Vulgarity & capital

by Cristóbal

When an artist sold out,” what were they selling, and out relative to where? Are they selling their integrity? Are they commercializing a subculture (“in”) to those unwilling to perform its rites and rituals (“out”)? What is lost in this transaction? Is it the intimacy of their original followers, or the exclusivity which grounded the community and their identity?

Perhaps the right abstraction is to double-down on the metaphor of capital. The sell-out transacts cultural capital (CC) for financial capital (FC), per an exchange rate set by the marketplace. Critically, when an artist receives cash, they hand over cultural capital to the corporation contracting them. This was the cost of selling out, a lost of integrity/community/intimacy, understood under the abstraction of CC. As of late, desperation for popular appeal has pushed the exchange rate in the artists favor, 1CC for 100FC. Selling out is barely a risk at all.

Is this to say that the cultural economy is zero-sum? Not at all. The creative indeed conjures cultural capital from scratch; the Creative Reserve prints. It is only after laundered into FC. Similar to the stock market, arbitrage opportunities exist: undervalued and overvalued forms of cultural capital. A bad cultural stock can be shorted through criticism and hot takes (from journalists) and counterpoints (opposing style factions), and a good one can be ridden through consumption (by people) and collaborations (by other artists).

It’s a free, unregulated market. Cultural capital can be exchanged for itself, or for financial capital. The management of these streams of income constitutes the modern creator economy. When to publish free Substacks? When to write for a legacy publication? When to add a pay-wall? Does Patreon re-introduce the intimacy of community, while making the financial cost explicit? We can complicate this by factoring in social capital (SC), though the abstraction seems to maintain its analytic power.

If an art produces cultural capital, then care produces social capital. Gaining the trust of a close friend, or the maintenance of a communal space gives one social capital. On smaller scales, picking up litter may be greeted with a smile, care paid for by care. SC too can be transacted for cultural capital, as in the case of a gift.

How vulgar to talk about care in terms of capital! Here is the crux of the issue. An artist, mother, or friend are perpetually transacting social and cultural capital. What’s vulgar is making the value explicit, i.e. transacting through financial capital. Selling out is vulgar. Immediately paying back a meal in Venmo, with the amount correct to the penny is vulgar. Eschewing financial capital doesn’t mean that dues aren’t paid. Instead it constructs an implicit web of credits and debts that keep us together.

Unfortunately, the potential to cash-out permeates across the web—financial capital’s vulgarity is transitive. Cultural capital is produced by a collective, not based on care, but on the potential of a future cash out. Clout is mobilized under the pretext of community. Financial capital is laundered through social capital, in the same manner as the art world launders money through culture capital.

Thanks to Chris Beiser for feedback.