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The Real Currency of Art



An occasional artist guest post. This one from Peter Mulvey.

In 1783 the Montgolfier Brothers became the first human beings to fly, when they went up in the hot air balloon they’d invented, in Versailles. Someone in the crowd turned to an old man standing next to him and asked “Of what use is flying through the air?” The old man, whose name was Benjamin Franklin, shot back “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

Which has- of what use is a newborn baby? Of what use is a poem? Or a dance, or that little feather the barista makes on top of your latte? Of what use is the resident dog at the old folks home? Who put the bomp in the bomp shooby-dooby bomp? ram in the ram-a-lama di ng-dong?

Wanna know a secret? Here it is: you and I? We’re good. Because once upon a time, I made up a song, and you heard it, at one of my gigs or in your car or on your kitchen radio, and it found a place to fit into your life, to nestle up next to a love affair, or an afternoon, or the view out your window. And at the moment it clicked into place, that’s when you and I were square. THAT is the transaction of art. THAT is the only currency that matters.

Of course, the corporation that owns my mortgage doesn’t accept that currency.

An 18th Century Scottish egghead named Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a foundational text of modern economics and a big influence on Ben Franklin and all those other Founding Father types. But here’s the thing: the whole time Smith was writing “The Wealth of Nations,” he lived with his mom. She cooked his meals and washed his undies.

Capitalism is great, I guess. Just not if you’re a mom. Or if you work or as a barista, or a bricklayer, or in an old folks home, or in day care, or in arts and humanities.

As arts and humanities budgets are slashed at universities everywhere, the deans are scrambling to make the case for a return on investment their schools provide. Well, if I was a dean, I’d say “Know what? The arts and humanities DON’T provide ROI. That’s not what they’re for. They give us arts. They enhance our humanity. Do you seriously have a problem with that?”

Luckily no one’s been foolish enough to offer me a job as a dean, but if they did I’d turn it down, because I have a job, and that job has made me spectacularly wealthy in the only currency I care about. I’m as wealthy as a dog in an old folks home.

But let me be the Lorax for one more moment, and speak for the trees: on behalf of myself and all the other performing songwriters, thank you for the money. Thank you for coming to our shows, buying our merch, backing our Kickstarters, supporting us on Patreon. As one by one our revenue streams have dried up, you’ve stepped up to supply new ones, which is good because we were going to do it anyway. Because we were already rich. Just not in terms of, y’know … money. So thanks for the money.

And he next time one of us says “thanks for listening”, I hope I’ve shed light on what it is we’re thanking you for.

Peter Mulvey is a singer songwriter. Read his bio here.


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