whatever.  And it would affect people’s perception of me in all sorts of ways including ones I found unfair, unpleasant, and probably even hostile at times.  Right or wrong, fair or not, I would be making the choice to live with that.  And I would be volunteering not to be taken seriously by certain sectors of the art power structures, especially if you’re talking about “high art”/ “legit” art/ academia.

Let’s boil this brew:

1) anyone lecturing artists (especially artists themselves) needs to check their bullshit philosophies,

2) fairness does not exist in art, business, or elsewhere so any preaching about fairness goes back to point #1, and

3) ladies and gentlemen, do what you want with your bodies and your work, just don’t be naive about the world we are living in and the fact that you are marking and potentially pigeonholing yourself in ways both predictable and not by the ways you market your work.

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