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Dilemmas on the influence of Capitalism in Art

Dilemmas on the influence of Capitalism in Art

There are two big groups with different opinions regarding the function of art. One of them, the anti-marketers, resent the importance and attention given to the economic value of art. The other one, market oriented, studies this information with interest.[1]

The market oriented group argues that commerce is only one more aspect of culture and that without benefits in commercial circuits artistic creation would not be possible. Sponsorship has historically been accepted and many famous painters realized purely commercial assignments for their clients.

However, since the ideas of Romanticism awoke the concept of the artist’s liberty in his search for novelties that anticipate the aesthetic concept of the epoch, capitalism has seemed to exert an inappropriate influence upon the artist’s contemporary unlimited freedom.

Assignments are not considered Art anymore, only novelties are, which have the commercial barrier of limited public acceptance and desire, and so price, due to the late assimilation of new concepts and the delayed understanding of the message by the audience.

Within this context, it is easy to understand that financial players in this market would try to promote commercial artworks, which, by definition, would be more publicly accepted due to the already assimilated concepts, somehow limiting the free development of artists’ innovations.

On the other hand, marketers may argue that they act in favor of the community, encouraging artists to approach the general aesthetic need of the moment, although melding it with their own creativity, and so immortalizing a period and not simply painting according to his unique and individual view.

Capitalism influences artists, rejecting the Romantic argument that real art is only born of an act of freedom that transcends politics, ambitions and commerce. However, it’s clear that a real artist would never be able to reduce all his intellectual curiosity to only one desire such as money.

Romantic views advocated steering clear of money in order to create art. According to Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) “The artist should live for painting, not paint for living”. Furthermore William Blake (1757-1827) said: “Where any view of money exists, art cannot be carried on”, regarding the limits that money can put over the artist’s creative freedom.[2]

According to Baudrillard, the signifier and exchange-value become omnipresent, equal and perfectly interchangeable, leading to a radical commodification of cultural practices. However, when a painting only serves as an argument for financial expenditure, its symbolic value is destroyed and the auction only legitimizes the idea of painting in an absolute way.[3]

Nevertheless, the fact that artistic movements have historically followed money and development is clear: the classical Greek and Roman empires, the Spanish Golden Age, the Italian Renaissance, the rich XIX century in capitalist France, and the prosperous and prolific North American XX century.

However, as soon as capitalism was adopted in most of the world´s markets the problems of artistic creation and the theory of art lost their old directions, in favor of the new triumphal class, the Bourgeoisie. This class brought progressive values and ideas, in opposition to the old ones from the church and the aristocracy.[4]

But the historically progressive nature of capitalism soon became hostile and even regressive to Art. To the capitalist system correspond totally different spiritual and artistic creation methods to those of the Middle Ages, and the relationship between art and social life has now changed a lot as well.

Capitalism has made clear the division between artistic and material production, giving to art a specific and delimited space, away from the public and social life, liberating it from its utility function.

Nevertheless, the increase in aesthetic material production has a very positive effect for society. It has democratized the aesthetic experience, before limited to the elite, extending to the general public the accessibility to consume and perceive beauty.

But capitalism also has a clear influence on society. As intellectual curiosity is linked to interest, and interest to desires, and desire often manifests as materialism, now that money has become so important in advanced capitalist countries, the public’s intellectual curiosity risks being reduce to, and focused upon, money.

In the ideological superstructure, painting is a domain away from economics, being developed in a very original way, almost autonomous and relatively independent of material conditions, in a superfluous liberty of action, because the true freedom of creation needs oxygen.

This oxygen is not only the artist’s interior tension, but also his interior freedom of spirit, free of religious chains and dominant ideologies and morals. Art must be only obedient to the imperative rules of the imagination.[4]

Artistic creation loses diffusion at the expense of its intensity, due to it’s character, which is normally opposed to the dominant and official ideology. Moreover, according to Karl Marx “The capitalistic production is hostile to certain domains of the spiritual creation, such as art and poetry”.

Commercialization then risks degrading this contemporary art concept. If the artwork is considered as a merchandise, the production can be generalized, following the preferences of the social demand of a massive public without aesthetic education.

A market responds to demand, and if the public demanded art of low quality, the market would produce it, but if the demand was for high quality it would produce high quality art as well. However, commercial production is often of low quality, because the vast majority has this taste and the market simply reflects this.[5]

A revolutionary change is clear: Nowadays it is possible that the functions of painting, judging, selling and buying all rely upon the same person. Therefore market trends, and artistic tendencies with them, are subjected to a higher level of interested influences traffic, and so, to higher possibilities of corruption of the idyllic freedom of creation in favor of a few interested hands not necessarily deeply educated on the subject.


[1] “Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists and Economics”, William D. Grampp, 1989. ISBN: 0465063217

[2]“The value of culture, on the relationship between economics and arts”,  Arjo Klamer, Amsterdam University Press. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1996. ISBN:90-5356-219-4

[3] “La evaluación de las inversiones en arte”, Helena Guindo Olmos, Madrid, Spain, 1999.

[4] “Le marché de l´art”, Karel Teige, Editions Allia. Paris, France, 2000. ISBN: 2-84485-034-0

[5] “Arts and economics”, Bruno S. Frey, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag. 2000.

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