Art as Commodification

John Dewey, in the first chapter of Art As Experience, criticizes the dualism with which people perceive art, as something separate and distinct from everyday experience. In fact, Dewey writes,

So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality. The arts which today have most vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of lovenests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experiences enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides… When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar. (p. 5-6)

Things have not always been this way, however. In pre-modern, hunter-gatherer societies – societies Marx classified as “primitive communism” – art was intertwined with everyday experience.

Bodily scarification, waving feathers, gaudy robes, shining ornaments of gold and silver, of emerald and jade, formed the contents of esthetic arts, and, presumably, without the vulgarity of class exhibitionism that attends their analogues today. Domestic utensils, furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears, were wrought with such delighted care that today we hunt them out and give them places of honor in our art museums. Yet in their own time and place, such things were enhancements of the process of everyday life. Instead of being elevated to a niche apart, they belonged to display of prowess, the manifestation of group and clan membership, worship of gods, feasting and fasting, fighting, hunting, and all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living. (p. 6-7)

What explains this disconnect? Why did we move from societies in which art was an integral part of everyday experience to societies in which art is kept separate, too sacred to risk spoiling with daily contact? Dewey hypothesizes that

There must…be historic reasons for the rise of compartmental conception of fine art. Our present museums and galleries to which works of fine art are removed and stored illustrate some of the causes that have operated to segregate art instead of finding it an attendant of temple, forum, and other forms of associated life. An instructive history of modern art could be written in terms of the formation of the distinctively modern institutions of museum and exhibition gallery…

The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. The nouveaux riches, who are an important byproduct of the capitalist system, have felt especially bound to surround themselves with works of fine art which, being rare, are also costly. Generally speaking, the typical collector is the typical capitalist. For evidence of good standing in the realm of higher culture, he amasses paintings, statuary, and artistic bijoux, as his stocks and bonds certify to his standing in the economic world. (p.8)

Because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from main streams of active interest. Industry has been mechanized and an artist cannot work mechanically for mass production. He is less integrated than formerly in the normal flow of social services. A peculiar esthetic “individualism” results. Artists find it incumbent upon them to betake themselves to their work as an isolated means of “self-expression.” In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity. Consequently artistic products take on to a still greater degree the air of something independent and esoteric. (p. 9-10)

What are we to make of all this? Before examining this argument to see where it succeeds and where it fails, it is important to keep in mind the author’s own experience. Dewey was writing during the early 1930s, at a time where the industrial revolution had just reached its peak, and where the country had yet to recover from the Great Depression. Thus, it is no surprise that few people apart from the rich had time or resources to enjoy art as a part of their everyday lives. Most were struggling just to feed themselves and their families.

Yet that is not the case today. Instead, we live in an age of incredible wealth, where, as New York Times economics columnist and author of The Substance of Style Virginia Postrel has noted, “Aesthetics is critical…not because other factors don’t matter, but because competition has pushed quality so high and prices so low that style is often the only way to stand out.”

Postrel cites numerous examples: The number of manicurists has tripled in a decade, to nearly 350,000, while the number of nail salons doubled. Stone fabricators, who turn granite and marble slabs into countertops, are opening thousands of new businesses a year. Car customization sales of specialty equipment and accessories grew 46 percent from 1996 to 2001, to about $26 billion. The purely aesthetic part of the automotive market is over $10 billion. The number of graphic designers in the US has increased tenfold in a generation, to an estimated 150,000. Membership in the American Society of Interior Designers has more than doubled since 1992, rising to over 33,000. (“The Aesthetic Imperative,” Wired, July 2003)

Industrial Designers at the GE Plastics design center develop new products, ranging from razors to car bumpers, inspired by new materials. Since 1995, GE Plastics has introduced 20 new visual effects. Its heavy-duty engineered thermoplastics can now emulate metal, stone, marble, or mother-of-pearl; they can diffuse light or change colors depending on the viewer’s perspective; they can be embedded with tiny, sparkling glass fragments.

To be successful, Postrel argues that these businesses

must study what consumers value about look and feel — not prestige but enjoyment, not conspicuous consumption but personal meaning. A fancy label isn’t enough. Even luxury brands like Viking stoves are prestigious not because they’re expensive, but because of the sensual pleasures they offer. “Sometimes, I turn it on just to feel its power,” says a Viking owner. Another compares the stove to a “painting that makes the kitchen look good.” (“The Economics of Aesthetics,” Strategy and Business, Fall 2003)

And this proliferation of aesthetic consumption is not only occurring in advanced capitalist countries like the U.S., but in places like recently-liberated Afghanistan as well:

As soon as the Taliban fell, Afghan men lined up at barber shops to have their beards shaved off. Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish. Formerly clandestine beauty salons opened in prominent locations. Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs and videotapes. Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding virtue police. Freed to travel to city markets, village women demanded better fabric, finer embroidery and more variety in their traditional garments. …

Liberation is supposed to be about grave matters: elections, education, a free press. But Afghans acted as though superficial things were just as important. A political commentator noted, “The right to shave may be found in no international treaty or covenant, but it has, in Afghanistan, become one of the first freedoms to which claim is being laid.”

That reaction challenged many widely held assumptions about the nature of aesthetic value. While social critics cherish artworks like the giant Bamiyan Buddhas leveled by the Taliban, they generally take a different view of the frivolous, consumerist impulses expressed in more mundane aesthetic pleasures. “How depressing was it to see Afghan citizens celebrating the end of tyranny by buying consumer electronics?” wrote Anna Quindlen in a 2001 Christmas column berating Americans for “uncontrollable consumerism.” Respectable opinion holds that our persistent interest in variety, adornment and new sensory pleasures is created by advertising, which generates what Quindlen calls a “desire for products consumers [don’t] need at all.”

Why buy a green burka if you’re a poor peasant who already has two blue ones? Why paint your nails red if you’re a destitute widow begging on the streets? These indulgences seem wasteful and irrational, just the sort of false needs encouraged by commercial manipulation. Yet, liberated Kabul had no ubiquitous advertising or elaborate marketing campaigns. Maybe our desires for impractical decoration and meaningless fashion don’t come from Madison Avenue after all.

(“Why Buy What You Don't Need? The Marginal Appeal of Aesthetics,” Innovation, Spring 2004)

Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in 1894 to describe those who purchase products for the relative status these products provide rather than any enjoyment of the products themselves. Dewey attributes this relative status effect to the forces of capitalism, and claims that art has become a form of collecting rather than appreciation for its own sake. While this is no doubt true for many private art collectors, and perhaps even public museums, it is not an accurate description of the pluralistic aesthetic consumer market. One example Postrel cites to rebut the relative status theory is the proliferation of toilet-brush designs - after all, nobody buys a sleek toilet brush to impress neighbors who will never see it, so aesthetics must constitute much of the rationale. Consumers want beauty for its own sake, and not just to look better than others. The interiors of American homes, over the last few decades, have improved much more than their exteriors, contrary to what the relative status hypothesis would predict.

Further, it should be noted that museums are funded either through public taxation or voluntary donations from wealthy patrons, neither of which are what we commonly think of as market transactions. And as all of the above examples attest, mass production and mechanization are in no way incompatible with aesthetic values. An artist still needs to design these products, and consumers still get to enjoy them, as much as if they were made by hand. The use of machines to make the process of production go faster does not detract from aesthetic values. Just the opposite; mass production makes it possible for a significant portion of the population to enjoy these values.

As a pragmatist and a communitarian, it is no surprise that Dewey disparages the individualism of modern artistic expression. But why is individualism such a horrible thing? Surely there is a place for art that reflects the values, emotions and ideas of a community or a society as a whole. But how is this mutually exclusive with art that expresses the values, emotions and ideas of an individual within that larger community? Dewey does not say. His reflective rejection of individualism leads him to exclude an important part of the human experience: our recognition of self apart from others.

Dewey idealizes primitive societies in which art was an everyday part of life. While this may be one advantage of primitive societies over the society in which Dewey lived, we must be careful to avoid the fallacy of the noble savage. First of all, Dewey cites no evidence to support his claim that primitive societies lacked the “vulgarity of class exhibitionism that attends their analogues today.” In fact, his own evidence cuts against this claim, when he remarks that art in primitive societies represented a “display of prowess, the manifestation of group and clan membership.” Second, the system of mechanization and mass production to which Dewey objected is what made possible the incredible increase in life expectancy and quality of life we have seen over the past century; from advances in modern medicine, to food production, to shelter from the elements, to communication, education, and, of course, the wealth and resources to once again create and enjoy art as a part of our everyday lives.

Why was art plentiful in the experience of primitive societies and plentiful in the experience of our own society today, but lacking in Dewey’s time? To answer this question, Postrel introduces two concepts: Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and the microeconomic idea of marginal value.

According to [Maslow], humans must address basic needs, such as food and shelter, before moving on to less critical items, such as aesthetics. “We would never have the desire to compose music or create mathematical systems, or to adorn our homes, or to be well dressed if our stomachs were empty most of the time,” he wrote. … But when Maslow’s model is portrayed graphically as a simple pyramid, it can lead to a false conclusion: that aesthetics is a luxury that human beings care about only when they’re wealthy. … Human beings do not wait until they have full stomachs and a roof that doesn’t leak before they satisfy their aesthetic needs. Given a modicum of stability and sustenance, people have always enriched the look and feel of their lives through personal adornment and decorated objects. …

There is no pyramid of needs, where each layer depends on completely satisfying the need under it. Rather, the value of the next increment of what we consume changes depending on what we already have. The marginal value of some characteristics, such as nutrition or shelter, is high initially—we don’t want to starve or to freeze to death—but that value drops off faster than the marginal value of other characteristics, including aesthetics.

The relative costs and benefits of different goods rise and fall as circumstances change. … Rather than progressing up a simple Maslovian hierarchy, then, we move back and forth among the available options, making the best tradeoffs we can. Which tradeoffs we choose depends on what resources we have. Our choice also depends on what options are available, at what cost. Technology and economic development affect the relative costs of equally valuable goods, and the relative importance of aesthetics waxes and wanes over time. To a peasant in a subsistence economy, significantly better housing or faster transportation might require more than a lifetime’s income, while a bit of decorative carving or an elaborately braided hairstyle can be acquired at minimal expense. In this instance, we choose aesthetics over more “basic” goods.

The industrial revolution changed these relative prices. When mass production and distribution first made functional products cheap, consumers often chose function over form. This effect was particularly pronounced in the United States, because its populous continental market offered great economies of scale. The preference for function over form gave rise to the common critique that industrial capitalism made the world ugly, not just because factories were unpleasant but because, given the costs and benefits they faced, the masses were mostly interested in making their lives healthier, easier, more comfortable and more exciting rather than beautiful. “The public, tickled to get so many things so cheaply, accepted them without question,” lamented Earnest Elmo Calkins in a 1927 Atlantic Monthly article, “and thus we had a depressing period when, in New York City, brownstone houses were built literally by the mile.” And he hadn’t seen Levittown.

In the age of Wonder Bread and Holiday Inn, the big story was not the rise of aesthetics but the spread of predictable standards of minimum quality. After crowded city apartments and isolated farmhouses with little plumbing or no electricity, affordable houses made of ticky tacky looked awfully good. Packaged foods were not only convenient but were also reliable in taste and quality and slow to spoil. A hotel chain might lack the charm of a country inn, but at least visitors could rest assured that they wouldn’t be staying in a roach-infested dump.

The slogan Holiday Inn adopted in 1975—”The best surprise is no surprise”—summed up several decades of economic progress. Americans were more concerned with avoiding below-par experiences than achieving unique or extraordinary ones. Delivering basic comfort and convenience to a vast middle class was, in itself, a huge achievement. But the economics of mass production, mass marketing and mass distribution exacted an aesthetic cost. The lowest common denominator determined what was made. Thanks to such advances as cut glass, synthetic dyes and colorful Formica, in some areas of life, people did enjoy more aesthetics than their ancestors. On the margin, however, they were more likely to choose the newly affordable benefits of convenience, hygiene, mobility and living space. Once these became pervasive, people began to take these benefits for granted and turn attention once again to aesthetics.

Today, having spent a century or more focused primarily on other goals—solving manufacturing problems, lowering costs, making goods and services widely available, increasing convenience, saving energy —more people in more aspects of life are drawing pleasure and meaning from the way their persons, places and things look and feel.

Theorist Ellen Dissanayake argues that the instinct for “making special” is universal and innate, a part of human beings’ evolved biological nature, a behavior designed to be “sensorily and emotionally gratifying and more than strictly necessary.” Once seen as an unnecessary luxury, even a suspect indulgence, “making special” has become a personal, social and business imperative. (ibid)

Dewey was entirely right to criticize the aesthetic dualism that separates art from experience. But he was mistaken when he criticized the “attempt to reduce art to the status of articles manufactured for commercial purposes.” Just as there is no necessary distinction between art and everyday experience, so too there is no necessary distinction between art and commercial production. As Dewey wrote, “The answers cannot be found, unless we are willing to find the germs and roots in matters of experience that we do not currently regard as esthetic.” (p.12)

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Carnival Of The Capitalists

Carnival Of The Capitalists

Strangely, I find myself

Strangely, I find myself reading this and mentally substituting "science" for art. I wonder how that plays out, as an exercise....

I'll see what happens.

The role of the arts in

The role of the arts in everyday life was not something limited to "primitive" society. It prevailed in the West through most of the 19th century. And the commodification of culture, arguably, was mainly the result of the state's enforcement of "intellectual property" monopolies and its subsidies to a centralized telecom infrastructure. The rise of new technologies that enable decentralized networks of artists and consumers, and render enforcement of copyrights more costly, will likely lead to at least a partial return of decentralized folk-culture and amateur entertainment.

Despite the efforts of swine like Glickman and Valenti, and their whores like Orrin Hatch, the corporate entertainment industry is a dying monster.