The Luxury of Art: Art & the Mainstream Part 1
On September 10th Hyperallergic hosted a small panel discussion on the mainstreaming of art, the podcast of which will be available on iTunes. The discussion was interesting, but felt a bit unfocused. This shouldn’t be a surprise (and should be considered a good thing) given the diverse interests and curiosity of the panelists, as well as the lack of a dogmatic agenda. The format allowed the panel comment on a wide range of topics related to Art and the Art world’s uncomfortable relation to mainstream culture, including MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition and how the comment section of blogs has opened up the discourse about art, but here I want to concentrate on what was to me the elephant in the room: Art’s status as a luxury commodity.
That Art is a luxury commodity not a new idea; panel moderator William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton’s Hashtagclass project devoted considerable time and intellectual energy to turning this idea over. In fact I think the critique of art as luxury commodity is a central concern of their project (just look at the site’s banner graphic). While I think it’s fair that the Hyperallergic panel didn’t use its limited time to address a previously examined idea, especially in relation to the recent TV exposure associated with Bravo’s Work of Art, it still seems like the central problem when thinking about Art’s relationship to mainstream culture.
Sometimes it seems as though artists, critics, and dealers will often treat that relationship just as they would the eponymous invisible pachyderm. It seems no one wants art to be thought of as little more than a collection of designer goods. Art has always been about communication, be it directly with the gods, the church or state instructing the populace, or the individual artist communicating matters of personal feeling or vision; I don’t think anyone gets that from a handbag (even one by Murakami), and the association feels like an accusation of vacuousness; it highlights the mercantile exchange at the expense of aesthetic or cultural meaning. This slight is at the very core of why art has a problematic relation to any formulation of ‘mainstream culture.’ In trying to set itself apart from other luxury commodities it is arguing for a more exclusive place within the cultural landscape, not a more general or mainstream one.
It is a question of access, and just as in any other area of human behavior where there is money to be made, it is the cost of access that is problematic. This is especially true when (say, as with politics) the ideal system is democratic and open and the existing system is revealed to be less than that. As our current global culture allows for increased mobility between economic classes, the boundaries between what is traditionally thought of as high and low culture has become similarly smeared. This smearing leaves us in a consumer culture where many luxury brands are more accessible to more people. This increases the competition for those objects, but also levels the field somewhat (the best, if fictional, example I can think of being Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones yelling at someone because she saw the designer handbag she coveted on the arm of a Midwestern housewife while she was made to wait – shades of Craig Robbins). However, by virtue of its ultimate focus on the unique, Art reinforces its link to the history of the luxury commodity.
From a basic production standpoint, the economics behind the production of a work of art grow out of the centuries old tradition of guilds and skilled craftsmen. Artists today are (generally, for the most part) making work by hand, with high overhead costs in space and materials. The base economic factors of the cost of labor and the time and experience required to meet a sufficient level of technical skill remain as factors that push the price of the handmade object ever upwards. Similarly issues of scale apply to artists and collectors alike. Bigger is seen as more important, more desirable; having the resources to own a non-utilitarian object that takes up a large amount of square (or cubic) footage represents a considerable expenditure of capital. (This is all the more so if the work is in storage, there Art is even removed from even a pretense of having even a decorative function.) Previous attempts by artists to make work that is ‘uncollectible’ have only resulted in changing the taste of collectors, who will still find a way to own the art, sometimes at even greater expense and sometimes without anything material to show for it.
That Art is ultimately subject to the same economic forces as any other luxury commodity is an a priori condition; furthermore it is not possible to divorce Art and its production from rules of economics. Attempts at popularizing access, such as Jen Beckman’s 20 x 200 project, ultimately reinforce this condition, but it strikes me as a similar situation to almost anything else people care about these days; the situation is not ideal, but it isn’t necessarily clear what the ideal would even be (other than that one person’s ideal is probably very different than the next person’s). This is not to say that problems and grievances shouldn’t be addressed, or that options and alternatives should not be explored, only that those who care about art should not lose sight of the cultural and aesthetic values that brought us to it in the first place.