by Carolyn Henderson
I once read an Agatha Christie mystery in which the central suspect was said to have a medical condition -- high blood pressure, something like that. The upshot was, because of this medical condition, the suspect had in his possession the very pills that were used to poison the victim.
Ergo, the prime suspect was clearly the villain because he had the pills.
The problem, however, lay in whether or not the prime suspect really did have high blood pressure.
"How do we know that Suspect A has high blood pressure?" one character mused. "Who told you?"
"I don't know," another character replied. "It just seems to be something that is generally known. I figured it was true because everyone was talking about it."
So it is with the dreadful accusation, toward artists, that we are "prostituting ourselves" when we adjust our style or means of doing things or attitude to garner sales. The concept of generating money at all -- in such a pursuit as holy and pure as art -- is evil and base, we are told.
That's sort of kind of the extreme, and the people who argue it most forcefully are those who have no need to make any money off of their art. Secure in a financial situation that involves a regular (although probably never as much as they want) paycheck, proponents of Art as Holy and Divine and Good and Pure from All the Soil of Commerce insist that the artist must follow his Muse (a mythological creation, by the way) and paint only what seems right and good and proper.
Skewing the colors toward neutrals and beiges, because that's what people like behind their sofas these days, is bad bad bad.
Other people, however, have no problem with this, and if the market is demanding white roses in clear glass whiskey glasses, then they'll gladly produce. Understandably, there can be a jaded cynicism in this that chases out any finer sensibilities, resulting in hackwork for the sake of profit -- quite honestly, the Andy Warhol phenomenon is exemplary of this -- but on a less mercenary level, adjusting oneself to the marketplace is simply practical, and no one has any problems with this when dentists change their way of doing things (providing ticky tacky toys as a reward instead of candy, the latter which used to be normal when I was a child), or grocery stores, which thankfully are incorporating grass fed, organic beef alongside the cattle-yard products.
The marketplace wants something, and the person providing for the marketplace chooses to provide it. Just because the person doing the choosing is an artist does not mean, automatically, that he or she is prostituting themselves, as if artists -- and artists alone -- are the only ones who must consider higher, grander, loftier purposes in all they do.
(With this attitude, the very first people to sign up for working for free should be nationalized, celebrity religious preachers. If they are truly doing, as they say, God's good work, then they need to depend upon God to pay them, or at least, not expect Him to pay them so far beyond the wage scale of the people that they purport to help. The same could be said for politicians who, in election years, "connect" with the middle class and consistently express how much they feel our pain: if they really want to feel our pain and make wise decisions, perhaps they should live on a less than 40-hour-per-week, minimum wage job.)
As in the case of the story character with high blood pressure, we have a rumor --within the art industry -- that there is an element of prostitution, and when an artist does A, B, C, or D, he or she has prostituted themselves. The details differ, depending upon the social forum, but they are there, and it is hard to pin down how the specific details get circulated.
If we don't watch ourselves, we will allow ourselves to be nudged and guided into a particular way of looking at things, the same way that Dame Agatha so excellently nudged and guided her readers into suspecting certain characters of doing the crime.
Determining whether or not we are "prostituting ourselves" -- in our art, or in our lives -- is very much a personal and private conversation, highly dependent upon the yard stick we use to determine our moral choices. We must be careful in allowing others to bring in different systems of measurement and insisting that we use them.