I went to a holiday market over the weekend. I had a wonderful time, talking with friends, seeing their new work, purchasing a few items, but the market itself has stuck with me, has left me feeling uncomfortable, cold, and alone instead of gathered with a community of makers, together in a world we shape.
It is easy to think of the art market as a painting that sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, blue chip galleries, and the spread of art fairs. The reality for most people in the creative economy is, of course, far more mundane and precarious. The objects we see and buy at markets are supplemented by the work in and out of the creative economy that most artists must do – teaching, curating, arts administration, waiting tables. The proliferation of markets – seasonal markets, local business Saturday, the internet – has increased our ability to support artists and live with the unique items they produce. I love being able to buy beautiful objects from the people who have made them, yet this readiness, this instantaneous access to the local, unique object is exactly where my uneasiness lies.
The hand-made, bespoke, curated life has, not surprisingly, been turned into marketing opportunities for corporations who can sell them back to us conveniently, at the tip of our fingers. They show us a world full of just the right lamp or rug or coaster or pitcher or plant arrangement; they shape the visual culture we cannot escape in subway ads, internet banners, and instagram feeds; they give us a world full of things to be consumed. The unique, curated life masks middle class consumption, an artistic patina that coats the same marketplace that has driven us to extract oil from the ground at ever-expanding rates, lay now-abandoned railroad tracks across the globe, and develop ships and exploitative supply chains that make it easier to manufacture a shoe halfway around the world from its wearer.
By no means am I suggesting we should not support local artists, artists we know and whose work we love. We should buy their plates and prints and sweaters. We should attend their performances and readings. We must also recognize that buying one of their works is not enough to sustain them and may in fact perpetuate a cycle of subsistence. We all know artists who make a living, but how many artists do we know who are thriving? The solution must go beyond shopping locally. Capitalism’s tools cannot dismantle the house it has so successfully and seamlessly built.
How can we support all of the artists, farmers, and dancers we know beyond giving them money for goods and services? How can we shape a world more fully equal and just? We can begin by acknowledging and honoring the many types of support we all need – a friend holding our baby, a neighbor lending us a tool, a ride to the grocery store. We can recognize that, although we live within it, capitalism does not shape or underlie all of the many types of support we give and receive. We may already have the tools to rebuild an entirely new way of seeing and living in the world. We may not yet be able to topple the stalls in the market, but perhaps we can fashion a raft in the sea of consumption that threatens to drown us all.