What is capitalism doing to art?

As we walk out of a brilliant art exhibition in any part of the world or as we finish leafing through countless books in a bookshop, there is always one last step left, and very often not least, to complete the artful experience. Get your purse out and start admiring, and inevitably wanting and even needing those unnecessary, yet very special, artistic notebooks, postcards or pens.

Klimt’s Kiss themed umbrellas, Van Gogh’s Cherry Blossom mugs and scarves… you can even probably find a matchbox with the face of Frida Khalo stuck on it, and oh, that 2018 diary with deep, daily quotes and book recommendations would be so useful! I could go on and on, but the truth is that I would rather spend a whole hour in the souvenirs shop to see how I can decorate my everyday activities and surround myself with constant inspiration – and let the museum make a good profit on it, too.

However, while you can certainly get some nice room decorations out of it, this constant production of art generates much debate.

King of artistic mechanisation, Andy Warhol saw in art a chance to bring the American society together. By making art of Campbell’s tomato soup or a can of Coke, he equally represented the higher intellectual elite and the poorest people in society. Everyone could buy a Coke, he said, and it would be equally delicious in anyone’s hand.

Warhol’s series of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor’s faces turned celebrities into art, and turned art into pop culture. His production of advertisements and record covers meant art would no longer be exclusive to the intellectual and artistic circles, or the ones who could afford it, but anyone could see his artwork in shops or the streets. Whether you like his work, or his capitalistic philosophy, he in a way made art accessible to everyone.

But while this idea can be romanticised when we look at the bold and bright 20th century pop art, it is not quite as charming anymore.

Yes, everyone can now display a Rothko or a Monet on their living room walls by buying a poster, but only because their distribution is so generalised we can probably even find it in a supermarket. And while this is making art accessible, such automatic production does not only turn art into a product, it can do it to the point where it loses its meaning.

We have seen Munch’s The Scream countless times, and have been fed with Mona Lisa’s face only to end up seeing it behind rows of dozens of phones and cameras. How can we know if we like Van Gogh’s sunflowers if we have been told they are a masterpiece pretty much all our lives? I do not want to undermine such artist’s works at all, surely they deserve to have grown to be so popular.

However, such artistic bombardment might influence our sense of judgement and might not let us value an artwork for itself. The same happens with films, or books, which are published with the word “bestseller’”on their covers as a synonym of “brilliant.”

There is no way we can’t or shouldn’t be influenced by others’ opinions. If anything, they enrich our understanding of art. Reviews and critiques are the main substance of cultural magazines, and often make interesting and wonderful articles that make you think twice, even challenging any assumptions that society itself might have generated.

It is the massification of art, however, its constant and serried production, which blurs the line between artwork and product, human and machinery. And products, in our capitalist society, are made to be sold. Something as seemingly counter-cultural as the hippie or the beat generation movement only survived because of their popular spread – in fact, Kerouac himself stated there was no such thing as a generation – and rock bands’ logos are turned into T-shirts, creating fashion trends.

Paradoxically, art’s success is what makes it lose its uniqueness. Capitalism turns its rebellion into yet another product and sells it to us, and its popularity makes it lose its meaning. Did we really like that film we watched, that book which took us so long to finish or the artist everyone is obsessed with? Or are they just another product that have been sold to us?

As the forever popular Fight Club teaches, perhaps the “things you own end up owning you…”


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July 2021
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