Money Can’t Buy Me Art

When you see how expensive some works of art are today, it may seem illogical to say that “money can’t buy me art.” After all, a painting by Gustav Klimt sold a few years ago for $135 million.

But according to a recent Paul Solman report on the PBS News Hour, it turns out there’s a big difference between buying a product of art and paying for the artistic process. Apparently, Klimt might have had a harder time creating that painting if he knew he was going to sell it for that much money.

Solman starts out with a puzzle:

The candle, box of tacks, book of matches, an old puzzle with a strangely relevant economic message. Objective? Fix the lit candle to the wall so no wax hits the table.

Economics: The faster you do it, the more money you make. Punchline: Conventional economics is wrong, because the greater the monetary incentive, the longer the solution takes, a solution you will see in a bit.

Relevance? Executive pay and Wall Street bonuses, which might not enhance, but actually retard, high performance, or so says writer Dan Pink, once Al Gore’s chief speechwriter.

Pink explained why this could be the case:

We tend to think that the way you get people to perform at a high level is, you reward what you want and punish what you don’t want, carrot and stick. If you do this, then you get that.

That turns out, the science says, to be an extraordinarily effective way of motivating people for those routine tasks, simple, straightforward, where there’s a right answer. They end up being a terrible form for motivating people to do creative conceptual tasks.

Why? Solman interviewed Maury Weistein, CEO of computer sellers System Source. Weinstein argued that the key reason his company had been successful for three decades – an eternity in the computer business – was that 15 years ago they dropped paying commissions to sales people:

We find that money often disrupts relationships. It disrupts customer efforts. And, sometimes, it makes the customer feel like a piece of meat, where you can’t trust the salesperson’s recommendations. And that’s a very slippery slope at that point.

As in so many other things, the key is where your energy is focused. If your primary motivation is getting a big commission, your concern for the customer’s satisfaction is secondary. And in many cases the customer will sense that.

So if money isn’t your primary motivation, what can be? One possibility is creative fulfillment. As John Yodsnukis, who works with open source software (for which there is no payment), points out:

You know, you need adequate compensation. You have to live. You have to survive, OK? But, if you ask an artist why they became an artist, a lot of them will say, I can’t do anything else. I have to do this.

It’s the same thing here, you know? It’s the fulfillment, the love of doing it is reason enough.

This may all sound a little strange in our current, money-crazed culture. Today’s mass media is overwhelmingly oriented towards selling something, and individuals are commonly defined as consumers. All too often, our focus in this world is on the next purchase; our creativity is channeled into creating the perfect house, having the right car, wearing the right clothes, or just getting the best deal.

This even applies to our personal creative pursuits. As a photographer, I often hear the siren call of a new camera or a new lens that will supposedly enhance my creativity. It can be quite seductive – and expensive!

If we really want to live fulfilling lives – and stay financially solvent – we need to be mindful of where we are focused. Are we focused on the ephemeral – money, possessions, glory and such – or are we focused on that which truly gives us personal fulfillment?

In his book Zen In The Martial Arts, Joe Hyams offers a Zen story that applies here:

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo he was given an audience by the sensei.
“What do you wish from me?” the master asked.
“I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land,” the boy replied. “How long must I study?”
“Ten years at least,” the master answered.
“Ten years is a long time,” said the boy. “What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?”
“Twenty years,” replied the master.
“Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”
“Thirty years,” was the master’s reply.
“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked.
“The answer is clear. When one eye is focused upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.”

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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