What is art, who is an artist, and is it possible for art to be commercially driven?

Art is hard to define. Maybe that is also one of its many interesting and crucial aspects. Art has been explained as the ultimate escape or respite from the routines of everyday life, as the enabler to our reflections of life’s bigger questions, and as an important provocateur and debate stimulator in our societies. And for some it’s something that has always existed in a world outside of their own.


For centuries art was created by a handful of celebrated geniuses, primarily to serve a purpose for a powerful patron. In the seventeenth-century Europe however, intellectuals started challenging existing systems of ethics, environment and religion, and artists started to argue that art did not need to fulfil a certain purpose, the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. New possibilities opened up, and so also new understandings of what art had been and should continue to be (An and Cerasi, 2017). This is of course something changing also today.


Art and business has historically been seen as two completely separate areas. However, the last decade these two areas are more often related to each other, and are clearly influencing each other in different ways. Foremost is the shared challenge of taking a nascent idea, bringing it to life and create emotions. The increased relationship between art and business has also given birth to the area called Cultural economics: the branch of economics that studies the relation of culture to economic outcomes (Wikipedia 2018, Stenström 2008)


According to Emma Stenström, a scientist and the author of the book “konstiga företag” about art and business, it is sometimes said that there is two paradox trends when it comes to art and business in society. One of them is an aestheticization of the non-art, and the other one a de-aestheticization of the arts. On one hand, arts’ position in society has for some time been shifting, and cannot longer be seen as a separate and closed world with its own institutions. On the other hand, the society is in total getting more aesthetic.


In the book it is also suggested that one may ask whether it is however rather about business increasing its importance and control over society in total. The increased importance of aesthetics could hence be seen logically and rationally from a capitalist perspective: necessary to increase sales. What if companies or businesses see themselves as the actual art and culture producers? If so, what purpose does more traditional art have in the 21st century? (Stenström, 2008).


It should come as no surprise that design and aesthetic as well as artistic values have been used in order to create emotions and strong associations for brands for a rather long time within the marketing and advertising field. After the Second World War the availability of art and design also shifted and became more democratic, just as the society in total. When production of everyday items increased, artists and designers were hired in order to make the product designs more appealing. Hence, the similarities between art, crafts, industrial design and other goods were increasing and have continued to influence each other more and more ever since. (Nationalmuseum 2018).


Today, the most talented filmmakers, actors, illustrators, photographers, writers are often hired by companies or agencies to create and be part of campaigns, concepts or commercials.


In a world where business is increasingly celebrating creativity and art is having to find new ways to sustain itself, have the two found allies in one other? (Davis, 2018). Both the artist and the creative business need to make money to survive, and do both to some extent see a purpose of affecting people. With this background: what decides what is art and not? Who should and can be called an artist? And can art be commercially driven?


These are questions we seek to examine the coming weeks by talking to people with knowledge or opinions in these fields.


Recommendation of books and articles:

The book “Konstiga företag” by Emma Stenström (2008).
The Book “Who’s afraid of contemporary art?” by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi (2017)
Texts from the Nationalmuseum collection, 2018.

Reflection: Jesper Dahl, Digital Strategy Manager at Whispr Group and exhibition producer

In last week’s Issue we started a conversation about the relationship between art and business. In a world where business is increasingly celebrating creativity and art is having to find new ways to sustain itself, have the two found allies in one other? In order to receive som thoughts we reached out to Jesper Dahl, who from his rich background within the marketing field, design management studies at Parsons and from producing various exhibitions, has knowledge from different perspectives related to the topic. 


What would you say, if possible, defines art?
– In my opinion art is defined by intention, canon and to some extent quality and originality.


Do you agree that society in total is getting more aesthetic, and if so, what does it mean for artists and art?
– I would definitely agree that it is becoming more dependent on aesthetic practices. Screen society forces or demands a larger amount of images to be produced and a larger set of services to be designed. Our knowledge of the aesthetic world is being more informed by images; which can work as something that heightens the “taste level” but also (or perhaps even therefore) streamlines art and design practices making them less original.


But it is also increasingly lacking the trace of a hand or a person. Much of our designed environment hinges on best practices and templates, and the same is somewhat true for art.


Can art be commercially driven? 
– Of course. It both can and currently is in society at large. The starving artist is often considered a fairly modern construct. Another aspect is also the distinction between an art and a craft, the latter being the action that often creates the first, without being interchangeable. Many creative people mistake their craft for art, just as some might mistake their art for craft. Short version: art is boundless and based on creativity, craft is structured and based on learned skills and techniques.


But in a capitalist society, with increasingly neoliberal ideals and ideas, it makes sense for much of the art world to be on either side of it, either protesting or embracing the current market to be relevant. I mean even ignoring it is taking a stand in regards to it.


Can A graphic designer, a CD or an AD be called an artist? If not, why is that in your opinion?

– They can, but it is unlikely that what they produce in their paid work, in that capacity is art, rather than a result of their craft. Also; a person who is an AD or CD can ALSO be an artist in a separate practice, but seldom in the same. Capitalism is very eager to make us confuse art and craft, to give craft the value of art and sell it back to us.


Find out more about Jesper Dahl and his thoughts here. Jesper’s next show “Sovande Bilder” by Angelina Bergenwall and My Roman Fagerlind opens at Erik Nordenhake on the 22nd of November

Reflection: Sofia Jonsson, International Master Programme in Curating Art at Stockholms University, and assistant for performance artist and choreographer Lynsey Peisinger

Earlier this autumn we started discussing the relationship between art and business. We reached out to Jesper Dahl in the previous Issue in order to get some thoughts. This time we contacted Sofia Jonsson, who from both her master studies and professional experience within the Marina Abramovic Institute and working for artist Lynsey Peisinger, have a lot of interesting knowledge to share. 


What would you say defines what is art and not? Who can be an artist?
There are many straightforward opinions about what is art and not, even though it truly is hard to define. It is really difficult to define what characterizes it. Art is what art is, and art is also the question about what art is. It also kind of puts the finger on how meta art is, or at least how meta the opinions about it is. The foundations for it are created within the art world. According to institutional art theory, art becomes art in a certain context , where the art world can look at art and collectively decide something should be seen as art. If you put something in a white cube it becomes art. This of course occasionally both arbitrary and elitist. It is hard having credibility in one’s opinions about art, only some opinions are taken seriously, which also impact the experience of the viewer. This creates a problematic threshold that might scare people off the art scene.


For example, if a person who does not have much knowledge about art visits a museum that’s supposed to be “good” and who then does not like the exhibition or the art itself, the conclusion might be that the person does not like art over all. That’s a sad result of that, since the whole point with art is that the effect and opinion should be personal, and that you do not have to like everything. What the artists wanted or meant does not decide how you interpret the art or feel when studying it.


The notion that some know art instinctively is problematic, so is its absence in general education. The more you are exposed to art, the more you will learn and the more you will know. Your own taste will develop over time, just like everything else. I believe it is necessary to have a new infrastructure around art, the way we look at art, in order to more clearly invite people that might have previously been less exposed to art.


Speaking of the boundaries between what is art and what is not, more and more businesses want to be connected to art in some way. Why is that? That is telling of art’s function in today’s society.


Do you agree that the relationship between business and art is growing? If so, in what way?
I think people associate business with hard values and art with soft values. In that sense they have gotten closer to each other as there in general is an increasing focus, or at least outspoken focus, on the softer values in businesses. I do believe that the business world is getting closer to, and taking advantage of, what art stands for and is: freedom, creativity and cultural value, but I am not sure whether the art world is taking as much inspiration from the businesses. But I guess it of course is, and has to, in capitalist societies. The artworld and capitalism have always been entangled in each other in some way.


So do you believe it is important that they are distinguished from each other in some ways?

– Yes I think they need to be kept separate. Not that businesses can’t focus more on the softer values, but the logic of businesses needs to be kept away from art: the constant focus on measurability, on productivity and efficiency. I think it is very dangerous to let that perspective influence the artworld too much. If you would try to measure how an art piece is perceived, I think you would destroy it and also its reason to exist. You are quickly getting into question what its function is, and that’s dangerous in terms of art.


Art can’t be measured, and the effect of art certainly cannot. Personally, I love that art can also be meaningless.


The art will always respond to the society surrounding the artist. In a capitalist society the art will answer to that, and therefore it is dangerous to start talking about the meaning with art. I believe that the art scene has the cultural power it has today because it is as free as it is. If it would turn into something else I think it would not be as powerful anymore. There is a notion that the artworld stands outside capitalist society, and that the values created within it are pure. Ironically that is way its aesthetics and meaning is desirable for business.  It is just that; aestheticization.


When welfare is being torn down societal responsibilities is silently delegated to individuals and in some sense the cultural sector. When the world is unstable, it is easy to put the pressure on individuals and creatives to save the world. And people themselves believe it is their purpose. We live in a time where almost all creative, within the advertising industry as well, feel like they have to do something. They have to be driven by values, be meaningful, be equal, be inclusive and so on.  While it is important, I also believe that artists need to be allowed to not constantly pressure to defend their existence.


What do you believe is the biggest difficulties for artists in the 21st century?

– Potentially that it gets increasingly difficult to create some sort of value when more and more people are creating, on new types of platforms that did not exist before social media. I also believe that some sort of ethical stress also has started to impact artists to a greater extent, and in fact all people, that you are responsible and to blame for the state of the world today. The artists role is also more and more moving away from “being an artist”. To apply for funding, find galleries, do paper works and other types of administration, grow social channels and so on – everything that in fact is something else, another role. And this is where the curatorial role comes in.


However, I do believe that art and creativity will find new ways to express itself. It always has.