I know, you’re thinking this is hyperbolic. It ain’t. In part one I explained the obvious, that it is beneficial for the wealthy art buyers to influence and control galleries, museums, and art criticism in order to raise the value of their own art collections. One outstanding problem with that is that their tastes in art are dismal, and they predictably favor shallow objects to invest in and keep as conversation pieces. But there’s something more sinister than just self-serving superficiality. The art they favor comes bundled with a paradigm that complements and enhances their supremacy, and alienates the rest of us.
Sometimes the ruling class merely appropriates and assimilates art into their arsenal, but worse is when artists deliberately or unwittingly design art for the wealthiest buyers. That art often stands for the forces of arbitrariness, relativism, capitalistic hierarchies, and otherwise buttresses the rule of the few over the many. Ironically, seemingly avant-garde art which is generally accepted as radical and necessarily propelling the advancement of culture, and which is seen as automatically good because it is free expression, can actually be a negative force that works in collusion with a socially destructive mindset, giving a new meaning to “bad art”.
In part one I discussed art critic Jed Perl‘s assertion that the hope for transcendence that art formerly held out for the middle class is being dashed to shit by the ruling elite. [Note, if you didn’t read the first part, I agree with Perl’s politics and reasoning, as expressed in that piece, but we have very different aesthetic preferences.] First let me tackle “transcendence”. It’s good to boil art-speak down until we can plainly understand the ideas, and not get lost in the surface glaze of the sound of the rarified vocabulary. By “transcendent” I mean something that elevates our minds above the mundane and boring. It doesn’t have to be overtly spiritual. I think it’s safe to say that most of us put on music specifically to engage some level of transcendence out of drab, utilitarian, ordinary existence. We look to art to make life a bit more meaningful, beautiful, complex and intriguing. When I was a kid sitting in my room listening to something like King Crimson and staring at the artwork of the fold-out album cover, I was seeking transcendence. Transcendence is not only an escape, in a good way – let’s not confuse it with escapism – it’s a way of engaging and exploring ideas, aesthetics, culture, reality, and realms of the imagination. There’s a lot to lose when the ruling elite function to stamp out transcendence, a plane of existence beyond the superficial and servitude.
Perl stated that in the 19th century art evolved that reflected the values and aspirations of the burgeoning middle class. Art wasn’t just for the aristocracy anymore, it had become more democratic, and your common man could engage with it. People were becoming more equal, and hence equally entitled to engage with art. The specific values Perl listed as associated with the new middle class were fairness, seriousness, standards, and transcendence. He didn’t explain why those specific values were important, so I’m going to take a crack at it here.
I’ve said before that reason and fairness are the biggest threats to corrupt institutions. This is something I’ve picked up on in a couple decades of working for others. Essentially, you can’t have a hierarchy and fairness at the same time, just as you can’t have a few percentages of a population with all the wealth in an even society. It isn’t just rhetoric that people are more or less equal, in which case the privileging of a few over all others is an injustice. In order to maintain any hierarchy unfair rules need to be implemented and enforced. Being unfair, such rules can’t stand up to a reasoned attack. Objective standards of reason can easily dismantle the rhetoric that props up a tyrant, whether he has a turban on his head or a flag on his suit lapel. Therefore, fairness and standards are cherished by the middle class and rising poor because they level the playing field. The opposites, which I will come back to later, are arbitrariness, and relativism.
Seriousness was valued by the middle class likely as a means of achieving some success, and a level of security. Dedication, perseverance, and sincerity would all help one to achieve reasonable goals and insure a decent lifestyle in a relatively fair society.
Transcendence is not only a metaphor for overcoming the drudgery of servitude and labor, but also an escape valve for the imagination and consciousness. Much has been made of the evolution of American music originating with the African slaves who added a transcendent dimension, via the art of song, to their bleak lives of endless labor. Their music is said to be the source of blues, rock, and rap…, and today’s popular music (at least up until it’s recent over-commercialization) was a powerful antidote to the spirit-crushing monotony of the daily grind. If you’ve performed unskilled labor or gruelingly tedious office work – I’m a scarred veteran of both – then you know first hand the difference a radio can make in helping one withstand the long, sapping waste of ones time and energy.
But why would the ruling elite be averse to transcendence in art? Because in order to maintain rule, one needs control not only over peoples’ bodies, but their minds and beliefs. This quest for control doesn’t have to be conspiratorial, deliberate, or even conscious, it can just be a general tendency to do whatever is favorable for the survival and prosperity of ones self. The quest of the super rich to eradicate contradictory visions may not be so much diabolical as just plain selfish stupidity, not unlike the avarice of the fossil fuel magnates who, if they are successful in forestalling the curtailing of carbon emissions, will ultimately bring about the demise of their own bloodlines. Transcendence, which includes leaps or escapes into non-consensual reality, is outside of the control of the autocrat or the privileged elite, and hence a threat to their hegemony.
Is it any coincidence that the art which fetches the highest prices, and which is promoted by the super rich as the most artistically viable and significant – such as the art of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – also does away with characteristics of fairness, artistic standards, seriousness, and transcendence, in favor of arbitrariness, relativism, and unfair capitalistic hierarchies? In part 3 I will explore works by Hirst and Koons which inherently serve to preserve the status quo while overpowering and eliminating competition (partly through making access to millions of dollars and hundreds of studio workers necessary tools of the worthy contemporary artist).
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