The Things That Influence Us, part 1: Our Market Society

This post is the first in a three-part series that addresses some of the big factors that influence the arts yet are mostly ignored in public discourse. I'd love to hear what you think as we hopefully consider changing how we do what we do, so please comment with your thoughts!

In this first essay I will consider our market society—what it is, how it impacts how and what we learn, teach, think about ourselves and what we create, and even how we relate to each other. The second piece will examine the myth of the artist and some of the big narratives we tell ourselves and each other about the arts. The third and final post of this series will reflect on individualism (particularly the American kind) and the ways it influences how and what we think about ourselves, what we have a right to, and what we owe each other as citizens and folks in the arts.

Market society

Really sell yourself!  Invest in your future!  Maximize your time!

Each one of these phrases or some variation of them is commonly used such that most people probably don’t think about them. However, when we stop and consider what they have in common, the language of the marketplace appears, and in a way that concerns me. A lot. When we dig deeper and consider how these phrases are often used in the arts, they reveal that we have embraced capitalism not only as a way to buy and sell goods, but also a guide for how to live our lives. We have transformed from a market economy to a market society.  Michael Sandel, the American philosopher and public intellectual, describes it this way:

‘A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.’[1]

In other words, instead of seeing the market as a system of making, buying, and selling goods and services that is limited to those exchanges, we see it as the ‘rules of the game’[2] for our lives in which anything can be bought and sold. In a market society, anything in society can be monetized, which means everything has a price, which means we start to think of our very selves as products worth some monetary value. We come to think this because we are often encouraged to do this, sometimes subtly by our peer group, or maybe other times explicitly in an audition, or in professional readiness and entrepreneurship classes. We see ourselves as something we can sell and invest in such that when our profession responds to us with 'no thanks, not this time' to our rightness for a part,  we see it as a reflection of our inherent value. If we are a product and the market decides we are not valuable, our human value diminishes. This has dire implications.

Market society attitudes cause us to reduce complex interactions between people into simple transactions. Such as, what am I getting, and what are you giving? (and vice versa) We come to regard our experiences not as moments of discovery, connection, self-reflection, or creation, but as units of time to maximize for skill development as we make ourselves more marketable. College is no longer an opportunity to learn in a specific environment, but rather a collection of goods and services. It is an expensive transaction and we want to have something to show for our investment. We feel pressure, we feel the need to excel and stay in the running, and we embrace the concept that we are commodities to sell to our arts marketplace while we feel the constant smarting pain and indignity of that reduction and valuation.

These attitudes and behaviors are everywhere, but they are especially pernicious in the arts, where the lines between creative product and self are frequently blurred; and in arts education, where we feel tremendous pressure to both prepare young people to compete in the professional arena and to justify frequently exorbitant and sometimes unjustifiable tuition rates. Artistic institutions are just as affected by these market attitudes; in many ways they receive the greatest benefit from artists commodifying themselves. When a performer presents herself as a slick package that can be easily digested, creatives and producers feel they know what they are getting; tensions are eased and time is saved. (This specific dynamic presents many problems and even dangers, but I will save those for a different post.)

To be clear, when we embrace market values and impose them on ourselves and others, this is different from saying we should be paid for a service we provide; it is instead claiming we are that service. Sometimes we do not do this. But when we do, we are often wholly unaware of it. This is a societal event that no one individual is responsible for; it is in the air we breathe.

This all seems pretty grim. However, we can break away from this thinking. I think we should do everything we can to resist its urges and toxicity, because the market society is so harmful to us and what brings meaning to our lives. When we view ourselves as products we distance ourselves from our humanity and are more easily coerced, manipulated, and exploited. When we reduce ourselves to our market worth, we stop paying attention to what we have to say to the world from our unique perspectives and instead mold our ideas to what we think the market (not even another person) wants. We stop meeting the moment of our world and its needs and instead try to guess what 'the industry' wants from us, which alienates us from ourselves and our ability to speak truth. Plus, it also leads to a lot of mediocre or even pretty bad creative work.

Sandel argues that market societies present two main dangers because they 1) create further inequality (by shutting out those without the financial means) and 2) because they corrupt the things we commodify. We can see how this corruption plays out in the arts when we question our worth as human beings and suffer other existential crises when we don’t get cast in a production, win a competition, or get into a young artist program. It is one thing to be disappointed in your performance or to feel sad because a plan didn’t work out; it is quite another to feel like a worthless human being because your audition didn’t go well. Yet, performers regularly feel this way, and we should ask ourselves why that is. If you feel worthless as a person after a cast has been announced, it is not unlikely that you have stopped seeing yourself as a complex creative human and started thinking of yourself as a product to be sold on the marketplace.

What can we do? 

So what can we do about this? For one thing, we should start paying attention the language we use as it pertains to market values. Are you using words and constructs that apply to money, goods, and services when you are talking about human beings and experiences? Are you reducing yourself and your ideas, or the creative capabilities and personal identity of your students to market values when you prepare for auditions or roles?  Market rhetoric is not inherently bad; it is valuable in the marketplace. However, we need to seriously question what should be bought and sold in that market. So, ask yourself, are you describing the creative work you, your students, or those you might cast as products and not people with creative capabilities and special talents? Do you expect them to deliver the exact same way every single time, or do you allow for human error?  How can you start thinking about this differently? Some professionals in the field are especially good at NOT doing this. So, if you know one of them, think about how you can follow their example. If you don't know one, start talking about this topic with your friends and see where it goes.

Beyond talking it out, there are other prescriptions for institutions, organizations, instructors and administrators, but I will save those for a later post (or many because those folks need a lot of attention).

Finally, athletes have a lot to say about this topic, even if they are aren't using philosophical or economic terms. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and other athletes asserting their humanity in an inhumane system each have their own discretely personal reasons for their decisions, but they are also pushing back on market society values.


[1] Sandel, M. J., 2012. What Isn't for Sale. The Atlantic, April. If you like his ideas and how he communicates them, consider reading his book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, or checking out one of his Harvard lectures on YouTube.

[1] Friedman, M., 1970. A Friedman doctrine‐- The Social Responsibility Of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. The New York Times, 13 September. I specifically quoted this influential and polemical essay to highlight its importance to our societal attitudes. I leave you to draw your own conclusions, but it is a milestone moment in 20th century thought and highly relevant to market society values.


Rebecca writes about arts, ideas, and ethics. 

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