We’ve been travelling around southwest New Mexico for the last four months, mostly observing the culture of the state and trying to keep our VW-powered RV rolling. Because there isn’t a lot to do in a campground after dark and even less that you can do when two people try to exist in a 90 square foot living space, I’ve spent a lot of this winter reading, thinking, and writing.
Yesterday we landed in a couple of our least favorite New Mexico places, Deming and Rockhound State Park, so there was even less than usual to do last night. After a couple of weeks of primitive national park isolation and a few days of exploring a town full of art galleries, Silver City, it struck me that I don’t know why people pay money for art. I mean art of any sort: music, visual art, movies and plays, and any other “expression of the self” that we might classify as artistic.
Art galleries are full of stuff that will sooner or later end up in second hand stores. Like browsing museums, it’s fun to look at artists’ work but it’s hard to imagine handing over hard-earned cash for something that will either end up selling for a few pennies on the dollar at a Salvation Army store or be tossed out with our worn out furniture when we move or die. Do you know what happens to the majority of grant-created sculpture that you see on temporary display in parks, city streets, and at art festivals? It’s turned into scrap, because nobody wants that shit in their neighborhood, house, or yard. Sure, we all dream that we’ve discovered the next Picasso, Dali, Peter Max, or the splatter paint guy, but that’s not gonna happen 47,000,000 out of 47,000,001 times. Even educated and experienced art speculators get their asses handed to them more often than not. The rest of us are buying overpriced memorabilia.
The more I thought about that, the more confused I became about why people pay money for music. When we left a shopping center in Deming, a pair of wannabe-hip-hoppers were hawking CDs in the parking lot; “New music, dog. Only ten bucks!” I could see by their outfits and the fake urban dialect, it would be hip-hopping beats and more of the painful poetry I’ve come to despise over the last 30 years of suffering that “music.” (Rap, and/or hip-hop if there is a difference, is the one place where I agree with Phil Spector when he said,” When they named the music, they left out the ‘c’.”) Obviously, I wouldn’t pay anything for more of the same pain and misery, but last night I began to wonder why I have ever paid for music of any sort. After all, if I turn on the radio, step into a dentist’s office, hang out in a bar, ride an elevator, or go to the library and borrow an armload of CDs, I can have all of the music I can stand for nothing. What is the value of something so available for free?
Likewise, movies. I get why people pay for popcorn, ice cream, and sodas, but what’s the movie worth? If you’re delusional enough to pay top price for a blockbuster opener, you’ll cough up $15-20 per ticket. Wait for the post-rush matinee and the price goes to $5. Wait for the movie to make it to the second-run theaters and a ticket is $2. Wait six months and the same movie will cost you $1 to rent as a DVD. Wait another year or two and you can see it in hi-def on television for free.
If the movies, music, sculpture, and paintings are, essentially, worthless, why do we pay money for them? If the art is worthless, what are the tools of art worth? What is the value of the musical instruments, paint brushes, movie cameras, microphones, recording equipment, and the rest of the artistic paraphernalia that is where the real money in art exists? That’s a tougher question. If most artists didn’t believe themselves to be the Next Big Thing, the profit margins on this stuff would be considerably smaller, the industries grossly less sophisticated, and academia would be way less interested in hyping courses and degrees in “the arts.” The fact is, pretty much no one will be any closer than parking next to the Next Big Thing, so this is not a reality-based business. Likewise, art for money has some serious problems.