Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Art and Social Status

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the extent to which art is associated with social status. My Armenian great-grandfather lived in Bursa, Turkey, and he became wealthy by setting up import-export businesses. He exported carpets to the U.S. and imported pianos to Greece, among other businesses. His family immediately took an interest in French culture, and my grandfather traveled there on vacation. He had an arranged marriage with my grandmother, who, though half-Armenian, had a German mother who grew up in Paris. When my mother was growing up in Greece, they spoke French at home. My mother took an early interest in ballet and European art, and, after we moved to the U.S., my older sister took ballet lessons, and we often visited the art museums in Manhattan. My mother also liked classical music and played recordings of it at home. This all rubbed off on me, and I took an early interest in paintings and music. My English father had somewhat more pedestrian tastes.

As an adult, I've often noticed that, particularly in the West, wealthy people become art aficionados. This usually has more to do with social status than with the free time of the idle rich. There is usually a clear distinction between high art and low art, and social climbers generally avoid the latter. One of the reasons why high art tends to be better than low art is that, in historical terms, the wealthy have been spending their money on it for centuries, and they usually know the difference. The aristocrats in Vienna went into raptures over Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and supported their careers. Without subsidy from the rich, Beethoven would have been poor. In Paris, the Impressionists were initially ridiculed, and Degas, who came from a wealthy family, never identified himself as one, though he exhibited with them.

The situation in the U.S. has been a little more complex. During the Gilded Age, wealthy Americans tended to copy wealthy Europeans, and they often mingled with wealthy British people. For example, Bertrand Russell's first wife was American. Rich Americans built English-style mansions, bought classical paintings, founded traditional art museums and listened to classical music. Fiction usually mimicked English fiction. The situation changed considerably during the twentieth century, particularly after World War I. Economically, the U.S. was on the ascent and Europe was in decline, and market forces began to influence what counted as art. In my view, art patronage changed considerably during this period, mainly due to the transition from informed patrons to market forces.

With the influence of market forces in the U.S., it became possible to make rapid changes in what counted as good art, and modern art, such as that produced by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, became popular quickly, even among critics. It is not a coincidence that Warhol had a background in marketing. Music with African and folk elements developed into jazz and popular music, eventually causing classical music to go out of favor. To some extent, jazz still belongs in the category of fine art for aficionados, and it has had wealthy patrons. I don't think that the same can be said for popular music, though, incredibly to me, many people actually like hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that some of the popular music of the '60's and '70's can reasonably be called art, but calling it high art is still a stretch.

My views on writing are a little different, because language is part of being human, and it is difficult to extract oneself from it and look at it objectively. So, for me, though there can always be good essays, they don't necessarily count as art. Fiction is also on shaky ground. I think that the novel as an art form peaked in the late nineteenth century and may never recover. There is still some hope for poetry, because that isn't restricted to traditional forms of language usage. So, though poetry can be influenced by market forces, there is still room in it for high art that can be identified and appreciated by the cognoscenti. For me, poetry is one area that may survive commercialization, though, on a practical level, I find very little of contemporary poetry worthwhile. I don't think that many good poets can do it for a living.

There are other art forms, such as films and plays, and some of those, I think, qualify as art. However, with film in particular, cost-cutting and automation have already taken a toll if you compare recent productions to older ones.

I should also mention a subject that I've brought up many times: the negative effects of M.F.A. programs. Though, in theory, academic expertise could improve the arts, in practice it has primarily created cloistered art environments and is not as efficient as the earlier wealthy-patron model. There is the myth that artists can avoid the struggling-artist period by getting a graduate degree. They can't.

As a social phenomenon, the definition of art currently lies beyond the influence of people who, in earlier days, may have made reasonable cases for what counts as good art – Robert Hughes is now long-dead. In this market-driven era, many people seem to believe that what is good is whatever is "trending." Nothing could be further from the truth. The internet, besides all of the other damage that it has done, is killing good taste, or at least making it a historical relic.

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