The Value of Art: Decommodification

Written in March 2022, written in light of the reception to "Steps to Demonetize the TTRPG Hobby". Was never happy with it, but rereading it now it isn't the total worst. Just wordy. I got better.

Art is, at this point, whatever you want it to be. Humans produce things that are meaningful to them, and which are shared with others. If art is just meaningful things, then there's nothing at stake here. However, when we discuss art as something which is usually expensive (in terms of time, resources, effort, etc.), then we're obviously not talking about things which are just meaningful to people. We're talking about something that is valued by society as being worthy of social investment. This could be because society finds it meaningful. It doesn't have to be, but it's not an unfair assumption to make; it just doesn't factor into the production and distribution of art except as the pretense of both of those social processes. Maybe we like to make art because it's delicious to eat, or it's nice to put our feet on.

Whatever art is used for, it's expensive. To make something that society recognizes as art in this respect, it must be something with the level of investment society expects for whatever art is. Again, this is to say nothing about what should be considered 'art' and whether or not art should be expensive to produce. It is, however, a social presupposition about what art is that is at the heart of the discourse. If the presumption were not that art is something expensive to make, the discussion would not have turned into whether refusing to participate in the indie TTRPG 'industry' restricts people from making 'art'. This statement has a couple other presuppositions worth drawing out. The first is that the goal of the hobby is to make art, whatever art is. The second is that art is something that requires a level of material support which most people cannot afford. The third is that it is thus necessary to participate in the market to acquire the necessary support. Therefore, by saying that is desirable to decommercialize one's own participation in the hobby, which is to make art, it is undesirable that people who cannot afford to make art outside the market should make art.

I do not think the goal of the hobby is to make art, in the sense that the goal of participating is to make things that are deemed valuable as such by society. I don't really want to make a Dungeons & Dragons or a Trokia! or a Wanderhome. I do want to play games with my friends, and I do want to write about the games we play or could play. This to me involves the production of material to facilitate that, which as far as it is an expression of a culture or an individual, might be considered art. Yet I don't do any of these things with a view towards making something valuable, nor do I spend so much of my time (or, really, any money etc.) that it is an activity that costs me anything. Even if my products were deemed valuable, they wouldn't be on the market anyway. Maybe I'm cheap or lazy. Regardless, I disagree that the goal of participating in the tabletop role-playing game hobby is to pursue art; or rather, the categorization of things as art confuses their various functions and social values by homogenizing them under the set of things considered art. This has no bearing on whether individual people desire to participate by doing what they consider to be making art.

Even if I don't consider what I do to be art, maybe other people do, or maybe they don't. Something that is considered art by some is making game materials like rulebooks or adventures; I could qualify that they need a certain level of production quality, but this is not necessarily the case. Nevertheless, if discouraging participation in the market bars people from producing 'art' due to not having the necessary resources, then it is apparent that this sort of participation is one that requires resources (time and money etc.) that most potential participants cannot afford to spend. If it does not require such resources, then it is affordable to most people. If most participants can afford to spend those resources, then likewise. I agree that what these participants want to make are, to speak broadly, unaffordable to them without acquiring additional resources. It takes a significant amount of time to write, say, ten thousand words. It costs even more time to edit the manuscript, draw and color illustrations, lay it all out on a document—and these tasks are ones you usually pay others to do. This is to say nothing of printing costs. If your avenue of art is to make something that costs all of this, it is necessarily an expensive artform. Yet it is also sometimes the only way for people to recognize that their hobby activity has been worthwhile; or else, they wouldn’t bother with the whole production. I disagree that this is the most worthwhile way of interacting with one’s own interests, and that was a key premise of the previous post, but it is worth understanding why people desire it anyway and what makes it art.

It is true that throughout history, the production of things considered art has been spearheaded by the ruling classes. I am reminded of Louis Mumford's analysis of what he calls the megamachine, the level of social organization required to employ masses of individuals as abstract forces of production. One side effect of the megamachine, Mumford argued by citing Keynes, was that the construction of monumental projects like pyramids or rocket ships served to keep the forces of the megamachine functional by keeping it productive; idle hands are the devil's workshop, so to speak. This is not the only lens with which to view the historical production of things considered art, but it helps illustrate the extent to which the production of such things are an output of a social excess. You need all of society's productive forces at your disposal to make pyramids and commission portraits and so on.

The expressive things that people produced otherwise, the domestic songs of women or graffiti on the walls of taverns, are not valuable in this respect. They might be infinitely more expressive of a people whose experiences were all the more common and relatable, but not much was invested in their making. They are not art to society because they are not valuable to society. They are much more meaningful, at least to me. However, calling them valuable is an attempt to identify an aspect of things considered art that is inherently valuable, rather than recognizing that things are considered art by society because they are valuable in as much as they are socially expensive. This leads to some confusion when things are considered art by some but are not considered valuable as such by society at large, though things in which society has invested a lot of effort can be considered valuable art without being really meaningful to individuals. Expression is subjective, but social value is objective [3].

This is not to say that there is an inherent value to objects, but that society ascribes value to things and thus turns them into objects of that society. Society is a subject that objectifies things from its own perspective.

This isn't to say it's incorrect to call meaningful things art, especially because that is what we call them. However, there are indeed two understandings of art in operation when discussing what art is either as a valued product of a society or as an expression of language, to speak broadly in both cases. Both are in dialogue and do not exist in isolation from each other. When the production of sentimental things is outsourced in society as the division of labor intensifies, and these things are purchased with social power (i.e. money), there is a clear path for products considered art to be considered thus inherently valuable. By extension, the implicit prerequisite for something to be considered an artistic expression is for it to be also socially valuable as such, even if this is not actually the case.

Certain participants want to make art, but they cannot make the things they consider art because they are expensive to make. What do they want to make? If expression is the goal, why are we expressing ourselves in ways beyond our means? If one avenue of expression is expensive, why do we not find other avenues of expression for ourselves? What does one hope to gain from this? I’d hope not money, given how unprofitable rulebooks are. Is it controversial to say that there’s other avenues to express yourself that aren’t expensive? Or that we have a costly idea of what constitutes art? That we are encouraging that idea rather than finding other pathways?

I disagree also that the market is an effective way to make a living off of at least this particular type of what is considered ‘art’, but this is slightly different than the market simply enabling art to be made (irrespective of whether it is profitable). It’s worth bearing in mind that without any initial capital to invest, you need to either raise funds from investors who themselves expect a return on their investment, or crowdfund from ‘backers’ who can only hope for a product in return if your efforts succeed. We don’t see the former very often for any variety of reasons: the product is niche, there’s not much of a market for it, it’s expensive to make, etc. The latter is much more common because you can sell your product without it being made yet, i.e. the promise of a future product. This is, of course, very desirable for artists who want to raise funds for a project but do not want to be beholden to shareholders or instead want the support of the hobby community, though it does result often in an antagonistic relationship between backer and campaigner. This is a larger topic that deserves further analysis, but suffice it to say that this is the most common way to fund an artistic project for which you do not have the resources on hand, alongside the most effective way to generate revenue if you do not consistently sell products to distributors. Yet, unless you are spectacularly lucky, there is not much to skim off the top. I need only cite Ian Yusem’s article again. A successful campaign is mostly enough to fund a project, and not often enough to profit much off of. It also doesn’t mean you put any less work into the project, except now you are beholden by decency to deliver something to those who gave you money. Anyway, it’s not a stretch to say that this model is not reliable, and it requires a lot of effort. Nevertheless, it’s your own initiative to pursue, and I don’t care if you do it or not. I’ve even contributed to campaigns before because I wanted to see the product through. It’s my money.

None of this is about whether participation in the market is morally problematic or whatever, but it’s not a relationship I want to have with the things I do for cheap and for fun. Moreover, activities only enabled by commercial funding are not the only ways to interact with your hobby, nor are they the only avenues to express yourself or support others in the community. It is desirable to me to free my mind from feeling compelled to interact with my hobby in a commercial dimension and to also enable my friends to not have to worry about it either by supporting them in their ventures and in their livelihoods when possible. I don’t care whether it’s by resource pooling or even crowdfunding. Still, I do think it’s dishonest to say that crowdfunding or anything less is a way to make your hobby profitable, or that the products of vast expenditure are the most useful or meaningful products of participating in a hobby.

You do not have to do any of this if you don’t want to, and there are other activities that don’t require commercial effort to give you the satisfaction of making something. It is more desirable to me to make cheap things for the satisfaction of myself and others, and to be with my small group of friends where we do things and share things and make things together. The same is possible for you if you know and trust others. The bar is low and doesn’t cost admission to step over it.


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