54 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh’s birthday in 2005. Art and money

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  4. Monday 14th August 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    This week, the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains how capitalism turned art into a commodity and gave rise to the cult of the artist

    MOST Marxists would say that the worth someone sees in a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it — in its original or as a reproduction — is above all else an individual matter, not something that “experts” (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon.

    And while experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

    However, a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an artwork by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society.

    Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context. This is why Marxists argue that one can only fully begin to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

    A fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view — looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part.

    Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual, through organised religion, to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

    Fisher argued that cultural expression is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. Marx himself declared: “The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object.”

    Art (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of “civilised” culture. But the concept of art — especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas — is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto, “the first bourgeois painter” of the Renaissance and his successors.

    Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the “artisan” workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpieces was superseded by the moveable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. People no longer wanted a “Madonna” or a “Descent from the Cross” but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini. The cult of art and the artist was born.

    Yet it was not until the 18th century that the distinction between “artisan” and “artist” became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking — of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — “But is it Art?”

    High art, of course, also produced its supposed antithesis — the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art, unless they are lucky enough to be “discovered,” often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a “free” artist, a “free” personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.”

    Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it.

    Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art “for the people” (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux paintings?) is now “in the gallery” — decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million.

    And the Royal Academy’s recent exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious (and ignorant) curating — presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display.

    Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, “high art” (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is — next to land and other property — one of the best investments that there is.

    An example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, which was “saved” for the nation in March at a cost of £4m paid to its owner, the multinational drinks conglomerate Diageo (which made profits last year of £2.1 billion, 15 per cent up on the previous year). The company graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings “estimated value” of £8m. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery, sometimes described as a “hidden tax on the poor.”

    Paul Gauguin would ask his agent what “the stupid buying public” would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly. His When Will You Marry?, painted in 1882, presents a romanticised view of Tahiti. It sold for $300m in 2015 — topped only by de Kooning’s Interchange last year.

    The majority of artists, and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

    And millions of “ordinary” people derive great satisfaction from their own creative endeavours.

    The role of the artist in society remains a complex subject and one for discussion.

    However it is clear that art and artists are important and that artistic freedom and license are crucial.

    In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared: “I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few.”

    http://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-8403-What-do-Marxists-have-to-say-about-art-1-2#.WZMI91FpwdU

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