“Magic consists of KNOWING the correct, exact gesture, word, pronunciation, all at the correct time; if these are not so, the system will not work. Those who go against nature may do so for a short time, but will undergo the correction of nature at their own peril.” – Ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) Proverbs, On Right Action
“Ain’t no rules ain’t no vows / we can do it anyhow / neither can be bought or sold / Cause everyday we pay the price with the rebels sacrifice / Life is worth much more than gold.” – Bob Marley and The Wailers, Jammin’
Being an artist in the ‘modern’ capitalist society is no joke. Being an artist who is not business minded in a capitalist society is a recipe for tragedy. But then again what is Art for, and in how many ways can it be appreciated without succumbing to preconditions of the market or the “Faka Imali Uzobona” ( Put it money you shall see ) paradigm?
In searching for the Essence of the Arts, I am seeking to figure out how Arts can exist and flourish independent of commercial interests. But then again, perhaps financial gain and commercial success is a veritable motivator for many modern Artists, especially those in the entertainment field or industries.
I am trying to find out whether true Arts could or should be bought and sold, but I am fully aware as an artist myself, that I cannot toil on my work only to give it away to people who may or may not value it. How else can we measure value and appreciation outside of the commercial or financial markets?
The essence of the Arts is not really to always pursue commercial interests, yet in a society where sustenance means one must sell what is most precious to them including one’s “Soul”, the spiritual or ritual significance of Art becomes contentious. Where does one draw the line between true personal expression and doing it to survive, to make a living or even to be a commercial success?
Let us not assume that the commercialization or commodification of Art is a new thing. Throughout history and in many varying societies, Artists have held different leadership and hierarchical positions. While some were porters, artisans, trained and skilled craftsmen and women, others were entertainers for aristocrats, the noble and the affluent, there have always been those Artists who are simply born to do it. Others were trained to imagine and/or build the images of State and affluence. Only the Creators know why some are predisposed to fashion something of aesthetically interest out of base materials while others are simply there to enjoy and benefit from such creations.
The question of what is ethically sell-able and what should not be bought or sold, is an old one. But for our interest as Afrikan people whose Arts and Crafts often holds sacred value, we need to look at commercialization for what it is. The corruption or profanation of the naturally sacred – leading to the undervaluing of divine objects and divine actions or creations. But if I do not buy a Charles Mingus, Joe Henderson, Zim Ngqawana or Winston Mankunku Ngozi album, how else can I get a chance to appreciate the work and contribute to the wellbeing of the Artist?
Art is work and to some people who are not even considered Artists, their own work or even their sporting activity is considered an Art by themselves or even their admirers. To many people, a sportsman like Lionel Merci is an Artist. When I was younger, watching Maradona, Pele or Jomo Sono was like watching an Artist weaving his magic on the theatre of dreams.
When we were young and innocent, it never dawned on us that these Artists were involved in business transactions worth millions in cash and other lucrative benefits. In short, someone is always making money or profiting from someone else’s talent. How that advances or negatively affects the Art and the Artists him or herself is another longer debate that requires deeper analysis on various levels. Such as what are the motivating factors that compel an Artist to do what they do, and how much coercion is involved in the transaction from pure artistry to the market for talent. Malcolm Gladwell’s observations in his books The Tipping Point and Outliers offers great insights into these questions and provides answers to questions such as how the Best or the most successful competitors and players are selected.
Perhaps the question we should ask is, when exactly did we start buying and selling our Arts? Perhaps the simple answer would be, whenever we started setting up communities that were defined and fixed in the varying traditions of increasing and competitive people. In other words, we started trading in artifacts around the same time we began identifying ourselves as different from each other in terms of clans and different identities and professions. It was distance, variation of talents and environmental factors that compelled us to seek out what we did not have or did not know how to create or fashion for ourselves. I do not want to speculate on which Age or Era, but the moment we each discovered that certain specific communities specialized in whichever Arts, that is when the trading and bartering began.
We each possess something that the other does not. The moment we identify that something and figure out that we want it for ourselves, that is when the deal begins. Whatever price is put on it that is the price we will pay if we can afford it. The market provides a space for availability and choice, but the problem with the capitalist market is that it allows for unfair competition where advantage is given to those who can produce more rather than those who specialize in quality rather than quantify. This is how commercialism and materialism becomes corrosive and destructive in society.
This kind of unfair competition exists in all forms of Art, including literature. While writers and song-makers from all nations have the capability to produce Fine Art, it is the ones from the recognized and hegemonic commercial hubs who get to monopolize the markets and flood the whole world with their own ideas of what is true, beautiful and valuable. But they also never shy away from stealing directly from the rest of the world.
But then again what does it mean to be Afrikan in a world that has become so globalized and an Afrika which operates on Western value-systems?
Let’s see what one of Afrika’s greatest philosophers and writers had to say:
“I am an Ibo writer, because this is my basic culture; Nigerian, African and a writer …no, black first, then a writer. Each of these identities does call for a certain kind of commitment on my part. I must see what it is to be black – and this means being sufficiently intelligent to know how the world is moving and how the black people fare in the world. This is what it means to be black. Or an African – the same: What does Africa mean to the world? When you see an African what does it mean to a white man?” – Chinua Achebe.
I know a lot of Artists who have sold more of their visual Arts work to Europeans than to other black people. They have even begun to believe that Black people simply do not value Art in general. Is this part of the modern culture or is it something to do with how we view Art in general?
My simple answer is that, We Art. Art is everything to the Afrikan psyche. There are many among us who believe that everyone is an Artist or at least a potential one. This is where the expression, “if you can talk you can sing and if you can walk you can dance” comes from. But can everyone draw, paint or do what Bheki Mseleku does with the piano, or what Shaluza Max Mtambo does with his voice?
How much should Artists be paid to attend a Festival such as the one happening now, the essence Festival. There are so many questions demanding real answers as to how exhibitors and Artists were chosen. Where does the money go and does it sufficiently support local talents …
Some will say very much so, but others whould strongly disagree … Who is selling what to who and who is fooling who?