Art for art’s sake
Money for God’s sake
This morning, I’ve been contemplating the problematic intersection of art, spirit and cold, hard cash.
Money has never been my inspiration, and I often feel somehow sullied when I charge people for my music or even my divinatory skills. In short, I aspire to be a saint more than a businessman. This isn’t because I don’t understand the motivations of business, but I find the round of buying and selling, of turning a skill or even a living being into a commodity, to be cheapening. A slippery slope, if you will.
We are a culture of merchants and merchandising. If there is a god of the West, it is capitalism. Question capitalism, and you’re immediately treated as if you’re a dangerous heretic. While we’re not ferreting out communists a la Joe McCarthy, we still question whether the very idea of socialism is permitted. It is a dangerous idea: that the community is, at the end, more important than a single individual, that wealth should be shared and not hoarded, that the elites are truly no better than the working man. The cult of Mammon is married to the cult of the individual.
In the Bible, Mammon is considered a “false god,” whose name derives from an ancient Semitic word for wealth. But gods of wealth aren’t false in and of themselves. Consider the Roman Pluto and Ops, the Hindu Laxshmi, the Gaulish Rosmerta. People historically petitioned the gods for abundance: the good harvest, fertile animals. For enough. Enough is an old word, derived from the Indo-European root nek, “to reach or attain.” It’s related to the Old English geneah, meaning “it suffices,” according to my friends at Dictionary.com.
But what is enough? That, perhaps, is the key to the problem. If the root of enough is reaching, the problem of Mammon is overreaching. Neverending reaching. We become the hungry ghosts of Chinese lore, with huge bellies and small mouths, unable to take in enough. Nothing is ever enough.
Look around, and you see that theme played out everywhere. It doesn’t matter how much you make, what you do, how you look, how hard you work. You will never have enough, or be enough. You can never stop reaching. It’s a hoarding mentality, in a way. We don’t know what the times will bring, so we hoard it all and refuse to share. If someone falls on hard times, it’s their fault for not reaching enough. It will never, ever happen to us, until it does.
We value everything in terms of money, and believe that money in itself confers value. A baseball player is paid more than a teacher, ergo the baseball player must has more value. (Feel free to substitute whatever roles or even objects you wish in this equation.) Something that is expensive must be “better,” must be worth more, even if the doors fall off.
Money, culturally speaking, is an addiction — similar in many respects to food addiction. As with food, you can’t live without it in our particular cultural milieu. What makes it an addiction is the reduction of all value and all life to its terms. We must always have more; more is the meaning of life. More of what? Anything, everything. Money turns Ops, the Roman goddess of the Earth, into opulence.
Such is our cultural addiction that we often distrust people who give things away. If it is free, then it is worthless, valueless. You can trash it. While there is a value in working for a thing, we no longer see the value in a gift, unless that gift has a pricetag attached.
I’ve struggled with this in my music. Commercially, I’m an utter failure. I sell very few CDs, if at all. It’s not commensurate with the time and resources I put into it: my many years of vocal training, the house full of instruments, the computer system and software needed for recording, all the accoutrements. As my husband reminds me during my gloomier moments, it’s not about the money or recognition; it’s about my devotion to the gods and to art. And so I continue.
I’ve tried, in the past, lowballing my prices, even giving CDs away to people who seem interested. After all, it’s not about the money; I want to share my vision, my art, my devotion to any who would appreciate it. What I found is that people valued it even less — because money is the ultimate value, the determining value. People accept the gift, and then turn it into a drink coaster.
Of course, this likely means that my music indeed has no value, and that I really don’t either, except to the small circle of people who know and love me. Yes, I recognize this painful truth. I don’t deny it, even if it sucks the joy out of me.
But it strikes me that there needs to be a better way to approach meaning and value. Yes, we all need a living, me included. That living, at the end of the day, should be just that: living! Doing something of value and, in return, having enough to live — not more than anyone else, and not the dregs. We can achieve this, but not if we’re a culture of hoarders and material addicts. Not if we believe one individual is more important than every other individual combined, or that people “deserve” to suffer if they don’t have the smarts, savvy, prophetic skill, health or popularity to thrive in laissez-faire capitalism.
To achieve those ends would be to think differently: to think of the common good over the individual good, to choose the difficulties of love and care over the clean lines of hate and judgment. To ask the hard questions and admit we don’t know the answers. To recognize that there can be enough — but only if we share.