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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Arnold

Why Exchanging Art for Money Sometimes Feels Icky (Book Excerpt)

Money and selling so often feel "icky" for many musicians & other artists. We need to make money in order to survive in our society, but turning our art into a commodity can sometimes feel a bit like selling out. This is what underlies the uncomfortable twinge you feel when you see art that's been made solely for the purposes of making money. Sometimes exchanging money for art destroys what makes it art.

You can take certain steps to retain the integrity of your art, though. This starts with learning about the underlying dynamics of commodification. In this video, I read a short excerpt from my upcoming book and talk about how you can begin to feel better about the ways you exchange your art for life's necessities. See the excerpt below.

Be among the first to know about my upcoming book "Soulforce Arts: The Vital Role of Musicians & Other Artists in a World That's Lost Its Mind" by signing up for my mailing list at

Joseph Arnold Violinist, Alexander Technique Teacher, Director of the Soulforce Arts Institute


For the Glory of Lesser Gods

Even though it appears that the arts have largely been disconnected from their true purpose in our society, they do, in a funny way, still fulfill an aspect of their essential role. As we saw above, the arts have long been used as expressions of spirituality and religion. In this role, the arts both reveal and guide us towards what's most important to us, what we value, who we think we are, where we came from, and where we believe ourselves to be going. These are the functions of worship. Even though we live in a largely secular society where many of us claim to no longer believe in any gods, our arts actually tell us another story. They reveal to us that we do, indeed, still engage in fervent daily worship–it’s just that our “gods” are money, technology, status, and power.

These concerns are the obsessions of our society at large, and our arts reflect this. These are the forces that have turned our arts from their true purpose. And while there is nothing in particular wrong with money, technology, status, and power, the arts in our society have increasingly been regarded merely as instruments of these aims. And as a result, something essential has been lost. In service of these lesser gods, the arts cannot rise to their greatest potentials, and instead become what we see today: hollow, cheap, and dumbed down. This trend has influenced every aspect of the arts in our society. It is what’s behind the shallowness of much popular music, the rise of technology at the expense of skill, the obsession with celebrity culture, the intellectual dead-end of postmodernism, and even the disintegration of community in our society at large. These are all the result of making art for the glory of lesser gods.

The Almighty Dollar

Everywhere we look the arts are for sale. Music downloads, concert tickets, prints, paintings, dance classes, university arts degrees, home decor… the list goes on and on. The exchange of money for art is now so ubiquitous that it might almost seem like a natural part of the artistic process. And yet, money and the arts have always had an uneasy relationship. After all, how much is a transcendent artistic experience worth? That's a lot like asking how much a sunrise is worth–what makes something true art simply cannot be quantified in terms of money.

And yet, quantify we must, because we live in an economic system that requires money for our survival. Few landlords or grocers, for example, will accept a poem or a dance in exchange for rent or ramen. This forces artists to turn our art into a commodity, so that it can be exchanged for money which can then be used to buy life’s necessities. This exchange, however, necessarily challenges the integrity of our art. This is because what allows for the greatest economic growth is the creation of generic replications that can then be produced at scale. On the one hand, mass-production benefits artists because it does, for example, allow for the widespread propagation of our work. But it also comes at a great cost. As author Lewis Hyde wrote, it is “possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a commodity.”

The drive to make money from art distorts and cheapens it. For instance, pop music is now composed via formulas designed to maximize catchiness, edited with pitch-correcting software that masks a singer’s lack of vocal technique, and is brought in front of focus groups before release to ensure marketability and sales. The results, while ear-catching, are often shallow and unsatisfying. Similarly, IKEA brands itself as a place where ordinary people can buy artistic items, but there is simply no comparison between one of their factory-made chairs and a hand-crafted Shaker antique. And even in art and music schools the bottom line is king. Economic pressures motivate schools to become like factories for churning out art students, the result of which is that many graduates are saddled with injuries, burnout, and crippling debt. The truth here is that very act of creating something in the interest of economics strips it of what actually makes it art.

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