Home > Art, Culture > Public Art, Private Money, and Common Truth: Aesthetic Production in the Age of Corporate Capital

Public Art, Private Money, and Common Truth: Aesthetic Production in the Age of Corporate Capital

I will freely admit that I’m a late arriver to the art party. Although I’ve nurtured a childhood enthusiasm for museums into adulthood, the ones that interested me more as a minor were the scientific, natural, and to a smaller extent civilization-focused institutions. Part of this was a simple accessibility issue, Alberta (as well as nearby British Columbia) in general being infinitely richer in scientific and natural holdings as well as in First Nations artifacts than in the art of the great civilizations of Europe and Asia that fills the museums of the Eastern Seaboard metropoles and of European capitals.


But my general lack of interest in the fine arts was a matter of education and surroundings as well, as well as a mere cultivation of interest issue. By the time I was shuffled off to university, I had visited several fine museums and galleries, after all, from the Royal Ontario Museum and McMichael Gallery in the Toronto area, to say nothing of the Uffizi and Vatican Museums on an Italian trip in my last year of high school. It was only comparatively recently, though, that this gap in my cultural knowledge began to be seriously filled, and it’s hard to say exactly what sparked it. Living in the close vicinity of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the only truly world-class art institution that I’ve ever shared a city with, has likely struck a match or two, though a visit to the Met in New York and the idiosyncratic eloquence TV art historians like Simon Schama and Sister Wendy can’t go without acknowledgement, either.

Whatever the catalysts, and whatever the lacking areas in my autodidactic art-world catch-up act, my recent visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art was perhaps the most fully-formed and rewarding experience of art of my life thus far. The essential duality of great art (as with all cultural production) is that while it can easily be experienced and appreciated by the layman in a public museum setting, there is a spectrum of reactions possible, and a work can gain greater currency for an observer more completely versed in the nuances of artistic expression and production. I make no claim to such connoisseurship, of course, nor to the formative milieu of wealth and privilege that engenders the ability to look at art with such an eye, the eye of, for lack of a more aptly descriptive term, the art snob. But like most if not all forms of cultural production in our contemporary post-capitalist society, class and income disparity make their mark strongly on the art world.

Grrr... me wanted supersized!

The key thing to remember, however, is that, unlike the other corporate-controlled cultural forms that are largely a product of the modern industrial reproductive capitalism of the last two centuries or so (film, recorded music, photography, popular literature, etc.), art’s lineage is much older, and its symbiotic relationship with wealth and capital a much longer and more complex association. When counterculturalists like Banksy or his street-artist peers subvert or decry the commodification of art, they cannot afford to ignore the essential role of those financing their own artistic production, those underwriting the protest art. Indeed, one of the best things about Exit Through The Gift Shop was how Banksy’s film admitted, engaged with, and attempted to complicate the relations between commercial capital and art, instead of merely circulating the ingrained “sell-out” narrative of the counter-culture.

Independent artists are always perfectly free to criticize the profit-motivated machinations of the big art museums, the major dealers and auction houses, and the multi-millionaire and multi-billionaire purchasers and patrons that have turned the art realm into a lucrative and untranscendent meat market, of course. But every working artist is at least aiming to make a living wage from their work, after all; surely nobody is out to actually be a starving artist, even if there is a deluded romantic shimmer to that particular aspect of the bohemian ideal.  Independent artists therefore differ from those they disdain only on the basis of degrees rather than on the basis of core motivation, their distinction one of quantity rather than, as they imagine, one of quality.

Man, what a sellout. His early ceilings were so much better.

This hierarchy of concerns and criticisms and ideologies crystallizes nicely in large-scale public art events like last night’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto. A fundamentally scattershot aesthetic experience down to the level of its conception, Nuit Blanche also has to contend with the bred-in-the-bone distaste for corporate-funded art commissions (and, indeed, corporate-funded culture of any kind) that is a common truth in the self-styled counter-cultural underground. That the name of one of the country’s largest banks is permanently stamped on the event that they sponsor makes this hurdle even harder to overcome, even if it is pointed out, quite rightly, that acting on similar ideological qualms in previous moments in the history of Western civilization might have deprived us of great works by everyone from Michelangelo to Caravaggio to Rembrandt to Velasquez to Rothko. What’s the real difference between a commission from a 21st-century Canadian bank and one from a 16th-century Medici bank? There isn’t one really worth considering, in my view.

What these involved considerations of funding sources, purity of intention, and subcultural identification elide is the simple, direct experience of aesthetics, of that supposed common truth that cuts through the messy tangle of implications that I’ve laid out above. To some extent, does it really matter how a work of art is conceived of, produced, or paid for as long as it is, in that most bland but also most all-encompassing formulation of judgement, “good”?

What a well-preserved masterpiece in a museum and an elaborately-mounted conceptual piece on a closed-off city street can have in common, and what can redeem them both in the end, is that brief sublime moment of recognition that comes with viewing them. One need not be an art snob to have such a minute epiphany, and being one is unlikely to aid in the understanding or in the prediction of it. For whatever elements of aesthetic production drag it into the metaphorical muck, this tendency for the transcendent leap is always already its saving grace, its fundamental trump card. It can take some patience to find it, and it can be as hard to pinpoint in a gallery full of expensive paintings as it can at a sprawling public event like Nuit Blanche, but that brief moment is what keeps us searching.

Categories: Art, Culture

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