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We Need to Recognize the Commodification of Artists

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Japanese American indie music artist Mitski — full name Mitski Miyawaki — recently discussed the downfalls of being an artist in an interview with Vulture. She mentioned the repetitive and dehumanizing nature of being exploited as an artist, stating “you have to be a product that’s being bought and sold and consumed, and you have to perceive yourself that way in order to function.” In a society where consumers are increasingly digesting artists’ work through the media, we need to realize our impact on the individuals that create the art we so regularly enjoy.

Whether it’s musicians like Mitski or other performers, artists and writers, many are often subjected to giving themselves up in the process of producing art for the public. For Mitski, surviving in the music industry meant ignoring her personal boundaries, even to the point of almost quitting music. Her perspective questions the treatment of artists and how they are often reduced to a product in a way that separates them from their humanity. 

“[M]y heart really did start to go numb and go silent. And the problem with that is that I actually need my heart — my feelings — in order to write music. It was this paradox,” Mitski said in a Rolling Stone interview.

Artists are expected to be vulnerable and open about the inner motivations behind their art while in the spotlight, yet are simultaneously expected to cater their art towards something that is easily understandable to the general public.

Artists in every type of medium — music, film, writing, etc. — are often creatively exploited, either by their music label or simply due to agreements not being honored. Musicians are sometimes required to fill quotas as well. This means they would have to create a certain number of records, art pieces, films or any other medium they work with in order to satisfy and meet the demands of the companies they work under. Yet, these companies tend to focus more on the profits of an artist’s work rather than the mental strain creating vulnerable pieces can cause.

In 2020, rapper Ye — formerly known as Kanye West — pointed out how record label contracts exploit musicians by commodifying their work: not paying them wages as workers but instead as independent contractors. Due to this, artists are forced to continue making art that can be mentally strenuous in addition to satisfying their management.

More and more, musicians are being exploited solely for profits by record labels and lose freedom in the work they produce. Companies lose sight of the work itself and the person behind the work in favor of greed. One major example is with singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who is currently re-recording all of her albums after controversy over her previous record label, Big Machine Records, about owning her songs.  

In the contemporary art world, the same sentiments can be felt by artists who focus on physical art pieces like painting and sculpting. Artists are expected to create pieces that will succeed, often giving themselves up in the process — either mentally or physically — through the amount of pressure and work they put themselves through for their work. Additionally, the commodification of art has led to its loss of meaning. For example, contemporary art today is frequently being seen as a status symbol, purchased solely to signify wealth. This leads to the artist’s motivations behind the work to be cast aside. 

“Contemporary art has become a commodity. Some people are buying with their egos, not their eyes,” Sotheby’s Institute of Art Contemporary Art Program Director Kathy Battista said.

On top of the creative exploitation of artists, especially those that are more frequently in the spotlight, artists also have to deal with being fictionalized by fans. Artists who quickly climb the viral charts may be forced into the spotlight and into sharing parts of themselves or their work that they aren’t ready to share. One example is when singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, who quickly went viral over her album “Sour,” was forced to deal with online fans dissecting her love life. It’s important for any fan or consumer of art to know that the musicians, writers, performers or any other artist that we enjoy regularly are human beings too.

As consumers, we need to know where to draw the line between being obsessed with an artist and admiring their work from afar. We shouldn’t pressure artists to release new work or reduce their work to be easily explainable to us. Sometimes art is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated, while sometimes it is meant to be not even completely understood but instead up to our own interpretation.

Camelia Heins is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at cheins@uci.edu.