Art for Groceries?

Do you think a barter economy is the wave of the future? An ingenious stimulus for regenerating a philistine culture? A gaggle of New York artists thinks so. A press release announcing a 2-day Chelsea exhibition, Art4Barter, just came over the e-transom. You have to read it in its entirety to get the full flavor of the effort:

Bartering may be the answer to bail us out of our current crisis. Although artists have historically been bartering as much as possible it is more relevant now than ever before. It can provide a solution to survival for so many of us and create a new vision of society.

Courtesy of Toonpool.com
Courtesy of Toonpool.com

. . . .No works shall be sold for money but rather for services and goods. The exact service or good that the artist requires will be on the label next to their art.  For example, if an artist were to ask for dental work or other medical procedures in exchange for their art, or for a studio to work in, etc., it will give the community an opportunity to barter for those items that are missing from the artists’ lives. The irony is that art is missing from the lives of many people too because it is treated as a luxury item and not as an essential part of our lives.  This system will not only inspire people to trade with artists, musicians, writers,dancers, and other creative minds, it will also make society less judgmental about valuing different services. When this becomes the norm bartering will be a respectable activity and will create relationships between people from different trades.

Society will be able to provide opportunities to artists that were inconceivable  before this. In addition to being one of the greatest human events in the beginning of the new millennium, we are also expressing a change that the rest of humanity can participate in. By creating a vision of a new cultural standard, whereby people can get through hard financial times by participating in a win-win situation.  This idea can spread to people from all societies of the world.

It is hard to say just where the greater pathos lies: in the megalomaniac view of art’s social role, or in the simple fact of barter on offer as “a new cultural standard.” Equally dismal is the reference to making “society less judgmental about valuing different services.” Does this suggest that setting a broken wrist or doing root canal is not to be valued above, say, body painting with henna? Precisely what might a dancer have to coreograph in exchange for three months back rent? How many sonata scores would get a roofer to seal a musician’s leaking shingles?

Artists have always traded a piece here and there for something else, most often for another artist’s work. Milton Avery sometimes paid his Woodstock grocer in paintings. Jackson Pollack paid for drinks at East Hampston watering holes the same way. On anecdotal evidence alone, dentists seem particularly amenable to this particular kind of noblesse oblige.  All to the occasional good. Nevertheless, most sensible people would consider wholesale regression to a barter economy [“when this becomes the norm”] to be a dangerous, debilitating slide into Third World conditions. But license to bypass sense seems to be the very thing that draws wooly lotus-eaters to the arts.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey