Ritual to Retail


Back in the day—cave days—the drawing on walls of events hoped for was thought to be able to control the natural—and the supernatural as the two were not separate at that time—enough to make the events happen. Art was a ritual and artists were the priests.

The tribes became kingdoms and the kings made remade natural forces in their image, i.e. gods/supernatural kings, to identify those forces with their own. They then demoted the artists to day laborer. The kings morphed into CEOs and other petty tyrants we have running our lives today. I know that sounds bitter, but even admitting that the average person’s life a whole lot better these days, you gotta see that the political superstructure has not changed much in the last couple of millennia.

The artists still did good work, but only the craft was valued not they creativity. They toiled anonymously beside stone masons and carpenters for similarly bad wages, they were told they be rewarded in the next life. That went on for centuries until about 800 yrs. ago, when artists began to get some respect for their creativity again. About this same time empiricism and usury were losing their status as heresy and sin respectfully. It’s now called the Renaissance.

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The petty tyrants of the day, the kings, generals, bankers, and popes—CEOs had not been invented yet—began to use art as status symbols, so they demanded fine differentials of its value to determine who among them is the alpha dog. And as art had long since been debunked as a useful intersessionary to natural forces/gods, some other measure was needed. And illusion, the making of something that looks like what it is not, was that yard stick. The making a wall into a landscape, wasn’t enough. But the making of that landscape be full of kings, gods, nature tamed and not, were, for a couple hundred years anyway.

From the 1300s on the artists got better and better at the arts of illusion and taking advantage of their patrons’ suspension of disbelief, willing and not. All the while natural forces were being tamed by the above mentioned empiricism and kings and their gods, demoted by the almighty dollar, were no match for the newly-spawned capitalists. And by 1800 the capitalists had beaten all; nature, kings and gods.


Art used to be made at a patron’s demand for his or her specified purpose. Artists, however great, didn’t create as much as they constructed as back then patrons shopped for a mural the way we get bids for a new deck, today.

This changes in the 1800s with the newly felt (and allowed) individualism—Rights of Man, etc. Artists could now—if they dared and were willing to risk all—turn their vocation around; where before they sold themselves to be allowed to create, now they created first, then sold their work. Or didn’t, and the myth of the suffering for his/her art artist was born.


That romantic fairy tale of the tragically undiscovered genius artist persists today. But these days it is just a marketing tool used by owners of works by van Gogh, Pollock even Basquiat to “grow” their portfolio’s value. Simply by not being a tragedy, by being successful in one’s own time, an artist diminishes his or her long-term growth potential. Think of Meissonier or Cabanel.

But no longer, artists these days—call them postmodern if you care to—don’t bother trying to be a sufferer. Contemporary artists see that those sufferers got nothing from their efforts and that the only people to profit by their work are the 3rd or more hand owners of it and only then when it is traded thither and yon like a nonmaterial fiscal instrument. Today’s artists want a piece of that action, now, so they become the marketeers of their own work.

Sadly their marketing skills can often be superior to their artistic ones; their image looks better than their images do. But who knows what future generations will think of Banksy (whose work I like) or Hirst (who’s work I don’t.)