Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Art as Commodity: Modernism and its claims to exclusivity

'a kind of conspiracy of the few against the many.'

The blog post published here is an old academic essay 

slightly contaminated with actual opinions.


He who pays the piper calls the tune, and one would expect that to apply to art as much as to any other commodity.  But in the past 80 years or so, there has been an all pervasive emphasis on just one style - modernism. Most people find modern art either incomprehensible, regard it as not worth the effort of trying to comprehend, or suspect there is nothing to comprehend in the first place - just some artist's inflated idea of the importance of his own ideas. Plus, of course, most of it is boringly non aesthetic.

But our taxpayer funded public galleries put on show after show of abstract art, and keep their permanent collections, often of beautiful and valuable works, stored away and half forgotten. Our educational institutions teach students that modern art is the only art worthy of consideration, and artists following the latest trends, no matter how ridiculous, can hope for government grants that others can only envy.

But it is us, the taxpayers, who pay for all of this, and if most of us prefer aesthetic, representational art, then most of our money should be spent on aesthetic, representational art. Art is a commodity, and if we, the taxpayers, pay for it, then we, the taxpayers, should get what we want.

The history of art, and its commodity value.

Historically, the making of images was for practical purposes - whether to aid the hunt, design a garden landscape, or to instruct the illiterate in the doctrine of religion. Artists were craftsmen with the statues of craftsmen.

Religious paintings were important.

With the Reformation, beginning around 1517, artists lost an important source of work, as all the Protestant churches, to a greater or lesser degree, opposed the use of images.  No new religious images were commissioned by the Protestant churches, and old images were destroyed.

However, there was still work for artists, as portraits were always in demand, and well executed paintings of historical or mythological events could always attract buyers, even if other forms of art enjoyed little prestige.

In the 19th Century, there came another blow for artists, with the use of the camera.  Potential customers could now afford a photograph of their family, instead of paying much more for a painted portrait.

The best and most popular artists may still have been able to make a living from their skills, but many would have had to resort to different employment.

The Rise of Modern Art

But some artists have never been dependent on sales to pursue their work, and could afford to follow their own inclinations.  They could experiment.

At the beginning of the 20th Century,  from this experimentation by a few, commercially unsuccessful artists, rose an art style that now claims to be the only worthwhile art style. Modern art began as essentially a reductionist art, reducing elements to more simple forms, and finally abandoning representation of the motif altogether. One early form of  modern art, even announced its intention to be anti-art.

                           The Da-Da slogan: 

Down with art
Down with
bourgeois intellectualism
Art is dead
Long live
the machine art
of Tatlin.
is the 
voluntary destruction
of the 
bourgeois world of ideas. 
                                                                                               (Fuller 1986)

'A spectacularly elite art.'    (Burn, 1991, P160)

It is ironic that it was the 'bourgeois world of ideas' that has adopted modern art as its own. Modern art is no longer revolutionary; it is the orthodoxy.

Part of the lure of modern art for its devotees, is that feeling of self-satisfaction that one achieves by feeling oneself to be part of an elite. According to Ian Burn, 'the initial drive in contemporary art was more to remove art from the masses, and create an elite, who were the only ones who could appreciate the new art.'

An example is the reaction to Mark Rothko's paintings that are just large canvases of deep purple. They are 'deeply moving' to those who can appreciate them - so I have been told.

An acquaintance told me she was 'moved to tears.'

And how many times have the admirers of modern art been compared to those who could 'see'  the Emperor's new clothes? 

Many ordinary people obligingly feel ignorant when faced with modern art: 'I just don't understand it,' they may say humbly. Like the elaborately artificial etiquette of class culture, this, of course, is the idea.

Oliver Bennet refers to an argument against captions explaining artworks as some people wishing to maintain 'the divide between the culturati and the rabble.'  (Bennett, 2001)

Art students are encouraged to feel contempt for that same 'rabble.'

A year 11 art book, as taught in an Australian high school, year 2001.

Q. "Why is 'I don't know anything about art but I know what I like,' not a valid judgement?"
A. "Because it is only an aesthetic judgement and the person  'doesn't know anything about art.'

Of course, the traditional and timelessly best way to judge art, is to make an aesthetic judgement.

Claims to be the only valid art.

Since the 2nd World War, the history of art began to be thought of, and taught, as a linear history of the development of modern art.  (Burn, 1991, Smith, 1988)

'Artistic diversity during the initial four decades of the century was rewritten as a singular and heroic struggle of modernism against reactionary forces whose art warranted little consideration.' (Burn, 1991, P170)

Bernard Smith was one artist who attempted to reassert the 'plurality, diversity and vitality of art,' with the 'Antipodean Intervention' in the early 1960s, and later write optimistically, of modern art and its claims, 'it is unlikely that the attempt to devour all others with the help of History will be tried a second time.' (Smith, 1988, P193)

He was wrong. In 2001, a Year 11 High School Art book, does not admit that any other form of art even exists, asserting that representational art died with the camera, and that art has rejected realism in favour of  'interpretation and expression.'

An artist's loss of choice

Giles Auty said that "Modernism lost its moral authority when it began telling artists how to think." (Auty, April, 2011)  The modern artist is now the conformist, doing what he is told.

Artist Ian Burn wrote: 'To create a successful (ie privileged) art, I must now affirm and perpetuate at least one of the dominant styles. (Burn 1991, P159)

Although Ian Burn did successfully work in the field of modern art, he refers to his lack of choice.

  "By the mid 1960s, the sanctioned styles of avant-gardism were Pop Art, Colour Field or Hard Edge painting (or post-painterly abstraction) and Minimal Art. For the ambitiously avant-garde younger artist, these formed the horizon of options."
(Burn 1991, P104)   

 Art Schools, subsidised by the taxpayer

Tertiary institutions continue the fiction that modern art is the only valid art, by putting pressure on art students to adopt it, to the exclusion of other art styles, and also to feel contempt for those who enjoy more traditional, representational, and more aesthetic styles. As an art teacher told me, a student doing a realistic landscape, no matter how good, 'would be failed, or laughed out of the institution.'

So art students who cannot accept the reality of these expectations leave the institutions, art teachers who do not teach the expected ethos do not get employed, and the whole self-perpetuating cycle continues.

Art schools (in Australia)  are almost all taxpayer subidised. Art education is the chief culprit in the culture that denies fair treatment for all art and for all artists.

Public Art Galleries, funded by the taxpayer.

Tate Gallery, London

Public art galleries now subscribe to modern art, to the virtual exclusion of all other forms of art.  It is the "official culture of art museums, art academia and art magazines." They "exclude, segregate, disenfranchise, marginalise, affiliate, homogenise."
(Burn, 1991)

The Tate says of the exhibition shown above  - ''Investigate the processes use to make artworks, and how our responses are integral to the piece." 
The statement de-emphasises the product in favour of placing the importance on what the artist is thinking and 'the process.'

This is usual.  These days, beside every work, you see a blurb by the artist on its significance.  I very well remember an exhibition of dirty fabrics and mats, each complete with a wordy and meaningless explanation. Why that was thought worthy of exhibition, I have no idea.

At the same time as this nonsense is going on, beautiful and valuable permanent collections owned by art galleries are neglected, forgotten, seldom seen. Many art lovers no longer bother going to the gallery, only to see yet another display of meaningless non-images.

Taxpayer funded art grants

Modern art is not a very saleable commodity, as most people simply do not like it. Artists of this genre are seldom self-supporting. Many artists survive on government grants, but these grants are only given to those artists approved by the art establishment, presumably having gone to the right art schools, knowing the right people, and showing the right kind of art.  Traditional artists need not apply. According to Bernard Smith, those with the power to award grants, and who subscribe to elitist theories, perpetuate their own values,  "in a kind of conspiracy of the few against the many."

Not the only art.

The art establishment of most the 20th century and of the early years of the 21st century, is an aberration. A small minority has had their way for far too long. Some artists and critics are speaking out more and more. Soon lay-people will not longer see an apparently united front in favour of modern art to the exclusion of other equally valid styles of art. David Hockney, well known artist,  says "I do want to make a picture that has meaning for a lot of people. I think the idea of making pictures for twenty-five people in the art world is crazy and ridiculous. It should be stopped; in some way, it should be pointed out that it can't go on." (Hockney as quoted in Grishin, 2000)

J. S. MacDonald, art critic and art curator has said that modern art was 'filth' and 'the products of degenerates and perverts.' (Watson, 1989)

Peter Fuller talks about late modernism as 'profoundly regressive and potentially deeply destructive,'and 'anti-aesthetic vandalism,' (Fuller, 1986)  whereas Bernard Smith, more moderately, talks about its 'bland and pretentious mysteries.' (Smith, 1988)

And finally, Peter Fuller points out that 'most good art, this century, has been produced against the grain of modernism.'  (Fuller 1986, P50)

Would these critics be more moderate if modernism was only one of many equally valid styles of art?  Possibly not.  But when one thinks of the revolting extremes to which modern art has now been pushed, then maybe these critics and many more, need to be much more outspoken.

 This image of a slaughtered cow is a creation by one of the 'revolting extreme' artists, Damien Hirst.

Some time ago, I had to make a decision whether to do an extra year to convert a diploma in fine arts to a degree.  But I would have had to pretend to admire monstrosities like this.  I chose not to continue.

Speaking up for the majority

'Culture seldom operates through the trickle-down effect, but actually through the reverse. It is folk art, objects and symbols made by unnamed authors due to necessity, that is refined, cultivated, transformed, that is later marketed as what is conventionally recognised as 'fine art.' (Mater, 2000)

There are thousands of artists all over the country, all over the world, making representational, beautiful paintings, In Art exhibitions all over the country, one can see outstanding talent. Commercial art galleries do a thriving business in selling beautful artworks. This type of art enjoys no public patronage, and is fact, is more likely to be scorned than admired by the art 'elite.'  Robert Hughes, art critic, referred to followers of the genre of landscape painting as 'zombie acolytes.' (Burn 1991, P39)  Zombies, of course, do not think for themselves, so when modernism is the orthodoxy, who are the zombies?

The most popular form of art is still representational art - landscapes, streetscapes, people. The artist whose work is featured below, makes many beautiful images.  Ray Jones, and artists like him, are the real artists,  not those whose images make millions for investment, while people studiously avoid actually looking at them!  

All the same, the camera has had an effect,  and ultra-realism is seldom seen.  Modernist thinking has had an effect.  For instance, the painting below exaggerates the curves of hills, and has taken on somewhat of an abstract quality.  It is not a traditional landscape. 


Aesthetic and representational art is thriving business, and is the real commercial reality of art.  The commerce of art includes commercial galleries, art supply shops, private lessons, publications about art, even painting holidays, as well as sales of paintings.  Some modern art may be sold for investment purposes for enormous sums, but the great majority of trade in art as a commodity, is of beautiful and traditional art. The type of art that the vast majority of people take pleasure in viewing, and that is displayed on lounge-room walls all over the country, is representational art.  This is the real art of the people. This is what the vast majority of people want and enjoy.

But if this is what the vast majority of people want and enjoy, then why does the taxpayer unwillingly sponsor only one type of art, and that is the type of art which few people want and enjoy?

As for modern art, some has veered so far into the absurd that the only logical reaction is to laugh. 



Aston, Margaret, ed. The Panorama of the Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, 1996
Auty, Giles, article re Lucien Freud's painting - 'After Cezanne,' Weekend Australian May, 2001.
Bennett, Oliver, "Yes, but what does it mean?' Article in 'Good Weeend,' Sunday telegraph, May 5th, 2001.
Burn, Ian, Dialogue, writings in art history, 1991
Fuller, Peter. The Australian Scapegoat, Towards an Antipodean Aesthetic,  1986, University of Western Australia Press.
Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. Phaidon Press, London. 1955
Grishin, Sasha, "David Hockney's A Bigger Grand Canyon." Article in 'Art and Australia,' vol 37, No. 3. yr. 2000. 
Mater, John.  'AWAS, Recent art from Indonesia,' article in magazine 'Art Monthly,';  March, 2000, No. 127.
Smith, Bernard, The Death of the Artists as Hero, 1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. 
Watson, Michael, "James Stewart MacDonald, Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Felton Recommendations,"  article in 'Art and Australia,' Vol 27, No. 2, 1989. 

The books mentioned above can be found in online book stores such as The Book Depository,
Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and Amazon. 

No comments:

Post a Comment