On the Coexistence of Capitalism and Art


Jake Bruner '23, Writer

A friend of mine was telling me, a few days ago, about her frustration when she found out her new favorite indie musician was born to a multimillionaire CEO father. That his wealthy upbringing invalidated his ‘objective’ value as a pure, art-beholden musician—joking about her heart sinking when an artist’s wikipedia page has their father’s name highlighted blue. Yet, this phenomenon, the fact that, overwhelmingly, our societies most revered musicians, actors, architects, poets, writers, and artists grew up wealthy, perhaps questions our perception of art. Would knowing that your favorite creative mind grew up with privilege transform the way you evaluate their art? This paradox is but one of countless contradictions within how we perceive ‘value’ as it pertains to art.


In our modern-day society, there exists a stark division between the owning and the working class. This dichotomy can be realized as a function of capital—the worker, unlike the owner, lacks any capital other than his own labor, and is thus forced to, for likely his entire life, sell his body and thereby productive capacity to earn a wage. Ethics and inequality aside, this system is consistent as long as the worker’s capital can be quantified in terms of a numerical value. Markets outline a way to describe a worker’s output with respect to a good or service, e.g., she produced X number of items, sold for Y dollars, per hour. Yet, this breaks down when we try to quantify and dehumanize the value of art. If the value of the product cannot be determined—by the number of labor-hours it took to produce, by the equilibrium of supply and demand, by the average sale price—can we quantify the worth of art at all?


Increasingly so, our 21st century culture has provided reason to doubt the establishment (or sanctity, if you will) of ‘art.’ How can a banana taped to a canvas be worth 140-thousand dollars? Why can a mass-produced, stenciled digital icon of an ape sell for millions? But this skepticism is nothing new. The mid 20th century advent of contemporary, abstract expressionist art carried equal its weight in art deniers; people who question its notion of ‘value,’ since “any child with a paintbrush could paint a Jackson Pollock.” In the early 20th century, conservative French musicians criticized the ‘unwieldy,’ ‘undisciplined’ work of impressionists like Ravel and Debussy, which subverted the formalist methods of a Bach or a Mozart. If we can only value art based on its relationship (or lack thereof) with the works it supersedes, how does this affect expression and change?


This idea of policing art that falls outside of a “culturally appropriate” definition has strong ties to facism. Within facism, there exists a pursuit to umbrella everything under an “aesthetic,” which is simultaneously mythologized, and made into a history, an identity to be praised. And once this aesthetic is adequately mythologized, the art that feeds back into it is seen as a contribution to this society itself. For instance, when an aesthetic has so relentlessly normalized art made by (and consumed by) a white man, and their ‘western’ imperialist/colonialist ideals, any art that pushes against this narrative is no longer contributing to this mythology anymore. And when this arises from a group or minority that has been historically oppressed by the prevailing/dominant culture, the art can be viewed as an attack against this mythology, an attack against their culture. While this pattern is visible within countless histories, the most relevant and poignant example is the artistic movement of Nazi Germany. While at first glance the Nazi’s may have seemed like a party in strong support of art, understanding their history of showing art they ‘hated’ reveals more. In a gallery named “degenerate art” (Entartete Kunst), Nazis would publicly display modernist works from many artists (inclusing Van gough, Picasso, Matisse, Kokoschka, Derain, and countless others) to incite hatred against the “perverse Jewish spirit” penetrating German culture (Adam 1992, p. 123, quoting Goebbels, November 26, 1937, in Von der Grossmacht zur Weltmacht). Instead of concealing this subversive art, the Nazi’s sought to publicly display it to provoke outcry. If they truly thought this art was ‘damaging’ to their society, wouldn’t they try to conceal it? This ‘degenerate art’ critiqued the Nazi’s ‘family values,’ sexual norms, and racial norms, to which it was deemed evidence of these minorities’ “degenerate intellectualism.” Thus, by mythologizing the ‘Nazi asthetic,’ these facists could leverage any art that did not feed back into the prevailing narrative to further their despicable regime in the name of ‘culture.’



Furthermore, there’s an inescapable fear of unproductivity within creating art. Novelists decry their lack of output as ‘writer’s block.’ Musicians feel they are ‘out of ideas.’ Poets consult a thesaurus to console their inability to find the right word. In a sense, art transforms itself into an obligation, a responsibility, a word count, instead of an expression, a life or experience. I argue that the most raw, human art is that which captures a feeling, an image, or unique sound. By virtue of our finite lives, these moments are inherently fleeting, whimsical or volatile. While an esteemed artist may be better at projecting this extraterrestrial life onto our flawed language, an individual cannot force themselves to experience more, save our ability of memory. So hence when the capitalist incentive of production is not met, art becomes merely a superficial image of itself, something worth a dollar amount. Art is, by definition, subjective. A Rotheko painting might be priceless to a viewer who appreciates its dark, oppressive, looming presence, whereas that same work could be worth the price of the canvas and paints to a person who claims they “could have done it themselves.” 


The fact that sons and daughters of wealthy parents often choose art doesn’t demonstrate art’s lack of value, it rather highlights that, without the burden of selling one’s labor capital in order to live, humans are innately inclined towards art. This is something I have been thinking about a lot. Disadvantaged, often minority families  tend to, although stereotypically, pressure their children to pursue work in Medicine, Law, or Engineering. By contrast, many of the people I’m surrounded by are fortunate enough to be allowed a passion in film, music, graphic design and more. With the freedom from obligation, humans are innately inclined towards art.


I don’t really know where I was going with this essay. Art is unique because it doesn’t lend itself to being written down with words. Really this is just something I have been thinking about for a long time. I don’t have a definite answer to my question, just a compilation of disparate thoughts. If I had any advice to a person who disagrees with my perspective, I would point out that, if you ever feel yourself becoming angry with a work of art, consider that this emotion might have been the artist’s whole intention. Anyways.