I originally made the statement out of jest, but now that I think about it more, I find myself going down an intriguing and endless rabbit hole. The rabbit hole begins to feel much colder and darker as we fall further into it... so bare with me...
Art buys people - what does it mean and is it possible? It's just three words, but the word that bothers me the most, and I feel requires the most explication is 'buys.' 'Buys' implies an exchange of ownership. The usual way to buy something is done through money, or if we go way back in time, bartering is another way to exchange ownership of something. Since 'art' doesn't seem to be paying for people using money, there must be some sort of bartering going on between art and another entity for ownership of people. When an exchange of ownership occurs, it's usually an exchange between two or more parties. To keep it simple, let's stick with an exchange between two parties. This means art is exchanging something with another party for ownership of people. Or in other words, art is bartering for people.
This now leads me to four questions. First, what is being exchanged? Second, who or what is art bartering with in order to own people? Third, where is the exchange occurring? And fourth, how long does art own people? I think these four questions are too tightly coupled to address one without answering the others. So I'll try my best to provide uncoupled answers - consider it a rough draft. Answering these questions will show that art can indeed buy people, in some sense of the phrase.
If we look at the spaces where art exists: museums, sidewalks, our bodies, the internet... etc. I think they all fall on a spectrum between purely private and purely public spaces. I think the length of time one party can own something is dependent on where it's located. For example, graffiti on a sidewalk may last for a few hours to years, at least until someone deems it inappropriate and paints it over. A museum owns a piece from months to decades, and then it's traded, auctioned, or placed in storage. A tattoo can be owned for a lifetime. From these examples, I'm inferring that ownership is temporally based on the space it's located in.
So far, I've shown ownership is temporal and dependent on the space it's in. Next, who or what is art bartering with in order to own people? In order to answer this question, we have to look at the different parties that exist in a space. I'm also assuming that not all people can be owned by art. This means, each spaces contains art, people, the unownable people, and the space itself. The simplest answer seems to be that art is bartering with the unownables in order to own people. An example of this in our world is selling another person into slavery. Another possible answer is that art is bartering with the space in order to own people. And the final one is art is exchanging something with people to own them. This last one is an individual selling themselves, like a job or even indentured servitude.
We now come to the final question, what is being exchanged? And with slightly more words: what is art exchanging with people, the unownables, and the space in order to own people in these various spaces? The answer to this question seems varied because it will depend on the parties involved in the exchange. Specifically, the exchange between art and the space, between art and the unownables, and between art and people will probably influence what is being exchanged.
If art is bartering with the unownables to own people, one possible example could be a museum curator purchasing art in order to own people for a brief amount of time - this is when museum goers go to view art pieces. Or in other words: the unownables buy art to buy people. This particular line of thinking also reminds me of advertisements... if advertisements can be considered an art, then there are unownables making advertisements in order to own people.
The next one is art bartering with people to own people. This means people are exchanging themselves with art. An example of this kind of exchange in the real world is an individual selling themselves into slavery or indentured servitude to help their family. An example of this in the art world could be interactive art, where the person somehow engages with the art, therefore giving themselves up to be used by the art piece.
The last type of exchange is between art and the space. This one I'm having a difficult time wrapping my mind around. The question is, what is art exchanging with the space in order to own people? If a space has some perceived value - for example, public spaces, private spaces, or some blend of the two - then it has something to exchange with the art. This perspective on spaces and art, two parties that are traditionally regarded as inanimate (lacking a will to take actions, make decisions, or do not have needs or wants) become much more alive. It seems that public spaces need people to do things that can only be done in public, otherwise the space is no longer public, and the public space will cease to exist - the public space's life is on the line. So having art in a public space means that art is exchanging something with the public space in order to attract people to that space. It is possible that there is no exchange going on between art and the space, and instead, they have a symbiotic relationship. They work together to continue existing.
Now to answer our original question: "art buys people" - what does it mean and is it possible? I still don't feel I have a grasp of what it means, but it might be possible, at least arguments can be made to make it seem possible.
This brief explication of 'art buys people' still leaves many unanswered questions. What is art doing with the people it owns? What is the artist's role and responsibility, if her art is capable of owning people? What does art want or need? And is this absurd?