The art vs. commerce binary discussed in the Gray chapter is a cultural dilemma almost as old as cave paintings. In my professional work as a pop music critic, I wrestled daily with walking the tightrope between addressing and critiquing the artistic elements in a recording or concert experience, and advising the consumer on whether the product or experience was worth shelling out money for.
FWIW, in the academic side of my work, I've addressed this binary in two different journal articles ...
1. Conner, T. (2002). "Dear Reader: A Pop Critic Responds to the Day’s Mail." ARTicles, No. 7, pp. 138-149.
This is a qualitative essay from my point of view as a music critic for a daily newspaper, reacting to a theme common to letters written to arts critics in which the reader (a) complains that the reviews are "too biased" and (b) denigrates the critic's particular subjective perspective and suggests a more objective stance instead. My answers: (a) duh, and (b) impossible.
An excerpt: "One's reaction to music is inextricable from your personal experience. How else could you respond to art but through the filter of your own conditioning? Yet here you are demanding that I operate differently, that a 'real critic' should write for an 'audience instead of yourself and your pathetic little Generation X clan.' C’mon, now—you know this is impossible. You couldn’t write like that. If you had this job, if your editors were wringing their hands over their struggle to attract 18- to 30-year-old readers and casting furtive glances your way, do you think you’d be able to tailor your responses to music for a specific audience, one younger than yourself, one composed not only of the Generation X you hold in such low esteem but of the giddy and even more fickle Generation Y? You couldn’t do it, and, like me, you wouldn’t. Sure, you write of the experience in language that anyone could understand, but you would not have the experience on behalf of some- one else. If you tried, you’d learn as quickly as I did that readers, when it comes to the particular act of criticism, are irrelevant.
"I know, I know—what a haughty, preposterous statement. The nerve! Sorry, buddy: I’m not writing for you. You have nothing to do with me and the music. You and all the other 149,000 daily subscribers of the Tulsa World couldn’t be farther from my mind as I’m listening to a record and working out my response to it. It’s my response, after all. I was hired to offer my unique perspective. I’m lucky to have this opportunity, of course—to get paid to continue my personal quest for good music, meaningful music. But I assure you, I have no altruistic drive, no missionary zeal to spread the word and uncover the truth for you, the deserving reader. You complain that I write my reviews—my “biased” reviews—for my own gratification, and here I agree with you wholeheartedly.
"What is it you have in mind—objective criticism? You want me to try and experience music the way you do? All of you, all the readers? That’s absurd.
Even if that were possible, it would defeat the entire point of criticism. Indeed,
my goal is to transcend the experience of the music and find some underlying absolutes, some universal truths, that I can connect with aspects of my life, and to use these new connections in the future to make sense of the world around me. This transcendence, though, can only occur if the quest for these bedrock truths is passionate, driven, and my own. Otherwise, I’m just a hack doing your dirty work. If you gain perspective for yourself after reading my own experience, I’m thrilled. In that sense, my own criticism has enabled your understanding just as the music itself might have. Perhaps the critical faculty— a purely subjective expression—is indeed as worthy as the music itself."
2. Jones, S. & Conner, T. (2014). "Art to Commerce: The Trajectory of Popular Music Criticism." IASPM@Journal (International Association for the Study of Popular Music), 4 (2).
This paper had its genesis in an observation from my experience as a working critic as well as from reading the work of my peers. I suspected that, over the decades of pop music and its corresponding body of criticism, critics had progressed from criticism that dealt more directly with the artistic experience of music and toward criticism that examined music more as a commercial product.
We secured access to an archive of rock music criticism and ran searches of keywords — a list we generated, including artistic terms and commercial terms — to assemble a qualitative analysis of the trajectory.
From our conclusion: "In an analysis of the shrinking influence of British music magazines, John Harris, a columnist for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, quotes rock critic Greil Marcus: 'Mostly, when you read about musicians, what’s being reviewed is their career, not their work: how is this record going to contribute to the building of their audience, or their ability to reclaim an audience that’s been lost?' (Harris, 2009, our emphasis).
"Harris attributes the focus on audience and market to a lack of artistic merit demanding better criticism, writing that, 'in the absence of enough creative substance, you too often end up with writing that reflects the empty stuff of commerce.' He also perceives a surrender by writers to the ease with which new media allows fans to bypass the words of critics and click straight through and actually hear and judge the music for themselves. As he puts it, 'when the main event is only a click away, there isn’t always much point to rhapsodies or forensic critiques.' It is too soon to know whether such a shift is under way in contemporary popular music criticism since the rise of the internet, but it is clear that by examining a large corpus of popular music criticism we can discern trends over time that gives insight into the constituent elements of critic discourse.
"... The direction of business-related keywords appears empirically to back up the claim by Sanjek (1992) that popular music criticism, 'began as little more than a branch of publicity' (1992, p. 13). Indeed, the 1960s reflect few uses of the keywords for which we searched. It would be interesting to examine individual critics’ articles over time, or those of a single publication, for example, and understand the critical tendencies, particularly between the oft-juxtaposed poles of art and commerce, or authenticity and manufacture. Indeed, an analysis such as the one we have performed provides an opportunity for new theories concerning art and commerce. As Stratton (1982, p. 283) noted:
Hits are in the first place popular records, but in the second place they are commercial. The ‘good’ and the ‘commercial’ with all its rational capitalist implications are, therefore, still kept radically separate. Paradoxically it is the radical separation of these two sets of criteria which allows the ‘output’ end of the industry to resolve the problem of the relationship between them so successfully. ‘Art’ and commercialism are articulated as two separate domains by music journalists. Consequently one domain may be discussed with the intrusion of the other. The results is an ideological resolution of a real economic conflict.
"From what we have discerned in the data it does seem that while art and commerce are intertwined in critics’ discourse, which is unsurprising, the ratio between the one and the other changes over time. Future research should further examine the keywords in context, and determine word concordances and valences to obtain a more fine-grained understanding of the interplay between art and commerce in critics’ discourse."