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Commercialism and the Arts

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Commercialism and the Arts

Last year sometime I got hooked on the Netflix tv series Billions. It was different from the usual stuff and at first I quite enjoyed it. They just released the fifth season and while I am still watching it, I suspect I won't get through the season. All the characters have become nearly unwatchable and the writing seems to have fallen off a cliff. Watching Chuck Rhoades claim that his goal in life is ethics and the law when he is obviously someone driven by mere hatred and jealousy is rather painful. Also, watching his adversary, Bobby Axelrod, bully his son's private school principal into letting him off on a serious offence reveals his moral vacuity. Yes, he is a monster. Who would want to do business with a monster?

In previous seasons there was more about the inner workings of a hedge fund and how it makes money, but all of that is gone and now there are just the nasty personalities. One sub-plot involves a painter who previously never thought about the commercial potential of his work beforehand. Now Axe, out of a desire to outdo a competitor, corrupts the artist and the instrument of his plan is Wendy Rhoades who in previous seasons was something of a moral compass, but now just subtilely undoes the artist by explaining to him that he is on the brink of a success few artists ever know. Visualize that success! It is kind of like self-affirmation à la Doctor Faust. We should be grateful for the series producers for at least revealing how that works.

Alongside that I am reading a Wall Street Journal piece on how "Blinding Lights" by The Weeknd became the "No. 1 Song of 2020." I tried and I can't even watch it past the first minute. They say:
The story of why “Blinding Lights” succeeded is a combination of deft songwriting and smart business planning. The Weeknd’s fame and canny use of ‘80s influences fueled its rise. But the artist also worked with hit producer Max Martin and met with Spotify and TikTok representatives early on about promoting it.
I don't doubt that. What both these instances reveal is how commercialism undermines and ultimately destroys art in the 21st century. Success is measured in only two ways: money and reach. These two things are closely related, of course. Being paid a lot of money for your paintings, as in the Billions case, makes you famous and you end up selling many more paintings for a lot of money. In the case of "Blinding Lights" being a huge hit, the no. 1 hit, on Spotify leads to a certain amount of money, but even more fame which will lead to packed concerts and more money yet once there can be packed concerts again.

Believe me I have nothing against money. I find it is the best way to obtain the basics and even the frills of life. But I have never been comfortable with the pursuit of money being the prime motivation for the creation of art. Art is not the same as other "products" like frozen fish sticks or Lamborghinis. It does not give pleasure in the same uncomplicated way that food, clothes, cars, houses or other material items do. Art must offer some challenges to the consumer, otherwise it is mere decoration. But if you want to sell your art for high prices or for it to have a wide popular reach, you can't really challenge the consumer. Mind you, in pop music and fashion and some other areas the strategy is often to seem to challenge the viewer, as in the "Blinding Lights" video. But seem is not be and they are actually contraries. These days punching the buttons of sensationalism is not challenging because it is what everyone is doing.

Hmm, what would be a good envoi? Can't think anything really suitable so let's just see what YouTube tosses up today. This is good, a concert of Bach violin concertos in Switzerland with Hilary Hahn as soloist:




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