Monday, February 15, 2010

Money, Capital and Art

The Appeal of the Walking Man generated heavy email feedback. If this were a commercial site, responding to the “customer demand”, it would have to be renamed Dialectics of Art. But it is not. More to the point, the dialectics of finance is the starting point of making sense of art, so we are on the right track.

This touches upon a point I made to a friend who wanted more about the role of money in influencing art. I said that the role of money is too easy to discern, and gave the example of one Eli Broad, a disagreeable boor who has become the arbiter of art in LA by virtue of having money to throw around.

But the role of capital in shaping art is more complex. I discuss the point at some length in Vol. 4 of Speculative Capital. In A Brief Commentary On a Picture I quoted a passage from the manuscript on the importance of the visual. Here is more, by way of proof that Vol. 4 is in the works.
The rise of the visual is a new cultural phenomenon; it has no precedence in either the Eastern or Western cultures, both of which persistently warned against trusting the eye as the instrument of reliable judgment. That appearances are deceiving or that treasure is buried in the ruins is a constant refrain in both cultures.

The Impressionist School in the West rose precisely from the recognition that appearances, as the observer saw them, do not correspond to the reality of the phenomena. The paintings of Cezanne, Degas, and Monet, among many others, reflect this ambiguity of the outside reality that comes into our ken.

Islam forbade painting of faces and discouraged painting in general, so the matter was expressed philosophically – and forcefully and categorically …

But in the land of salesmen, the demand of salesmen – expressing the anxiety of capital in circulation that must be converted from commodity form to money form – destroys long held social beliefs and creates new yardsticks of personal appraisal which gradually become social norms. Those most attuned to the business world carry these demands across culture the way insects pollinate flowers.

The salesman, nota bene, is not wrong. It is just that his concern and focus are different. Cezanne and Rumi were looking for the Truth. The salesman wants to sell. For his narrow but well defined purpose, judging from the appearances will do. Let others worry about the false reflection of reality in the human eye.

As sale assumes an ever more crucial role in the economy and the salesmen increase in number, the reliance on the visual becomes the standard practice and eventually, the social norm. The “visual arts” rises. Color, exaggeration and “flash” that define this art are all stock-in-trade of the salesman. They accentuate the visual and by virtue of being pronounced, create the impression of boldness, confidence and certainty. These, too, are in line with the modus operandi of the salesmen who must at all times show confidence in whatever it is that they are peddling.

In this way, doubt is removed from art. The ambiguity of Impressionist paintings gives way to the in-your-faceness of Warhol’s flashy illustrations. And the content becomes subjugated to the form: the question of what to paint, which is always the more difficult question of painting, is decided by the demands of the form. Hence, the purposefully commercial nature of the visual art’s subjects – a can of a soup, the face of a Hollywood sex symbol – which leaves no room for contemplation. Nay, it discourages contemplation. After all, what is there to contemplate about the packaging of a can of soup? A glance would be sufficient.

This development affects both art and its “consumers”. Consumers conditioned to make rapid judgments, gradually lose their habit – to say nothing of ability – to concentrate and ponder. Thus, the rise of the visual ironically leads to the debasing of the visible real life. This is the well known shrinkage in the “attention span”, whose extremity in the form of attention deficit syndrome is recognized for pathos that it is. Warhol’s perceptive comment about the “15 minutes of fame” captures this shrunken attention span that befalls on the observed, as well as the observer, at the age of the primacy of the visual.
I will return tomorrow with a discussion of a dry legal subject: the Fed’s bailout of AIG.