April 13, 2004    Arts

Beyond “Upper” Art

Just as each culture has its own distinct taste, each economic class develops its own taste as well. This is easy to see especially in food culture—many in the lower class and some in the middle class live their entire lives not knowing what foie gras is. Not all mediums of art are popular across all classes. Some are tied to a specific class, like Fine Arts is to the upper class, and film is to the middle class. This means that success in each medium of art is measured by the taste of a class it is associated with. This has certain implications for artists who hope to succeed.

The vast majority of artists comes from the middle class. As they become successful, they often cross over the lines of social classes. A natural way to look at this phenomenon is that with money comes the taste associated with it, but, in some cases, it is also possible to see it the other way around; they became successful because they acquired the taste of the upper class. In order to show what I mean by this, I will take Fine Arts and analyze the class dynamics within it.

The upper-middle class and the upper class are the patrons of what we call Fine Arts in the West. For it to be financially viable, galleries must charge a minimum of several thousands dollars per work even of an emerging artist, a price which a middle class income could hardly afford for what essentially is a wall decoration. The success in Fine Arts, therefore, is contingent on the tastes of these social classes.

What distinguishes the upper class from the upper-middle class is that the members of the former do not have to work. They have a lot of time on their hands to cultivate taste, and thus develop more radical taste than that of the upper-middle class. For the upper-middle class, art must still be functional to a degree. They cannot buy artworks and send them straight to a warehouse; they buy artworks so that they can display them in their houses. This severely limits the types of work they can purchase, which makes them conservative supporters of art.

The upper class, on the other hand, has other reasons for buying art besides decorating their houses. One of them is pure investment. Buying art is as risky as, if not riskier than, buying penny-stocks or junk bonds. Like the way venture capitalists diversify their holdings in order to hedge their risk, if their motive is to make money, the collectors of contemporary art must also diversify. This is a strategy only the upper class can afford to execute. In order to beat the market, they must think more radically. The criteria for buying art cannot be confined to practicality. They have to think strictly in terms of the future potential of the artist.

In addition, the upper class buys art in order to assert their identities. The middle class does the same by collecting books and CDs. Those who lack identities of their own must define them by consuming identities of others. Knowing what books and CDs a person owns is a convenient way to know something subjective about him. The members of the upper class go beyond mass-produced products of art. Instead of asking what books and CDs they own, they ask what fine artists they own.

For those of us in the middle class, it is hard to imagine why anyone would buy a piece of conceptual art that consists of a DVD player and a projector for 10 thousand dollars. But, if your annual household income is 4 million dollars, 10 thousand dollars would be equivalent to 100 dollars of the middle class household income of 40 thousand dollars. It is not difficult to imagine collecting as a hobby something that cost 100 dollars each.

The upper class being the sole supporter of radical contemporary art, the success of artists hinges on whether they succeed in pleasing their taste. In this sense, Fine Arts should be called “upper art” not “high art.” Most artists are in the middle class when they start their careers as artists, but for them to be successful, they must cultivate the taste of the upper class. This means that initially their taste is out of sync with who they are, but as they succeed, their financial status comes in sync with their taste. Filmmakers and musicians have the opposite problem. They must please the taste of the middle class, but as they succeed financially and join the upper class, they must preserve their middle class taste. If they fail to do so, they would alienate their market.

Consumers of identities, whether middle class or upper class, are often drawn to what they are not. The White middle class is drawn to the Black street culture. Obedient kids are drawn to rebellious music. Suburban kids are drawn to urban culture. And so on. Successfully pleasing the taste of the upper class, therefore, does not mean doing as they do. Pandering to the apparent taste of the upper class would probably be a mistake. Exploiting their self-hatred or sense of guilt might be wiser.

Since the tastes of the upper-middle class and the upper class are quite different, the artists who please the former may find themselves stuck with a moderate success, unable to achieve the status of “blue chip” artists. For them, a gradual shift into something more radical in taste during their mid-career might be strategically wise.

How artists deal with the discrepancy between the taste they must cultivate and what they are in reality, has certain spiritual implications. Suppose what you do as an artist pleases you as well as the taste of the upper class. If you are intentional in pleasing both, it is good business. It is like a baker who loves baking and pleasing his customers. If it does not particularly please you but it pleases the upper class, then it is prostitution. If it pleases you but you do not question where the money is coming from, then it is a shady business like selling bongs—the upfront premise of your business is to sell artistic substance (to smoke tobacco), but the buyer’s true purpose is to satisfy their egotistical needs or greed (to smoke marijuana).

In this sense, digital art offers an interesting alternative. Anything can be co-opted by the rich, but both the immediacy of access and the ease of duplication of digital art function as natural deterrents against it. This is true to some degree for photography. Many photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe appeal to the middle class as well as to the upper class. Once digital art establishes a market in the middle class, it would be an ideal medium for artists who have something compelling to say for the taste of their own class.