Your “Art” Only Matters Because Our Country is Wealthy

Historically art in the West exists and has monetary value because our country has wealth and buyers who want to collect it. Recently buyers in China have been on the rise, along with a corresponding value on what “they” would perceive as art (i.e., Ming vases, and a lot of modern Chinese artists, as well). This article describes their growth:

Chinese spending on art remains robust in 2013. That’s despite a dip in the market last fall and an economic slowdown that recently knocked the Asian nation off its perch as the art world’s biggest spender and back behind the former perennial leader, the United States.

In a broader sense, there is a question of what drives art, and why some situations with incredible pathos don’t receive the attention they deserve (or much attention at all). For instance there are 1 million children who have been displaced or made into refugees in Syria due to their ongoing civil war. Can you imagine the stories, paintings, movies and television that this story would drive in the West? While we watch “reality” shows about dancing and singing and our “serious” fare covers meth dealers in New Mexico, why aren’t the amazing stories of war (and sometimes redemption, or bitter relapse) grist for “art”?

As I follow the Congo wars and civil wars, I am also amazed by the dearth of real or fictionalized accounts of either the war itself or its impact on civilians. There is little even though the scale of suffering and conflict is so wide, and the participants so varied.

For instance, imagine yourself as a writer in Syria or in the Congo. You have all the grist for art all around you. And yet… no one cares, because it doesn’t matter (much) to those that buy and produce art of all types, since they are in the West or part of the growing contingent in Asia.

It is interesting to me because artists and liberal arts types often view commerce with distaste, and act as if the world would somehow be better if we all dropped our focus on money and attended a play or modern dance or something like that. They believe that there is a “choice” and they can pursue their dreams, even though their dreams are subsidized and provided for by the wealth that is generated by the world of business, and protected by our force of arms, which they also despise.

Without wealth and military power (or the cover of someone else’s military power, as much of Europe and Asia shield under the US umbrella), art itself is a tiny, meaningless cry in the night. There is no intrinsic “value” in art unless the culture can support and (often) export it. Countries can support their own culture, as France and Italy work hard to do, but this is also tied to their value in the tourism trade and linked to their economic value as “open air museums” since little is actually manufactured or driven from these countries anymore. French literature, which made large impressions in the past (Sartre, etc…) is effectively invisible in the US today, although we’d gladly go visit and tour and drink wine and partake in the fabulous views.

Another facet of this phenomenon is the growth in “blockbuster” films that are populated with aliens, comic book figures, or supernatural events. These movies sell around the world, while indie-type movies (or even movies with relationships) are relegated to third class citizenship. If it can’t be explained or viewed in a generic manner understandable across cultures, then it isn’t wanted by our major studios. Certainly the Oscars don’t agree with this model, as they continue to hand out awards to movies that 99.999% of the world wide movie population doesn’t see, while ignoring the giant comic-book based movies taking over the screens. The “artists” there are being subsidized by the money-making tent-pole films, although the studios are extremely profit focused and at some point they won’t be be throwing those artists crumbs anymore (after all, they have to pay for expensive mansions and lavish lifestyles and the “cloak” of artistic merit is only worth so much).

Cross posted at LITGM

7 thoughts on “Your “Art” Only Matters Because Our Country is Wealthy”

  1. Thorsten Veblen described this a long time ago as “Conspicuous Consumption.” I’ve never heard a better term. Some art is held privately for pleasure but most of that is not what we see in the publicity that is so common. I spent a day with my daughter in London’s Museum of Modern Art. The exhibits were ludicrous. I wondered how the curators will preserve such artifacts as a board with nails and string stretched between the nails. Or an artist’s feces in a can. I understand the can is leaking.

  2. A lot to cover here. You could do a college semester on this subject. I won’t cover the long history of art since that’s been done repeatedly, and by people a lot more knowledgeable than me. The arguably best, most pure, treatment I’ve seen of Western art is HW Janson’s History of Art.

    The production of objects of art as status symbols for the wealthy and powerful has a long history. The Minoans, Etruscans, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans…Americans. You get the point. Take a look at Minoan or Etruscan art sometime. Extremely high quality and superb craftsmanship. And a very insightful look into the type and level of civilization they maintained.

    But art has also always been an escape from the harsh realities or just the banality of the world. It’s a way of creating beauty or invoking an alter-world. You can bring to life scenes from foreign lands, or myth, pastoral scenes, history, or religion.

    The propaganda or social shaping aspects have a long history as well. Trajans Column or a Crucifiction are obvious examples. Less obvious were paintings with symbols recognizable only to those contemporary to the painting itself that implied political or religious or social beliefs.

    But artists need to eat, and moreover, they like the large and small luxuries like everyone else. So they find patrons, then paint or produce movies that earn them good pay. If people want to watch comic books because it’s a pleasant respite from hearing about Syrians getting nerve gassed from one side or fragged by Islamists on the other side, I don’t blame them. Especially since there are clear symbols of good and bad and right and wrong; unlike, say, Syria, where it’s all depressing in every direction, and there are no good options or outcomes possible and we all wish it would just go the hell away.

    Lastly, I was giving David Horowitz (Radical Son) and Elon Musk (SpaceX/Tesla) a listen the other night, and they both made similar points, oddly enough. David made the point that people need meaning in their lives. For lots of reasons, industrialization, urbanization, the end of Austrio-Hungarian Empire, etc, people lost faith in God and in their civilization. Various ‘isms’ began to move in and fill the spiritual void and made them feel they were a part of transforming the world into a new and better place, to regain Paradise Lost. Communism, Nazism, Socialism, Islamism, and so on. Hollywood and the academic centers on the coasts were the vanguards of communism in the USA. They still are.

    Elon Musk’s reason for living seems to be changing the world according to his bright and shining vision for the future. He wants to see an electric, non-fossil fueled economy and for humanity to become a space faring civilization. He’s applying his (considerable) engineering and business talent to making that happen. Those are goals I can support, so I wish him luck. I don’t always agree with him, he can be naive, but I generally admire him. He also made the point that people need to be a part of something, to feel they’re contributing to the betterment of society. He cited Apollo and the space program repeatedly for being an inspiration to the entire world because it gave a vision of humanity moving forward to wider horizons, and a better and more hopeful future. He has also mentioned his love of science fiction, arguably an art form, and how that fed his drive and imagination and drives his vision now.

    So, art. Powerful stuff. But a weapon that can point both ways.

  3. Michael, your examples of Minoan art and Etruscan art are mostly decorative in a utilitarian way. Wall paintings or decorative items used at light fixtures or bowls. So much modern art is functionally useless and it seems to me to be solely for display and the pleasure of telling others you understand something that is obscure. It is not surprising to me that artists like Van Gogh were starving until someone “discovered” and “validated” the art, usually after the artist was dead.

  4. Michael, agreed. I was thinking of the jewelry, beds, furniture, pottery. Exceptionally high level of art and craftsmanship I didn’t previously associate with something like Bronze Age cultures. I guess I was trying to say that wealthy patrons have been getting the finest things the artistic/artisan class can produce for a long time now.

    I guess I don’t understand why there’s not more investment in cultural things from people who would paint a different vision. If the Koch Brothers want to make an impact, they could be funding movies and artists that celebrate the values they hold dear. They could also be funding alternative educational institutions. I think there’s a huge, pent-up demand for alternatives. As it stands, the Left dominates the cultural vehicles in the USA, from the arts to education. That’s where you mold the cultural outlook.

    Lex once said, referring to the dominance of the Left on TV, they have air superiority. And when your opponents have that, it’s damn near impossible to win hearts and minds. They only hear one side of the argument and a very distorted telling of history. And there’s much they’re not aware of at all. We need to change that.

  5. A good chance to plug William D. Grampp’s “Pricing the Priceless”, which gives a very sensible economic analysis of Art. Naturally people in the Art World were not pleased with this,since they don’t want to soil themselves discussing money. But they don’t turn it down,do they?

    Some of the “Merde de Artiste” cans exploded when the content fermented.I believe this happened after the Artist’s death. A fitting commentary that.

    I love some Art, and it is a good investment if you enjoy looking at it on your walls. As a financial investment, Grampp makes clear it is unlikely to be a winning proposition.

  6. }}} MK…it strikes me that Elon Musk is a little like the character D D Harriman in Heinlein’s story “The Man WHo Sold the Moon”

    LOL, Musk would probably like the comparison. Even if he had to wind up the same way, unable to go to space himself… as long as OTHERS could do it readily.

    Anyone who knows engineering or SF probably knows, but for those of you that don’t — Robert Heinlein is one of the primary stated reasons for about 2/3rds of all engineers produced in the 60s and 70s for them becoming engineers. He brought the entire concept of what engineering was, at its heart, to a vast array of young, highly receptive minds.

    Heinlein’s greatest skill was not in predicting what would come, but spotting a need and envisioning what would fill it — so many times he saw something that actually happened, but, even though he got the specifics wrong it didn’t matter. He got the secondary consequences right and often the tertiary consequences.

    This is why True SF fans of the 60s and 70s were always driven insane by idiots who insisted on seeing SF as “that Buck Rogers Stuff” — GOOD SF left Buck Rogers behind in the 30s. By the 40s, it was writing about not just science and technology, but about what not only drove them but also what happened as a result.

    RAH did it best — for example, in the 1940s, he foresaw interstate highways (“The Roads Must Roll“), Concerns with nuclear power (“Blowups Happen“) and even nuclear stalemate and MAD (“Solution Unsatisfactory“) — long before the technology or idea existed at all, much less public awareness of it. But SF was merely “Buck Rogers Stuff”. It was enough to make you scream. Most of them STILL don’t Get It.

    Realize: “Solution Unsatisfactory” was written not just before nuclear weapons occurred, it was written before a sustained nuclear reaction (at the famous rackets court at the University of Chicago) had even been accomplished. Heinlein wrote both SU and Blowups Happen well before anyone had even done anything but speculate on the potential means of nuclear power.

    “Mainstream literature is about Being. For character studies, it’s probably
    the best genre around; but nothing happens, nothing changes. [Speculative]
    literature is about Doing. About making the future, not just bemoaning it.
    We’ll all be living in the future by and by. Some of us like to scout

    – Niven/Pournelle/Flynn, ‘Fallen Angels’ –

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