Capitalism's Corruption of Art

January 06, 1994|By FEREBE STREETT

The art of making art has largely been replaced by the art of selling art, and what sells is commonly just one form or another of pretentious arrogance.

Christo at least surprises us with his crazy schemes; his genius lies in his manipulation of bureaucracy. But most of what is touted as ''innovative'' and ''important'' is really just a pile of dirt on the floor, or trash stapled to the walls, or graffiti, or black-on-black paintings, or manufactured objects under plexiglass, or a board leaning against the wall.

Art critics describe these things as ''suggestive or reminiscent of . . .'' or ''important, profound, urgent . . .'' or ''bridging the gap between . . .'' or ''exploring boundaries,'' or ''breaching barriers'' or whatever they can say under the pretense of advocating art. They often use elaborate words where simple ones would help more, and usually manage to tie their flaccid commentary into unintelligible Gordian knots. The intent of most critics is to sell the public on their own erudition, insight and poetic sensibility. The reviews they write are often interchangeable; you could attach them to any kind of image and they would be equally apropos, or ludicrous.

In capitalistic society, salesmanship is what it takes to survive. The so-called art that inundates us today reflects the disproportional amount of time, energy and money needed to develop the artist's marketing campaign, at the expense of the artist's economic and emotional resources.

Capitalism is the chief corruptive influence. Artists used to spend time perfecting their craft, and teaching it to dedicated students. Now they all want to be rich and famous. The quality of art suffers because more time is needed to negotiate a fast-paced, profitable career.

Nowadays, anyone with a good head for business can be an artist; if you can draw a box, or a circle, or something resembling a stick figure, and smudge it around a bit with designer colors (the artistic touch), you can call it commercial art. If the imagery is generic enough, you can sell pretty much the same drawing over and over, for any purpose. What might be taken for mindless doodles are actually highly developed ''styles,'' designed to conceal the artist's sheer inability to draw.

Pseudo-artists glut the illustration marketplace, command exorbitant prices and manage only to convey in their work a cold indifference toward the subject matter, and toward their art. Many really fine artists sell their souls to the world of profitable business, and find themselves cranking out pure glop just to keep the money rolling in.

Our art colleges perpetuate the ''starving artist'' dilemma by giving students fewer skills and higher hopes. Once havens of higher education, they have become hang-outs for celebrity artists, greedy for extra income and benefits packages. With their impressive lists of awards and shows in New York, Paris and beyond, they stand before audiences of star-struck students, talking about themselves. They have little time to offer anything of substance, because of the tremendous strain of maintaining the celebrity persona.

Meanwhile, the many eager, talented, experienced but underexposed artists who really want to teach their craft hope to attain part-time status -- a reasonable hope, because part-time teachers save the school a lot of money needed to produce dazzling and costly catalogs to entice more students, and to pay celebrity artists to hang out.

Administrative staffs are increased to handle the bureaucracy, and the whole system is so geared to putting on shows and making money that graduates are sent off who have never even drawn a figure. And why should they bother? It's hard, it takes too much time to learn, it isn't necessary, and the National Endowment for the Arts certainly won't fund it. In a one-size-fits-all culture, the bland and generic sells precisely because of its nothingness, its ambiguity. It can be anything you want it to be.

It will take a revolution to restore in art what capitalism has destroyed. We will never see a trend toward quality and integrity in art until people can overcome their obsession with money and fame. Schools will have to cut back on administration and hire good teachers. Museums will have to swallow their pride and admit the whole Minimalist movement is a sham. And finally, artists will have to learn how to draw.

Ferebe Streett is a Baltimore artist.

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