‘Has art given in to the way things are?’ McGuigan

by xdxd_vs_xdxd

In his second chapter of Cool Capitalism, McGuigan discusses the tension between art and business; artists and the economy. Tracing the issue back to the Romantics and the decline of the artist’s relationship with rich patrons, we see a shift towards the role of artists as critics of society, politics and the market. Art and literature then becomes defined by the idea of the ‘bohemians’, typified by the Impressionists and Baudelaire’s ‘flaneur’; a popular concept which still prevails. Citing many examples to demonstrate his point, McGuigan describes artistic practice  as the ‘Great Refusal’. In other words, the unwillingness to conform and the role of art as critique of the established order. Artistic alienation as a means of discussing and critiquing society suits many artists who aim to set themselves apart. However, the true picture is more complex as artists still have to earn a living, and as Barthes points out, the idea of the poor bohemian artist is probably more of a myth than a reality. Indeed, McGuigan intends to reveal the ambiguity between the image of the poor, intellectual, yet free artist with the idea that artistic notoriety, eventually, tends to become part of the establishment; the Impressionists being a good example of this. For me this is reminiscent of cultural or artistic movements from the 80’s opposing Thatcherism and then adopted by New Labour. Here, again, the critics are brought into the establishment and the cultural works produced looses some of their critical and alienating qualities.

Picasso is used as an example to exemplify the complexity of the relationship between art and politics. He is describes as not specifically interested in politics in terms of the art he produces. His work has a strong aesthetic qualities and tends to deal with ways of representing the world rather than being immersed in a critical debate, yet, he creates work such as Guernica. Picasso is a communist but during his life time enjoys great financial success.

This ambiguity is demonstrated again, in the work of american expressionism which seems to reintroduce the concept of the relationship between art and rich patrons (Guggenheim). The role of patrons then becomes that of protector  in contrast to advertising and mass media. This relationship involves a bourgeoisie who seek to set themselves apart from more accessible art forms.

In the UK, by the 1990’s, art as a means of critique of society has largely disappeared and instead the predominant relationship is a close one between art and business. Corporate culture takes over and embraces the fresh new ideas depicted in art as symbols of a modern, progressive approach to work, rather than rebellious.

Damien Hirst and the YBAs seem to embrace the idea of art and commerce and demonstrate the idea of ‘cool’ in their approach and lifestyle. The analogy of the emperor’s new clothes is used as a means of explaining the lack of interpretation of much of the Young British Artists (YBAs). And yet, McGuigan reminds us in McRobbie’s words that: ‘There has to be some way of being an artist and earning a living.’

For me, the issues this chapter raises are to do with the perceived role of the arts or even the wider cultural sector and how individual cultural workers fit within society. The Romantic view is attractive in presenting a much needed critical perspective and yet it has become a cliché, suitable for rich Bohemians. The complete endorsement of capitalism and an entrepreneurial approach as exemplified by the YBAs has a distinctively ‘establishment’ feel to it suggesting that freedom in this case, comes with a willingness to operate within the commercial constraints of the market place. Perhaps, to misquote Wilson as quoted in McGuigan, it could be described as: the new freedom is for some, the freedom to be rich. (The original quote being, ‘the new freedom was for the freedom to starve’.)

I will leave the last words to McGuigan:

‘…the autonomy of art – and of the cultural field more generally – was relative, never absolute. Economic and political determinations played their part in both inhibiting and sustaining contested progression…The question now arises of whether the dialectical tension that emerged from the mid-nineteenth century and lasted through to the mid twentieth century is still in play. To put it another way, have the two dimensions of aesthetic subversion and mundane capitalist reality fused into one? Has art given in to the way things are?’

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    • steve harding
    • March 12th, 2010

    For me I’ve been reading Keynes again and your discussion on values and the artist vis a vis capitalism reminds me that politics is a potent force behind the choices we make.
    Until the economic problems, we have skated over some of the choices we need to make in the Uk and I guess in Europe as production of goods has shifted east.
    the creative enterprise is now seen (I guess) as part of the new economy – it isn’t seen as a cultural phenomenon or a political one either. Creativity is seen as a key part of our european heritage and in some way this can be harnessed for economic growth. I think there will be many discussions at the city level as to what this means.
    I like the bohemian references you make – the interactions between the bo ho’s and the new knowledge professionals will be interesting – it may not be a smooth ride to economic prosperity for sure, but it is a key nexus for how society changes.

  1. The concern is whether or not we loose something if culture becomes part of economic growth rather than the critical voice and counter culture of the 60’s. Increasingly, culture and all aspects of our lifes are part of discourse which belongs to the market place. But the interestingly, the age of austerity might be good for the arts. As for the creative industries, they will have to survive in an increasingly competitive environment, just like any other industry.
    If only it were that simple….

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