Consumerism and the Artist

How consumer culture impacts the arts industry


“Have you thought about making an Etsy shop?” These are familiar words to the artists of today. Be it crochet projects, paintings, music, short films, zines - no creative venture is spared from the consumerist pressure to sell. In the money-centric system of capitalism operating in the Western world, there seems to be no place for making art for pleasure. As French author Théophile Gautier said, "nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly." By this he was referring to a school of thought at the time which maintained that art should exist for the purpose of being beautiful, rather than for a wider social purpose.


Although today’s contemporary art reflects a more socially conscious world than his, Gautier leaves us with much to think about. In a consumerist society, what if the role of art is not socially (read: financially) useful? Do artists have a responsibility to create art with an actual value, rather than for the experience alone? Under capitalism, artists must adapt to trends in order for their artistic practice to be seen as legitimate.


Impact on students in the creative field


Last year I decided to begin studying creative writing at university, for the chance to develop as a poet amongst like-minded people. Studying a particular subject at degree level usually gives people the implication that you intend to make money out of it. The reality for artists of today is that many of us will work second jobs to support ourselves financially. I never imagined using poetry as a significant source of income, although I still feel a growing expectation to submit to as many publications as possible, or sell a poetry collection. As a result I’ve had to adapt to the trends in the commercial poetry scene.


For me this has meant neglecting my love of rhyming poetry, a style which I’ve come to learn is ‘unsellable’. In doing this I have come to realise that a university education, even in the arts, is primarily seen as a means to an end. Consumerism is actively changing my artistic output and my reason for creating. Having something to sell is the bottom line. If there is no product with a monetary value as a result of an artistic project, (or a degree) - it may as well not have happened.


Priced out by big companies


Many creatives do want to make money from their work. As a result, artists hoping to find customers for their work will flock to websites, such as Etsy, to sell their creations. However as a result of mass production, consumers are not always willing to pay the price for handmade art. Cheap products that are churned out on a production line will generally have less costs involved than a single artist or small business creating art. Customers may not be willing to pay the associated costs of the latter - including materials, time spent, administrative and listing fees. The list goes on. That exciting new business venture can quickly become a financial nightmare.


Alternatively, many creatives are encouraged to accept ‘exposure’ in lieu of payment. However this further promotes a culture of artists underpricing or giving away their work for free. Consumers in the Western world are used to having free or low cost access to photographs, music, fashion, movies and literature (to name a few) at the click of a button. Within this context, is it possible for the socially conscious to consume the work of artists in an ethical way? Has the consumer-based culture of mass production and competitive pricing changed the nature of the art that is being produced?


Supporting artists as a consumer


Although it can be argued that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”, there are a few ways in which you can support your local artists. In a financial sense, choosing to buy directly from artists rather than big companies is a big step. Websites that host the work of artists usually take a cut, so when possible, try to avoid sellers like amazon and opt for the artist’s own website or business. Many artists today accept donations or crowdfunding, which is another way to show support financially.


On a social level, you can report websites that sell knock-offs of an artist's work. This is an important way to use your voice as a consumer to prevent big companies from stealing the work of artists. You can also attend events such as poetry readings, book launches, art exhibitions, both in person and online. Exposure has its place in the art world, when it is not used as a replacement for financial compensation. This can look like sharing a website on social media, streaming online media or word of mouth recommendations.


Although the art world is fraught with obstacles as a result of consumer culture, it continues to exist. The arts sector is a fast growing industry which should be treated as such, however it should also be recognised for the impact it has on the human experience. Art has existed long before capitalism was established. The creation of it is an integral part of our humanity. Those who align themselves with art must be respected and supported, so that we may continue to evolve as a society.