Art for the 1%: Why Most People Hate "Modern" Art
There are many reasons why the average person detests contemporary "fine" art. Most of the reasons can be summed up by this sculpture, which Artnet reported was recently installed in Central Park.
It's a 400-lb, 24-karat gold cube worth 12 million dollars. It has its own security detail as well as an NFT counterpart (What's stupider than a gold cube? A gold cube that doesn't exist).
The "sculpture" which looks, as one article put it, "illustrious" in the photo above , is rather underwhelming in person:
Its sculptor Niclas Castello said he was inspired to “create something that is beyond our world—that is intangible.” In fact Castello used the cube to promote his own brand of cryptocurrency, the Castello coin. The German conceptual artist says on artnet that Basquiat and Warhol are his inspirations. It figures. As his artistic hero Andy Warhol once appallingly said, "Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad”. But making money is art, and working is art - and good business is the best art.” If this is what passes for a definition of good art in the rarefied circles of the patrician art market then it is no wonder most people without ivy league pedigrees and trust funds loathe it.
They say conceptual art is the art of ideas--but thanks to Warhol and his ilk there's only one idea their "brand" espouses: insatiable and insipid greed. The art critic Robert Hughes--who called Andy Warhol one of the stupidest people he'd ever met--called this so-called business art "feeble, repetitious kitsch." Warhol's disciples follow in their master's footsteps. But what else is there to expect from people whose main purpose is to create luxury items for the super-rich that reflect the fatuous avarice and shameless narcissism of the billionaire class?
Art history doctrine holds that Marcel Duchamp's transformation of a latrine into a sculpture liberated art from its boring old obsessions with painting and all that entailed--visuality, skill, tradition, meaning, ideas. Duchamp's goal was to deflate the pompous cultural mandarins of the post WWI era and in doing so, deal a blow to the bourgeois culture responsible for the most destructive war in human history. But whatever culturally-redeeming ideals conceptual art might have had at the onset, it became co-opted almost instantly. Since Dadaist art and its readymade descendants were essentially about nothing, it made it easier for capitalists to project themselves and their values on its blank surface. Duchamp's readymade Dadaist crusade got co-opted almost the moment it began. Later artists did little to attack the pretensions of the bourgeoisie. Instead they wallowed in them. It took about a generation for the concept of the readymade to hit the American mainstream. Almost instantly, the satirist became the shill.
It's a short step from this Warhol print to the gold cube placed in Central Park. Artnet's fawning coverage notwithstanding, many people were turned off by Castello's marketing stunt disguised as contemporary "fine" art (not much difference between them nowadays). Many took notice of the fact that New York City is the capital of income inequality. If it seems obscene that a twelve million dollar gold cube appears in a city where 15,000 homeless children slept every night of December 2021 in the city's municipal shelters, you also need to remember that New York City has the largest number of resident billionaires--99--of any city in America. These are the people who get to have Picassos hanging in their house.
After David Rockefeller died in 2017, his heirs sold the Picasso for $115,000,000. But Picasso--albeit a name brand with huge cachet even now--hails from a different age where average people could recognize and appreciate his work. You can see Picasso's Guitar Player (lying horizontally) over Samantha the Witch's fireplace in the popular 60s sitcom Bewitched.
Picasso was a contemporary artist--still very much alive--when the show aired. Could any typical sitcom viewer name or recognize any contemporary artists today? There was a reason the TV audience could tell a Rembrandt, Picasso, or a Van Gogh--and flocked to art shows that exhibited them. It's the same reason why when this was happening:
The American art world (in the sculptures of Robert Morris) had this to say:
Thanks to color printing technology, by the mid-20th century nearly everyone in America could afford magazines, books, and album covers that featured some of the most talented and renowned visual artists of the era, like Andrew Wyeth:
Or Charles White:
On top of this, the average American had access to color reproductions of the great artists--in books and in prints--that led to a fascination with the lives of visual artists. Irving Stone's historical novels about Van Gogh (Lust for Life) and Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy) were bestsellers and major motion pictures with big stars.
And it was precisely at this time when the public was embracing the work of great painters of the past and present, that the fine art world pivoted away from painting--and representative art--completely. I have often heard the argument that painting got abstract because of photography. But this ignores the class prejudices of super-rich collectors. Art--like any other kind of capital accumulation, is meant to exercise and display wealth and power. Why bother collecting art that any poor slob can acquire on a newsstand or a bookstore--or even worse, a public library? If they can't own it exclusively, then it's worth nothing to them. And so during the 60s at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Andy Warhol films 35-minute blow jobs and 485-minute long static views of the Empire State Building.
Meanwhile the artist Norman Rockwell, whose work is derided as kitsch by the art establishment, has this to say:
This aesthetic and moral failure on the part of the academic-gallery-museum complex of fine art continues today. Here are the moneymakers and hipsters:
And while the art market embraces artists who are women, or black or gay or Muslim, it's important to notice that their work never, never questions the class privileges of the people who buy it. Billionaires can unctuously condemn racism while still perpetuating a class system that creates--even necessitates--the conditions for racism. But as the reckoning against white supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia continues, it begins to dangerously verge on class consciousness. For this reason, the fine art of the super-rich increasingly favors "art" that says nothing, reveals nothing, questions nothing.
Most people know that McCarthy's sculptures are both literal and metaphorical. As someone once put it, this is "jive-ass shit for rich white people." People tend to hate contemporary art because it reveals the lies of the capitalist system in an undeniable way. You think it's a meritocracy in here? You don't need to have talent--that's so lumpenproletarian. All you need is money or a patron with money. Rich parents open doors to exclusive schools, elite hobnobbing, and lucrative careers. How else do you get those fancy professorships, or careers at galleries, auction houses, and museums, catering to the billionaire donor class? The fine art world and its products, which require six-figure college degrees to appreciate and seven-figure (or eight, or nine, or ten-figure) salaries to acquire them or support the museums that exhibit them, provide a crash course in class consciousness. People who would never think to criticize the economic system because they lack a narrative to make sense of it, can easily see in contemporary art the visual representation of that system--and how much it holds them in contempt. As Robert Hughes put it, contemporary art like our golden cube screams: "I can belong only to the super-rich...This alienation of the work from the common viewer is actually a form of spiritual vandalism--a cultural obscenity."
That's an apt description for the puny golden cube and for the system it supports. Luckily there are many art countercultures that don't manufacture sycophants for those in power. You don't need to look in Manhattan galleries or museums for them. You can check Maus out of your local library. You can watch a cartoon, read a magazine, buy a print from an artist you follow online. In the 16th century, at the dawn of printing technology and the first information revolution, popular, reproducible art looked like this:
Like Durer's world, the best art of today is available to the people--who can own it for the cost of a paperback or an internet connection. The best art is art that is made by and for the people themselves. It is the art not of the past but of the future.