How Kurt Cobain convinced me of the commercialisation of art

There is a controversial question within the creative community – should art be a marketable commodity or simply remain an honourable pursuit?

American singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967 - 1994), performs with his group Nirvana at a taping of the television program 'MTV Unplugged', New York, New York, November 18, 1993 [Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images]

Art for art’s sake was the doctrine of the 19th-century bohemians who believed it should be created not for commercial purposes, but for the sake of greater creative exploration and self-expression. And while this is a noble notion, artists require ways to sustain their livelihood. Then the question arises when the artist begins to monetise and promote their work, does that same work begin to lose its value?

As a writer and poet, I’ve always struggled with marketing my work. Indulging in “shameless self-promotion”, as they say, felt like a betrayal to the artist within me. Once I texted a friend expressing my hesitation about creating an Instagram page to share my poetry. She replied with a curt remark: “Neha, if a monkey is dancing in the jungle and no one sees it, then what’s the point?” The logic seemed to make sense and so I proceeded to create the page, promptly deleting it just 15 minutes later. Personally, once I put the pen down and the clacking of the keyboard ruminates, I do not want anything more to do with my words.

There is a reason why society considers artists like Vincent Van Gogh or El Greco to be two of the greatest painters of all times, beyond the quality of their work: They were largely unknown during the time they were alive, only gaining their fame and recognition posthumously. Their work is seen as legitimate because they were “true” artists who persisted and continued to create meaningful work in spite of the lack of adulation. However, given that we live in a largely globalised world now, some people argue that artists do not really have an excuse any more to not share their work.

However, art and business are still seen as two dichotomous professions. Artists create from the soul, accessing the truth within them and then proceeding to bear it on paper or the screen. Businesspeople, on the other hand, are seen more as cogs in the capitalistic machines whose primary goal is to make money. But at some point, it seems, that the artist must become the businessperson.

An artist who truly understood the ultimate commercialisation of art was Kurt Cobain. Cobain, often hailed as the “King of Grunge”, was the frontman of the rock band Nirvana. The band, which achieved meteoritic fame in the early 1990s, was responsible for bringing indie rock into the mainstream. Despite the global success and reach of Nirvana, Cobain was often seen as an unwilling participant in his band’s fame. He outwardly rejected the commercialisation of music and despised the press junkets and promotional aspect that was part and parcel of the business.

However, upon closer look, it became clear how self-aware Cobain truly was; he knew exactly what he was doing and operated very much like a businessman. Cobain was evidently aware that Nirvana appealed to a niche market filled with young, disillusioned, angsty teenagers and many of the songs he penned (“Smells like Teen Spirit” or “Territorial Pissings”) reflected his awareness about his audience’s demographic and the mindset at the time.

Danny Goldberg, the former music manager of Nirvana, wrote in his book, Serving the Servant about how Cobain had envisioned Nirvana attaining global recognition and strategically planned to ensure that. Goldberg first recognised this upon his initial meeting with the band in 1990 – during the earlier parts of the meeting Cobain remained largely taciturn, but immediately chimed in to voice his dissent about the band remaining on the indie label. Cobain undoubtedly did not want his art to serve a smaller audience, instead, wanting the band to become an international sensation.

Goldberg went on to describe in his book how Cobain possessed a “comprehensive, crystalline understanding” of how to resonate with young audiences over different mediums – Cobain was involved in all aspects of the band from designing their album cover art to overseeing the direction of their music videos. Underneath the façade of a reluctant rockstar, Cobain was visibly invested in engineering Nirvana’s international success and maintaining the band’s external image.

However, the band faced an untimely end on April 5, 1994, when Cobain took his own life. He joined the infamous “27 club” – a group of musicians who died at the age of 27 from suicide, overdose, or accident – alongside singers like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

It becomes complicated when our art becomes our brand as we begin to quantify its value solely on media consumption and public reception. Once our own art is commercialised to a large extent, we begin to look at our work differently and proceed to devalue it if it is not received well enough. While it is the ultimate dream for an artist to create art for arts’ sake, there is so much beyond our control that art can never purely remain an honourable pursuit.

Over time, I have learned that art and business clearly go hand-in-hand despite the polar opposite ideals each propagates. While creative growth and passion for the craft must remain the fundamental priority, art ultimately does need an audience and it is ultimately the artists’ own job to ensure that their work gets seen, heard, and known. Money is inextricably linked to art, no matter how much we deny that notion or avoid branding our work. Money not only helps cover the bills but like American author Steven Pressfield once said it “buys you another season to create”.

Unfortunately, the capitalistic society we currently find ourselves living in rewards and prioritises STEM careers more than the creative arts. While STEM careers offer greater returns on investment for a state, many ignore the fact that the story of civilisation is told through the art of its people. The creative arts, like painting, sculpting or performance, all create more empathetic and globally-minded individuals which contribute to their social empowerment. The creative sector, which was already underfunded, now also finds itself struggling with budget cuts and furloughed employees in the midst of a global pandemic. The lack of funding and equitable compensation eventually leads to the making of an industry that is ultra-competitive and pressurised, further leaving artists lurched and fledgeling in a poor job market.

Artists access a broken place within themselves to manifest these beautiful art forms we all happily consume. Writing, particularly, is an artistic medium which can at times feel like one where there is an achingly unbearable intrusion into our most private thoughts and desires, so much so that it borders on exploitation when we are not compensated fairly. Adding on to that, the notion that we ourselves have to promote our own work to build an audience further takes away time that could be spent artistically growing.

Actors, writers, painters, and sculptors give so much of themselves in their work, that there comes a point when there is not much left to give. Perhaps society must begin valuing the art it so readily utilises, and fair compensation is probably the place to start, given how art and business are clearly just two sides of the same coin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.