Innovation and the Art Bureaucracy

Essay by R.Cronk

Assessing value in the arts has always been a hotly contested issue. As new aesthetic theories fall in and out of favor of the mainstream art establishment, their arguments recognize the same or different art for reasons that augment their developing perspectives in the historical dialogue. Recently, this Hegelian orthodoxy has shown itself to be a good-old-boy network of artists, writers, scholars and curators whose first priorities are to guard their careers and the prestige of the art establishment.

At first it seemed inadvertent that scholars were creating self-contained systems of value in support of the directives of an art bureaucracy. When recent aesthetic theories de-emphasized the art encounter to focus on the definable attributes of art, it appeared to be coincidental that they strengthened the role of critics and scholars, and provided the basis for attributing value to the art of their choosing.

After the deconstructivists exposed the erroneous assumptions of Occidental philosophies and post-Kantian aesthetics, the heightened awareness of the aesthetic experience was relegated to psychology and removed from consideration. This has resulted in aesthetic theories that do not adequately account for the cognitive nature of art, nor do they provide the means for attributing aesthetic value to work that inspires appreciation greater than the objective appraisal.

Very few works of art are capable of evoking metaphysical revelations or a sense of ontological presence. It would not be commercially viable for the proprietors of the art market to attribute value to such elusive principles. It is in the best interest of the art bureaucracy to distill art's content into discursive containers. The mainstream gallery director wants mediated expression. The investor isn't buying art that evokes a response. The buyer is seeking recognizable names and resale value, and the prestige and status of owning original art. With bureaucracy pulling the purse strings, succeeding in art has become a financial proposition. Mainstream artists are caught up in a capitalist boondoggle, bidding for recognition in whatever way guarantees big bucks for the dealer.

Substituting monetary value and critical endorsement for the value of the aesthetic experience was a capital idea that set a dangerous precedent. It allowed the parameters of art to be dictated by economic forces. Independent of the artist, the market determines according to its own priorities what will be offered to the public and recognized as art. The gallery director censors the enigmatic to reflect the values of an established clientele. Freedom of expression is compromised. The artist signs his own death warrant with the exhibition contract. The pen is mighter than the brush. The radical spirit alive in the art environs of 19th century France, and briefly in the post-war New York art community, has succumbed to profit motive and bureaucratic self-interest.

The art bureaucracy first serves itself, not art. It is self-sustaining, and exploits art for its own purposes. Duped by the self-serving double talk of establishment apologists, the artist finds himself subservient to establishment demands for critical endorsement, historical context, limited non-conformity and commodity production.

Mainstream galleries and the art establishment bureaucracy are depressingly political. Too often, it is a matter of who you know and your willingness to submit to gallery demands that determine success. As a result of talent and circumstance, a few artists enter the mainstream in a big way. Their careers are soon reduced to the production of commodities with a particular look or style. Their futures, and the future of art, are directed by art critics and gallery directors. The art establishment exploits the talent and naivete of the artist in much the same way that a fight promoter exploits a boxer. In art this reeks of complicity.

Artists have been duped by promises of fame, fortune and tenure into participating in the commercialization and despiritualization of culture. Lost is the purity of Formalism, the honesty of Expressionism and the quality of presence in art. Mainstream art has become insulated with critical rhetoric to a fault. The methodological conformity of the establishment runs contrary to the revolutionary spirit of art.

The essential distinction between art and criticism has been lost. The artist and critic, while sharing in the brotherhood of aesthetics, are by necessity in an antagonistic relationship. Neither discipline really learns or develops by fulfilling the other's expectations. This is not how it works. As soon as the artist and critic find themselves on the same side of the fence, they are blind to the assumptions they hold in common. The camaraderie of post-modern critic and artist hints at an academic conspiracy that has left mainstream art isolated and irrelevant.

Bureaucracy must release its choke-hold on the artist before art can reachieve a primary role in the generation of cultural values. While the exploitation of artists by the art bureaucracy is subject to criticism, artists support existing inequities by their participation. For the artist to create meaningful art in the next century he must stand outside class stratification and oppose the despiritualization and commodification of art. Revolution in art has become a force of resistance. The vanguard artist must be secure in his own acts of subversion and defiance. Either that or he will compromise his ideals and innovative spirit to compete in a market controlled by economic forces and bureaucratic self-interest.

Do not expect new directions in art until distance is established between artistic production and the commodity requirements of the gallery. Frustration with the priorities of the art market will eventually force new alliances and a shift to alternate forms of esoteric and public art.

Any avant-garde attempt to restructure art's ideological priorities while producing commodities for the establishment is destined to be assimilated with little effect. In order to affect change, art must gain critical and public recognition without being assimilated as commodity or historical object. Also, it must not be so obscure as to be indecipherable by the educated gallery audience. And it must be understood as subverting the conditions that have reduced art to dollars and sense.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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