Art in Its Time

Paul Mattick


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[…] I am violating a fundamental aspect of the idea of art, the contrast with what art writers generally call ‘everyday’ or ‘ordinary’ life … .

Art, in the first place, is supposed to transcend its historical moment: the category unites products from all epochs and areas, a unity represented physically by museum collections and intellectually by art history as a study of products from every human society. The museum physically separates art from the hustle and bustle of modern life. […] Similarly, art history presents an autonomous narrative structured by such categories as tradition, influence, style, medium, and technique, a domain of relations between artworks. […]

With no apparent use-value, the work of art seems to acquire its exchange-value simply by the expression in money of the art-lover’s desire. The miracle is that these objects can achieve prices higher than those of any other human products. This well-known paradox suggests a problem with the distinction of the aesthetic realm from that of the everyday. And a moment’s thought suggests that art as actual thing exists nowhere but within the ‘everyday life’ from which its cultural construction separates it. The artist must pay rent on the studio, buy paint, seek dealers and buyers; his or her product, if it succeeds in entering the stream of art, will find a place in home, a museum, a reproduction in a book or postcard. The work of art, to have a chance of entering that stream, must show its kinship to other things called art and so to the social world in which artists and art have their places.
That moment’s thought, however, has not as a rule disrupted the flow of aesthetic, art theory, and criticism from the eighteenth century until quite recently

[…] These essays are meant as elements of a critical analysis of the ideology of art … . While the inhabitants of a mode of social life typically experience their cultural conventions as not only normal but natural, an outsider may seek to understand those conventions as the product of particular historical circumstances.

Renaissance artists laid the groundwork for the modern ideology of art when they struggled for social status by insisting that they practiced not a craft but a liberal art, the object-making hand merely fulfilling the dictates of the imaginative mind. The nineteenth-century modernization of art […] redefined it as the expression of individual genius. In fact, artworks are produced by independent entrepreneurs (or, latterly, professionals, employed by nonprofit cultural or educational institutions) rather than by wageworkers. Art can therefore incarnate free individuality, validating the social dominance of those who collect and enjoy it, and signifying a cultural end to which the making of money becomes only a means. The freedom of the artist, including his or her freedom to starve, provides a model for that of the ruling elite (who have the education and leisure necessary for the appreciation of art) purchased by the unfreedom of the many. It is precisely its distance from market considerations, its ‘non-economic’ character, that gives art its social meaning — and its market value.

But since the nineteenth century the question of artistic meaning has increasingly been addressed in terms of a contrast between the ‘content’ — stateable in words — of artworks and their nondicursive ‘form’. Especially after the development of abstract art, the purely aesthetic element in art has been identified with those attributes — colour, line and handling, in the case of painting, for instance — peculiar to particular artistic media. Can ideology be interpretively identified in artistic form?

[A]rt does not exist in a world of its own, sealed off from the conceptualizing performed in language. In Meyer Schapiro’s words, ‘there is no “pure art”, unconditioned by experience; all fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experience and by nonaesthetic concerns.’ The mute experience of an art object is no different from any other lived event. […]

We can say, then, that ideology can be identified in artistic form where the latter can be conceptually linked, by maker or receive, to other areas of social practice.

Mechanical Reproduction

‘Aura’ and reproduction

This experience [experience of aura], according to Benjamin, depends on certain social circumstances, those which he associates with ‘tradition’.

Benjamin’s idea is based on a projection back into the history of art of a relatively modern idea of the work of art as a unique entity, issued from the sole hand of a master.

Yet the cachet attached to the concept of originality is a relatively recent phenomenon. What we now consider as the most characteristic works of the great masters were usually preceded by full-size cartoons and painted modelli, which might bear more of the master’s own hand than the ‘finished’ works. These were followed by copies or variations, sometimes by the artist himself and often, as it were, under license within his milieu. In such a sequence of collective effort the idea of a single ‘original’ is hardly relevant.

[…] Benjamin’s idea of ‘tradition’ as a given context for experience represents a degree of mystification of the pre- and early modern past: tradition in any society must be constructed, and continually reconstructed. And, with respect to the phenomenon under discussion here, the mechanical reproduction of artworks played a considerable role in the creation of the prerequisites for the experience of aesthetic ‘aura’. What we call ‘art’ exists within the structure of a social institution, a system of practices of production (by independent producers for the luxury trade), appropriation (market-based collecting), and appreciation (based on concepts of aesthetic autonomy of the work and of the original genius of the artist).

[…] Like all social transformations, the creation of the modern practice of art involved the development of new modes of theory and criticism. It also made significant use of the mechanical reproduction of images, invented in Europe at about the same time as the mechanical production of text.

The rise of photography as a reproductive medium in part reflected the circumstance that by the mid-nineteenth century ‘the sort of awe we now feel for the status of the original made it necessary for there to be an ‘authentic’ or direct relation between the reproduction and its original’. […] In this way photographic reproduction became essential to the development of modern connoisseurship and the discipline of art history, hardly loci of the desacralisation of art. […]

It has been plausibly argued that the circulation of reproductions has enhanced the ‘auratic’ presence of the originals, by preparing the viewer for the experience of the artworks, by embodying the limits of reproduction and so the uniqueness and unreproducible properties of the original. […] ‘Aura’ seems to have more than survived the effects of reproduction and the development of mechanized image making.

Art and Money

[…] Here it is removal to a museum, rather than reproduction, which ‘detaches the [affected] object from the domain of tradition’, but the thought is at base the same as Benjamin’s. Ironically, precisely such detachment from tradition was (as Dorner pointed out) necessary for the transformation of objects into works of art — in Benjamin’s terms, by transmuting their cult value into exhibition value — and for their acquisition of the ‘aura’ experienced by art lovers like Quatremère. The object thus became removable, alienable: in the language of aesthetics, autonomous… . The artwork is made for its own sake, not for money, and it is collected and admired for its aesthetic value, not its commercial productivity. Expressing detachment from the claims of practical life, its autonomy earns it startling prices, and its ownership thus signifies a paradoxical combination of financial success and cultural superiority to the small-minded bourgeois.

[…] The internal complexity of art as ideological construct is reflected in the obscurity of Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura,’ which, though defined in the first place by reference to a psychological experience, and shadowed by a metaphysical penumbra derived from Klages and Valéry, is intended also to capture an essential element of the ‘aesthetic attude’. ‘Aura’ clearly includes the association with artworks of attributes of ‘spirituality,’ an order of being higher than that of the material business of everyday life, together with those of the rarity or uniqueness of the object ‘without price’ and so for sale at a high one. Both are expressed in the concept of ‘authenticity,’ which refers at once to the direct emanation of a superior spirit, the artist, and to the claim to a special place on the market of the Real Thing.

As Carter Ratcliff explained the new meaning of ‘art’ some years ago:

If galleries are no more nor less commercial than auction houses or business firms in general, then art is a commodity like any other … Above all, we will no longer have to feel qualms about the marriage of art and money. We will no longer have to wonder if it is possible to separate the esthetic value of an art work from its commercial value … If we are to live in our historical moment, we have to look at [van Gogh’s] Irises [sold at auction in 1987 for $53.9 million] (or a reproduction of it) with a full sense of the price it fetched and try to see that outrageous number as part of what painting means now.

Reproduction’s role is subordinate to and defined by this ongoing transformation of the social functions of the artwork, which both reflects and includes art’s absorption by the sphere of mass entertainment… . The museum, even if still the temple of art and redeemer of commercial gain, also functions as partner of auction houses and collectors in the metamorphosis of money into art and back again, a process in which mechanical reproduction has its place. As once reproduction served the creation of aesthetic aura, so it now plays its role in the open transformation of genius and authenticity into bankables.

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