I saw this phrase not long ago, as a complete statement in a thread of comments, and it stood out, “Art and Commerce Come Together in the Ninth Circle of Hell.”
Here is a reflection, or perhaps a rant if you will, on what that might mean.
In the ninth circle, Dante came face to face with those trapped in the ice of hell for treachery during their lifetimes. Unlike the fiery hell we have come to think of, Dante represents this circle as cold and remorseless like the very souls trapped there. Within the ice, the damned are grouped according to their treachery. There are those who committed treachery toward family, community, guests, and lords or benefactors. Judas himself dwells in this innermost circle of hell reserved for the worst of the worst, betrayers of trust.
Heavy thoughts for a Tuesday morning perhaps, but for some in the art world, the intersection of art and commerce is a ripe breeding ground for treachery. Art as a commodity represents a host of potential dangers for those on all sides of a transaction and can, in many ways, undermine the integrity of art and the artist. As the saying goes, where there is money there is corruption and, unfortunately, this is true in the field of art as much as anywhere.
If you are a regular follower of this blog, you might recall a post some time ago about art scams to be aware of. There are those who profit from the direct deception of artists by luring them into false transactions and making off with not just their money but sometimes their artwork as well. Art and artists are, in some very real ways, more vulnerable to this sort of dirty dealing than those in other fields and scammers use this to their advantage.
As an artist attempting to build a career in a field not known for its easy path to financial stability, it can be devastating on many levels to fall victim to a scam. Not only could you find yourself out money and hard work, something like this can be a serious setback emotionally. Artists very often rely on and are driven by their emotional lives. To suffer a wound can jeopardize confidence which can lead to a cycle of self-doubt. This can be detrimental to a burgeoning career.
In another post, we discussed galleries that are not necessarily what they seem. These “pay to play” operations are another example of the treachery that lurks at the cross-section of art and commerce. While some may not hold these in the same regard as the scams in the post mentioned above, it can be argued that they are just as damaging. These galleries do nothing to advance the careers of the artists who hand over their hard earned cash in order to exhibit. What’s more, they can be damaging to a rising career in that there is a very real stigma attached to some of them.
Is it appropriate to liken this sort of treachery to that described in Dante’s ninth circle of hell? Opinions may vary here of course, but by definition treachery is a knowing deception. It follows that anyone depriving an artist of their money or their work for personal profit at the financial and emotional expense of the artist is committing an act of treachery.
OK, so what? It’s a harsh world out there and people are victimized every day in all sorts of ways. While this is unfortunately true, there is a layer to treachery in the art world that serves to undermine artistic effort itself. As discussed above, these scams and shady galleries can effect far more than the finances of those who are preyed upon. They can damage careers, hearts, minds, and they strip away the integrity of the work in a sense.
Art is born of vulnerability. It is the courageous display of the innermost secrets of the artist’s soul. Art must be handled with dignity and respect in order to preserve the daring path begun by the artist. Treachery disrupts the intention of a work of art while also corrupting the path of the artist. To put your deepest self into the world only to be met with deceit is a terrible burden.
Those who represent themselves as patrons of the arts in order to deceive are truly devoid of remorse when it comes to the just treatment of others. To knowingly dwell in the art world, a place that must be founded in an extraordinary level of trust, and to abuse that position for financial gain without regard for the artist is truly a terrible treachery.
Whether those who carry out this treachery ought to be damned to Dante’s ninth circle is of course a very large conversation indeed. But Dante populated the last circle of hell with betrayers of trust for a reason. Treachery, betrayal, deceit, these things threaten to undermine our ability to operate as a thriving species. Without trust, we are lost. Without a safe place in which to let the soul speak, free from danger lurking in the shadows, artists would be like a flame in a vacuum. Extinguished before they were ever set ablaze.