Friday, May 13, 2016

The Democratization of Art

Minneapolis Institute of Art (‘MIA’) – ‘State of the Art – Discovering American Art Now’

Ever wondered what the art world is doing or where it is going?  Tired of reading about high prices at Art Basel or at Sothebys?  Wondering if art will ever be relevant to working-class people again?

I’ve asked myself some of these same questions.  This show provides one of the answers, and it’s not limited to Minnesota.  Organized by the Museum of American Art in Bentonville Arkansas, this show is a cross-section of 130 artworks by more than 50 pretty much unknown artists.  Bentonville of course is the headquarters of Wal-Mart, the retail death-star; and anti-union Delta is the show’s major sponsor  – probably part of their PR campaigns to the liberal professional strata who frequent the MIA. 
Four Legs, Good - Two Legs, Better
That said, the curators claim that 2 million people in the U.S. are artists.  This is significant, for it shows that ‘art’ is not just an elite preoccupation anymore.  Since the Renaissance, when a handful of people called themselves artists, to Paris in the times of Impressionism where 2,000 registered artists lived in the city, artists have been a marginal strata.  Today it is a mass activity.  In Minneapolis there is even an ‘art crawl’ in some neighborhoods, and this is probably true all over the U.S.  This show makes the usual tired nods to ‘diversity’ – even in its’ promo cover shot – but it showcases an amateur art world in which no art ‘movement’ exists.   

Each artist is following their own obsession through various mediums  – sculpture with balsa wood, birds dressed in clothing, paintings, ink drawings, digital art based on skin, films of various kinds, found objects; recycled pieces made with corks, painted fabric, lottery tickets; much photography, immersive pieces, fabric constructions, fabric wrapped around combs, ceramics and porcelain, melted plastic, collage, what have you. 
The themes are also over the map.  There is a bit of politics – a picture of an abandoned mall; environmental messages; the enslavement of black people, little recreations of buildings destroyed in Iraq and Syria, references to Animal Farm – but most of it is again, individual obsessions.  This reflects the whole capitalist economy, in which individuated people follow their tiny passions.  Each artist becomes an entrepreneur, selling themselves and their somewhat narrow talent as a commodity.  In addition, art has become part of the ‘peddler’ economy in which money is earned on the side to supplement meager wages.  Today most varieties of isolated artists avoid any interaction with social movements or history.  Sad but true.  

Folk art and ostensible ‘fine art’ are also all mashed together.  This might all be called ‘post-modernism’ but I don’t think it is because it still follows a certain pattern.  What is that pattern?

What is happening is the democratization of art.  That is the pattern.  Karl Marx pointed out in his younger days that socialism and later communism would free people from the tyranny of excessive labor in order to allow workers to grow and develop other skills – cultural, athletic, mechanical.  Socialism he felt would be the full transition from the ‘realm of necessity’ to the ‘realm of freedom.’  In this vision, many or all people would become artists – or musicians, writers, builders, inventors, sewers, software developers, great cooks, gardeners – all the thing people in the U.S. pursue, but currently in a somewhat limited way.   

Whether this also leads artists in the present day to actually forming artistic ‘movements’ that unite with social struggles is probably also inevitable, as individuation ultimately becomes a sterile approach. 
This democratization is happening across the cultural board, not just among artists.  In the U.S., the massive amount of musicians in Minneapolis, the thousands of actors in Los Angeles, the writers crowding New York (or perhaps who used to crowd New York…) - are creating an overflow of creativity, ‘content’ and ‘product.’ The consequence is that there is now massive amounts of everything  - not just cereal but cultural products.  But there is still a bifurcation of this production – a 1% or 10% that can earn a living and a 90% that does occasionally, in their spare time, or that never earns enough to make a real living and scrapes by.  ‘Don’t quit your day job,’ as they say.  Yet this situation presages a completely different kind of ‘art world’ which is totally alienated from the high-bucks commodification that we see of Impressionism or Picasso or Abstract Expressionism by capital’s art market.  A commodification that has now even reached street art, much to the dismay of Banksy.  

Under socialism, the added amount of free time enjoyed would allow this flowering of talent.  But even other capitalism, there is now more free time in some more social-democratic countries or among some strata than in the past.  This allows the ordinary population to become more creative.  This is what we are seeing when we see a number like ‘2 million’ artists in the U.S.  – it is not just a reflection of the poverty of the job market.  In essence what is happening even under capital is the development of socialist cultural values ‘in the egg,’ foreshadowed.  This situation prefigures a world where food, clothing, health care, education and shelter are givens – no longer the main goals of life, but automatic.  Then human beings can become fully human, not just wage slaves or animals grubbing for their daily bread.  

Indeed, artists won't become millionaires or lauded by the rich anymore.  That will be the new paradigm.  Art and creativity will instead become widespread - it will be democratic.  The government or society will instead support the arts in a way that they do not now. 

The show at the MIA runs From Feb 18 to May 22.

Reviews on prior art shows or books.  Use some of these terms to find them:  The Influence of Picasso,” “The Art of Frida Kahlo,” “Art Crawl in Northeast Minneapolis,” “London: The Death of Art,” “9.5 Thesis on Art’ and “Banksy.”

Red Frog
May 13, 2016

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