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After the Gold Rush
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Paul Mattick

Having begun with a financial crisis, the ongoing economic downturn has produced a sudden collapse in the markets for luxury goods of all types, from yachts to haute couture and expensive jewelry. Art, and in particular contemporary art, has not been spared. If the depression continues and deepens, it may well bring to the close an historical period that has seen radical changes in the nature of art as that social practice has existed since the late eighteenth century.

It was roughly at that time that the work of painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, and architects was reclassified alongside poetry as a group of closely related activities reevaluated as the “fine arts.” As the political and cultural dominance of the courts gave way to that of merchants, financiers, and industrialists, whose power was clearly established by the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the fine arts underwent a further transformation, from graces and adornments of noble life to central elements of “culture.” Culture, the joint product of taste and education, could lift an individual to spiritual heights above crass commercial interests.

In pre-modern times, the artist producing for ecclesiastic or noble negotiated subject matter, size, approach, even sometimes colors and numbers of figures with the patron. With the growth of the market for art works that came with the advancing replacement of feudal by capitalist social relations, the artist became responsible for selecting subjects and approaches that might catch the eye of a potential customer. The displacement of religious and mythological imagery by still-life, portrait, and genre painting multiplied the imaginable types of subject-matter and approaches. Increasingly, not tradition, academic rules, or any other authority, but the genius of the individual – his individuality itself – was to be the dominant principle of artistic activity. The masculinity of the artist, earlier shared with craftwork generally, was now a sign of his bold inventiveness, attributes shared with the scientist, businessman, and politician. The individuality of the artist came to contrast with the anonymity of the modern masses, just as the self-directed production of art provided an alternative to the alienation of wage labor. Art came to appear as the highest form of human productive activity, a model against which other forms of work could be measured, in particular the routinized, divided, manager-directed labor that came to dominate the factories and offices of developing capitalism.

Basic elements of this conception were preserved in later artistic tendencies and ideologies that self-consciously allied art with fundamental conditions of modern life. The idea of the artist as central member of a spiritual elite embodying an alternative to Philistine commercialism, or even pointing the way to humankind’s salvation, has powered a variety of movements as different as Aestheticism, Realism, Dada, De Stijl, and Russian Constructivism. This was the conception of culture that crystallized in the notion of the avant-garde, whose “function” – in Clement Greenberg’s classic formulation of 1939 – was “to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.”[1]

Greenberg’s text touchingly reveals the double sense of the idea of culture, as both redeeming force of the existing system and as a sort of critique by enactment of an alternative set of values. In this conception, the essence of art, incarnated in the avant-garde, is its alienation from the norms of bourgeois society (hence, in the case of modernist abstraction, its abandonment of going systems of representation). On the other hand, Greenberg acknowledged that “No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income” and even that “in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold. The paradox is real.”[2]

This paradox is nothing but the place of culture in capitalist society, in its most concentrated form. Given the distinctive social character of art objects, as handmade luxury goods in a world dominated by mechanized mass production, they offer both their producers and their consumers an experience outside the “everyday life” of the market. Expressive, in its very freedom from monetary considerations, of the power of money and of the access to free time made possible by money, art is a token and a perk of social distinction for those who own and even for those who merely appreciate it. The artist, as producer of this token, shares in the distinction, though (for the most part) not in the wealth that supports the social practice of art as a whole. It was the very separation of the world of cultural production from the norm of capitalist investment and production that made it potentially so valuable. By means of critique, culture cleanses modern society of the sin of commercialism, allowing its dominating classes to see themselves as worthy inheritors of the position of the aristocracy they displaced.

The picture I have sketched here, hardly a novel one, evidently owes a great deal to Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of what he calls “the field of cultural production.” That analysis reveals in particular the close relation between, on the one hand, the social antagonism between the producers of culture and the upper-class consumers from whom they are separated by style of life and self-conception as well as degree of social power, and, on the other, the fact that “the cult of art and the artist… is one of the necessary components of the bourgeois ‘art of living,’ to which it brings a ‘supplément d’âme,’ its spiritualistic point of honor.”[3] This cultural system, evolved during the nineteenth century, survived until well into the twentieth. But the last twenty years have seen the acceleration of a process of change, whose origin is traceable to the end of the Second World War.[4] What changed was not the centrality of the “cult of art” to the bourgeois “art of living” but the felt antipathy between art and bourgeois life central to the earlier ideal of culture.

An important part of the background of this shift in the understanding of the place of art in a business society is the movement of military, economic, and political power from Europe to the United States in the course of the Second World War. The American victory seemed a triumph of the spirit of pure capitalism over an “old world” still dominated culturally by precapitalist ideals. This began what might be described as capitalism’s final overcoming of its former sense of inferiority with respect to the social order it had replaced in Europe, and its forthright celebration of market-certified success. For nineteenth-century businessmen and their wives, in America as in Europe, art meant European art, from ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy to – for the daring few – Impressionist Paris. Still true in the late 1940s, by the start of the next decades this was increasingly over.

Significantly, the post-war movement of the art market center from Paris to New York provided a context for the rise of a specifically American modernism, what Greenberg came to call simply “American-type painting.” While earlier in the twentieth century, the promotion of modern art served in the United States, as in Europe, to differentiate certain scions of wealthy families from their conservative elders, the postwar engagement with modernism undertaken by social agents ranging from the government to the mass media presented art not so much as an incarnation of higher values than those of the market place but as a distillation of those characteristics – daring, innovation, attunement to social desires – that make an individual, company, or nation successful.

In part, the new interest in culture reflected the changing nature of the business class in the United States: while fewer than 50 percent of top executives had some college education in 1900, 76 percent did by 1950. The postwar rise of the professional manager helped break down the traditional barrier between the worlds of business and culture, affecting the self-image of American society as a whole. To this was joined – with the growth of academia, research institutions, and all levels of government – the emergence of the new professional-intellectual stratum, connected in spirit to the power elite in a way unknown to the alienated intelligentsia of yesteryear. By the 1960s, art, and modern art in particular, seemed to the politically dominant forces in the United States to have a part to play in the construction of a nationally authoritative ideology. The avant-garde of the 1950s became, in fact, the official art of American society and in short order, given American political and commercial dominance, of global capitalism. Thus, in this as in other features of its development, the United States increasingly set the tone for the rest of the world.[5]

During the last few decades, the world as a whole saw the return to ideological fashion of the old idea of the self-determining market, with no mercy for losers. This had serious consequences for the ideal of culture. The nineteenth-century robber baron treated the building of collections and art museums as evidence of civic-minded elevation of spirit, as when Joseph Choate, speaking at the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1874 urged New York’s millionaires “to convert pork into porcelain,… useless gold into things of living beauty that shall be a joy to a whole people for a thousand years.” A hundred years later, it seemed quite normal for an observer to describe cultural giving on the part of American corporations as “moving toward a ‘more market-driven strategic-management, bottom-line approach to philanthropy… to obtain a tangible return for their contributions,’” in forms ranging from tax breaks to “image enhancement.”[6]

This change can be seen directly in museum design: the converted European palaces and the neoclassical structures that in the US expressed the imperial ambitions of turn-of-the-century robber barons have been joined – sometimes literally – by the modernist building styles favored by the corporations, which after the Second World War became the primary funders of museum construction and exhibition programs. The change in architecture is only one sign of the adaptation of museums to corporate culture; it has been accompanied by the adoption of a more corporate structure of internal operations and such gambits as their self-promotion as locales for business social affairs. The change in taste manifested in an increasing emphasis on the exhibition of contemporary is part of the same development: during the last decade, as contemporary art “has more and more clearly come to symbolize, and even generate, a city’s identity as modern, up-to-date, part of the fast-paced international world of the moneyed and cutting-edge elite… museums have increasingly emphasized collecting and exhibiting contemporary art and there has been a flurry of construction of new museums dedicated to it.”[7] A particularly noteworthy form of this is the phenomenon of private museums devoted to the collections of wealthy individuals, celebrating their personal prowess as businesspeople and collectors.

Thus by the turn of the twenty-first century, art had largely ceased to represent the cultural attainment that justified the possession of riches (for the collector and philanthropist) or a sense of personal specialness despite a lack of commercial success (for the producer). Instead, it became for its aficionados a sign of business success (and even a field for investment, however marginal). For the millions of middle-income tourists who flocked to museums and other art sites around the world, it represented access to a realm of pleasure and sophistication earlier reserved for small financial and intellectual elites. For artists, it became less a calling than a career, with the advantage of the artist’s traditional freedom from an employer’s orders, and a possible path to the kind of fame and riches otherwise open only to popular entertainers.

The rapidity with which this change in the ideological character of fine art occurred reflects both its long germination, since 1945, and the particularly hothouse character of capitalist business activity since the late 1970s. The postwar rise of the art market, fed by a constantly expanding number of artists, was an aspect of the thirty-year-long economic “golden age” that followed World War II. As these trends continued, the geometric growth of the art world – with the rapid expansion of higher art education, the growth of museums, the multiplication of galleries, the rise of art fairs and auction houses where business speculation joined hands with super-conspicuous consumption, and the globalization of art as new ranks of millionaires emerged in Russia, China, and India – was an aspect of the bubble economy that expanded exuberantly (despite recurrent debt crises and recessions) from the 1980s on.

Now the biggest of the bubbles has burst and it is far from clear that new ones can be created on a scale sufficient to restart the financial hijinks of recent decades. As I noted at the start of this essay, this has had immediate consequences for art. As their endowments and philanthropic income dry up, museums are cutting exhibition programs, firing employees in droves, and seeking to deaccession work to pay for operating expenses; galleries are closing; and markets – both the primary market and the secondary venues of art fairs, auction houses and gallery back rooms – are shrinking rapidly, while prices fall. This means tough times for artists, and not only for the young ones who can no longer hope for gallery scouts at their MFA exhibitions and who are losing their art-handling jobs.

Of course, it was only a handful of artists who benefited on a grand scale from the boom; the vast majority struggled to get by, with the acquisition of a teaching job, rather than sale of work, constituting modest success for the lucky ones. So the main impact of the depression will be on the wealthy, on collectors and museum donors. While depressions are definitely bad news for almost everyone, studios and living spaces might become cheaper as real estate values continue to fall. And as “normal” living and working conditions deteriorate, artists will find themselves part of a widening social sphere of irregularly employed people, with potentially interesting consequences for the social and political self-conception of all concerned.

It is to soon even to guess about what further changes such developments will produce in the evolving social character of art, though one can already see a tendency towards the acceptance of amateurism as a relation to artistic practice among many younger artists, a tendency strengthened by the ongoing weakening that I have been discussing of the esteem once placed on cultural activities (as well as the declining interest in technical skill characteristic of twentieth-century art). No doubt, a mode of activity as deeply established in modern society as art has been since 1800 will not simply vanish. What new forms it will take will be more interesting to see than to speculate on.


1 C. Greenberg, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” in idem, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 5.

2 Ibid., p. 8.

3 P. Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 44.

4 For an in-depth discussion, see Katy Siegel, Since ‘45: American Art in the Age of Extremes (London: Reaktion, forthcoming).

5 For more detail, see Paul Mattick, Art in Its Time (London: Routledge, 2003), Ch. 7 and passim.

6 Choate quoted in Calvin Tompkins, Merchants and Masterpieces (New York: Dutton, 1973), pp. 21-24; M. Useem, “Corporate Support for Culture and the Arts,” in M. J. Wyszomirski and P. Clubb, eds., The Costs of Culture: Patterns and Prospects of Private Arts Patronage (New York: American Council for the Arts, 1989), pp. 48, 45.

7 Katy Siegel, “On Wisconsin,” in Between the Lines: Artists Respond to Madison (Madison: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006), p. 37.

2010 © Paul Mattick

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