Arts  •  July 4, 2014

Why “Fine Arts” Can No Longer Be Culturally Relevant

In our lives, we earn and accumulate different forms of wealth or “capital”. We think of “wealth” as mostly consisting of money, or “financial capital”, but other forms are just as valuable. And, it is possible to exchange one form with another. There are many industries that serve as exchanges. The primary function of fine arts is to exchange financial capital with cultural capital. Those who have excess financial capital and little to no cultural capital (like Wall Street bankers) need a way to exchange some of their financial capital with cultural capital. Fine arts is a perfect medium for this exchange because the quantity of each artwork is fixed (usually just one) and they resist counterfeiting, like gold as a medium of exchange. Galleries handle the exchange at the individual level whereas museums handle it at the corporate level. (Museums do not exchange artworks; they exchange affiliation and sponsorship which also work as currencies of cultural capital.)

Music and literature cannot perform the same function because they are infinitely reproducible; not just the mediums but their artistic substance too are reproducible. Even a poor person can acquire the cultural capital of a great novel just by going to a library. Books and MP3s are fungible. The super-rich cannot take advantage of their own positions as billionaires. Even with the mediums like photographs that can be infinitely reproduced, artists and galleries create artificial scarcity, like “editions”. To take full advantage of their wealth, they prefer large works of art. The larger the better. Massive artworks cost a lot of money to store and maintain. They set themselves apart not only by their ability to buy them, but also by their ability to keep them. In order to feed this appetite of the super-rich, artists almost invariably increase the size of their artworks as they become more successful. In this manner, every detail in the art world is ultimately designed to make artworks serve as a medium of this exchange.

The business model of fine artists is to produce objects that can serve as symbols of cultural capital, and sell them to those who are short on cultural capital. (In contrast, philanthropy is an exchange of financial capital with social capital.) To financially succeed as a fine artist, you have to produce objects that can function as a medium of this exchange. “Digital” or “net” artists are much less likely to achieve financial success because their artworks are infinitely reproducible. Music and literature have mechanisms in place to monetize infinitely reproducible works (by distributing far and wide at low price points). The institutions of art, like galleries and museums, are not designed to support artworks that cannot function as a medium of exchange for the super-rich.

Minecraft, the popular video game, is a good case study. The creator Markus Persson could have taken Minecraft to a gallery and presented it as art, but the art world has no financial mechanisms for supporting it properly. In comparison, Duchamp taking his urinal to a gallery worked fine because it was a physical object that can be signed to control the quantity. Since the categorical label “fine art” is controlled by the art world, if you take your work elsewhere, it would be categorized as something else, like “video game”, “website”, or “app”. In this sense, truly relevant works of art in our digital age are probably hiding in plain sight because they are being called something else at the moment.

We are becoming less bound by physical limitations as what we do in our lives move more towards the virtual sphere. The art world has become culturally less relevant these days because its structure can no longer support newer forms of art that depend less on physical existence. They cannot act as a medium of exchange between financial and cultural capitals. For the artworks that can still function as the medium of this exchange, the art world still does a fine job in supporting them, but we must ask: How relevant is this market itself to our culture?

Another problem that plagues the art world is the fact that the audience who has the power to dictate what is “good” and “bad” is dominated by people who are severely short on cultural capital because they have focused primarily on accumulating financial capital in their lives. Art critics are ultimately powerless and irrelevant as they are essentially feeding off the crumbs left by the collectors and the artists after their exchange. Critics too are in the wrong market as their products are infinitely reproducible. Financially successful artists either know how to serve the taste of these super-rich with low cultural capital, or happen to share the same taste by accident. The truly relevant audience for fine arts is elsewhere; unlike in literature and music, they do not have a meaningful way to participate in the market of fine arts. The label “fine arts” has been hijacked by those who are ill-equipped to be a meaningful audience.

When speaking of art, we often dismiss money as an irrelevant factor, but money does have a way of revealing truths. Your friends may rave about your work but as soon as you ask if they would be interested in buying, most of them will become silent. If nobody is willing to pay for what you create, chances are, it’s no good. This is particularly true today with hyper-efficient mechanisms to find anything we want or like. Van Gogh of today could not hide his whole life even if he tried. This does not mean that if someone is willing to pay a million dollars, it is great. The value that money can represent correlates only loosely. After a certain point, the correlation falls apart. Even if something works well at low doses, it doesn’t mean that a massive dose would bring about a spectacular result. To this extent of correlation, money does matter, and we should not ignore it as being irrelevant to artistic substance. We should have a mechanism that can match the artists with the right audience who can financially contribute to the overall creative process and cycle. Currently fine artists and their audience are absurdly mismatched.

The truly relevant audience of fine arts has no meaningful way to participate financially in the market. This has been justified by arguing that art should not be about money. Ironically, this is preached by the super-rich and their servants, and many artists have been brainwashed into believing it too. Whatever money star artists make, we are told, is supposedly incidental; not what they strived for. It is an argument to justify the way the super-rich and their institutions are manipulating the market. “Let us worry about the money while you guys debate about the substance of art, because artistic substance has nothing to do with money” is what they are pretending to say, but in reality money dictates and influences art to its core. Let’s drop the pretense. Money matters. The audience that has no financial stakes in the market will simply be used for what they are worth, and ultimately ignored. For the super-rich, such an audience is useful in supplying credibility to their own investments, and to enhance their status by contrast. It is a foolish market to participate in if you are not in the position to financially contribute.

There are many critics of the art world who have been trying to change the business model but their battle is likely futile as the need for exchanging financial capital with cultural capital will always exist. As an artist, if you are not interested in serving this business model, it would make more sense to take your creativity to a different market. The only downside is that your work would not be called “fine art”. If this label is what matters to you, you have no choice but to play by the rules set by the established authorities of that label. It’s no different from being called a “medical doctor” for which there are strict requirements. However, I would argue that it is too easy, obvious, and unimaginative to mindlessly adopt a business model created by others many generations ago instead of inventing your own. After all, aren’t artists supposed to be at the forefront of cultural evolution?

Addendum (July 5, 2014)

How do my arguments above relate historically? If we go many centuries back, “fine artists” as we know today did not exist. All artists were essentially commercial artists hired by churches and other institutions to produce something specific. Commercial art, even today, was supported by the public. Some artists were supported by wealthy patrons but no real exchanges existed then.

What might be relevant to ask is this: What did the teenagers of those times imagined a path of “artist” would be like? This is relatively obvious for bakers, teachers, or cobblers. The markets for these careers were already established, so they would have prepared themselves for those paths, knowing full well where they would end up towards the end of their lives. In other words, they were playing the games that were already defined and established by others before them.

What the teenagers imagined, say, a few hundred years ago for being an “artist” was not what we have today. It was an entirely different game. Back then, most artists weren’t even thinking about the historical significance of what they did. Today, historical significance is everything in art. If what you do is not historically significant, your work would not sell. In the old days, the means to make a living as an artist wasn’t to supply the medium of exchange for the super-rich.

To succeed in any game, we need to know the rules well first. This is how we prepare ourselves for any careers. We need to study and understand the market; how it works and who the players are. What fine artists must know and do today are fundamentally different from what artists did a hundred years ago. Their role in today’s economy is to allow the super-rich to exchange financial capital with cultural capital. A hundred years ago, this was not the economic function of artists.

When any market overheats, the cause and effect flip. Think of Rome for instance: Does the city look the way it does because it accurately reflects their culture and their way of living? No. Rome looks the way it does because we tourists want it to look that way.

In the same way, the cause and effect flipped in the market of fine arts from overheating. They are expensive because the artists and the dealers consciously tried to make them expensive, not because of any sort of artistic substance that justifies the price. They are expensive because they are designed to be expensive.

While this is a perfectly fine economic pursuit for some, my question is how culturally relevant this market could be today. My view is that, the market of fine arts has been exhausted of all its cultural viability. There isn’t much more cultural relevance that we can squeeze out of this system/market. It has outlived its usefulness. I believe culturally relevant activities are taking place elsewhere; quite possibly in a market that we do not yet recognize as a “market” because it’s still being defined.

Who we are can only be defined in contrast to its context; the world and the time we live in. When we create artworks, we are trying to define something, whether it’s ourselves, our ideas of beauty, or how we see the world. So, we cannot ignore the context in which we are giving birth to our work. Everything is related, whether we like it or not. Trying to isolate some sort of artistic substance independent of its context would lead nowhere because meaning of anything is defined through relationships with its context.

If what we enjoy is to create certain types of objects, like many of us enjoy cooking, then producing them within the existing market of art is a perfectly fine pursuit. But if our concerns are with what we are trying to express, then sooner or later, we will hit the limits of what today’s art market can support, because it has no mechanism in place to support expressions that are more relevant to our lives today.