The Place of Fine Art in a Consumer Society


Jeff Koons' magenta balloon dog

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Magenta)

When asked about the nature of painting, J. M. W. Turner is supposed to have replied, “It’s a rum business,” perhaps signifying that he did not have a well-formulated reply to hand. As one of the greatest English painters of his age it is unlikely that he did not well understand what painting was all about, unlike his many critics who condemned his work as incomprehensible.

The great houses of England at the time vied with each other to acquire old masters and also patronised contemporary artists who painted their family portraits, including dogs and horses. This tradition of patronage, together with institutions like The Royal Academy and L’Académie Française, largely determined the success of artists and the taste of the elite consumer. Art, therefore, was well and truly subservient to the wealth and privilege of its patrons, as it had been in Renaissance Europe since painting gradually freed itself from being mainly lavish advertisements for the Christian Church.

Artistic innovation, albeit less revolutionary than today, received its inspiration from general cultural movements, the Enlightenment and the subsequent Romantic Movement being prominent examples. A third movement, so called Modernism, ushered the visual and other arts into the early 20th Century. One important development was photography and associated advances in the graphic arts. The ability to reproduce paintings and to mass produce images generally was of fundamental importance in bringing art to the masses, and weakening the hold of elite patronage.

Another important development affecting fine art was the cinema, which combined the theatre with the depiction of moving images on a flat surface. This was a strong challenge to the art of painting, particularly later, when the images were combined with colour as well as sound. The dilemma for painters, therefore, was to discover some genre that photography and the cinema could not match. The solution was to produce abstract or surreal images that could not be found in nature.

However, films were not great works of art in the usual sense and did not provide business tycoons with the distinction of owning such works. The aspirations of America’s gilded age remained intact into the 20th Century and dependent for prestige on the patronage of the traditional arts, albeit including works by modernists like Salvador Dali or Diego Rivera.

After WWII Beating swords into plough shears was a major operation in the US, Europe and Japan that poured vast resources into production. Encouraging consumers to buy up the huge surpluses of consumer goods required a proportionately large advertising industry, which employed many artists and writers. This went hand in hand with the rise of television, which became the main medium for the stimulation of consumer demand.

It is hardly surprising that American artists in particular were bewildered by this philistine post war environment, a sentiment generated by the apparent aesthetic gap between the paradigm of fine art established by the post-impressionists and their modernist successors. Even in the 1950s Picasso and Matisse did not enjoy the public acclaim they receive today but remained the expensive preserve of galleries and wealthy collectors. Abstract expressionism was a natural progression for most early to mid 20th Century painters, the future having been adumbrated by European painters between the two world wars. Jackson Pollock’s frenzied attack upon the large canvas was perhaps an expression of impotence in the face of a society that had absorbed most of its artistic talent into the service of consumerism. By contrast, the serene abstractions of Mark Rothko maintained a cool distance from the burgeoning commercialism of post war US society.

Pop artists found a way out of this impasse by mimicking the aesthetic values peculiar to advertising. Roy Lichtenstein’s blow-ups of comic book art struck a double blow against aesthetic orthodoxy and the commercial exploitation of art. Andy Warhol entrenched this trend. In England, artists like Peter Blake and David Hockney re-established Figuratism en passent, making it possible for other artists like the Australian Bret Whitely to retreat from abstraction, a trend that made modern art more accessible to the public.

The question, ‘what is the place of fine art in a consumer society’, presupposes that art is a social institution, whose norms determine the nature of artistic production. The superficial survey above takes the view that this is largely the case, but does not address the popular idea that some artists were revolutionaries opposed to accepted norms: for example Van Gogh’s vain attempts to fit in and succeed in polite society and those of his contemporary Paul Gauguin to escape from it. Contrast these famous examples with the lucrative careers of Damien Hurst or Jeff Koons whose works have sold for astronomical sums. There can be little doubt that works by these latter artists have a major effect both on the market for art and the kind of art that is produced by lesser mortals.

The symbiosis between artists, critics, dealers, galleries and wealthy patrons is a self-sustaining institution. This worldwide artistic clique provides an artistic canon but is mainly interested in profit. For the excluded artist this is both a challenge and a barrier to even modest success. In economic terms the system is an oligopoly whose purpose is to keep prices high by restricting supply. The latent demand for fine art by the wider public remains largely unsatisfied, leaving scope for marginalised artists to bypass official channels and deal more directly with the public.

The justification for a monolith that guards artistic standards is that it educates public taste and trains artists to conform, albeit with a canon they may find onerous. The role of critics is crucial here because their task as censors gives credence to ‘official’ taste on the basis of deep knowledge of art and an understanding of commercial realities, this last including various prizes and funding by public galleries. However, these high intentions are compromised by the greed for profits and the vanity of established artists and critics.

Defining what ‘good art’ includes automatically serves to define the nature of ‘bad art’. Such pure aesthetic judgements are essentially independent of financial value assigned by the saleroom. The relative financial values of works of art depend only on the prices actually achieved at art auctions and represent the wealth and artistic sensitivities of the bidders. This aesthetic judgement fails if the bidders for prestigious works are none other than insensitive philistines advised by money grubbing critics and accountants. The purchase of many of the most expensive works, whether ancient or modern, is by corporations or galleries, where the main motive is to acquire investments as a hedge against inflation. Vastly inflated prices for such works serve to elevate the artists to god like status and starve artists in general of funds that would support their work.

Apart from such economic considerations, the roles of artist and critic are very different. The artist is essentially concerned with the next work and how to produce it. Of secondary concern is paying for rent and materials or exhibiting and selling what has already been produced. Keeping one eye on current trends and marketing is an unwelcome distraction from the intense preoccupation required by most creative artists.

The critic is entirely dependent on the artist as the parasite on its host. Distinction for the critic lies in creating some new aesthetic theory or analysing and explaining novel artistic developments. The primary role of the critic is as mediator between the consumer and the producer, the very role played by the advertising industry in the general market for goods and services.

The aesthetic vale of a work of art can achieve universal appeal because the artist’s gestalt can be taught to viewers and critics alike. This process of discovering the possibilities of human perception and translating them into a painting is what the successful artist does and the role of the critic and the art market in determining aesthetic value is secondary. The obvious impediment to accepting new aesthetic forms is the conservatism and fixed ideas of certain critics, and the even greater conservatism of buyers and the general public.

The corollary is that it is artists who finally determine the state of art in each generation rather than critics, but this balance depends on the attitude and performance of the practitioners. If the body of artists decide to follow a particular trend then the critics can hardly resist granting them recognition: this is a process which actually occurred, albeit gradually, in the general acceptance of Impressionism and subsequently of Post Impressionism and abstraction thereafter.

The rather disappointing conclusion must be that artists are not only greatly influenced by their social environment but can only transcend it, as innovators, to a limited degree, a constraint which applies to creative human endeavour generally. Fine art has a place in society whether consumer orientated or not, but the kind of art produced will be influenced by the established tastes of critics and the public as well.

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.