Three Ways Capitalism Impacts the Insider Art World

In this thought-piece, Jerry Fresia discusses how capitalism has impacted on the art world (inside and outside) over the past century.

Jim Sanders

Work by Jim Sanders

Power and the Capitalist Class: Capitalists don’t just sit off to the side minding their own business. Their business is the accumulation of capital (money and productive assets). They buy politicians, sit on the boards of museums and universities, and with major grantors, very high end gallerists, and an army of agents, they can shape and define what art fits into the insider art world of high end galleries, major art fairs, and auction houses. Central to the insider art system is the grooming of artists whose work supports their ideological needs, who are malleable, and, therefore, willing to accept direction into the inside circle.

The capitalist class first exercised its cultural power as a class when it defined, designed, and promoted a group of artists that articulated its ideological needs as an emerging hegemonic class following World War II. These soon-to-be-inside artists became known as the Abstract Expressionists. Using numerous capitalists back galleries and museums – primarily MOMA NYC which was created by the Rockefeller family – and the CIA (secretly directing the full range of art activities in western Europe as well as intellectual journals for 17 years), capitalists, during the post-war era, made it imperative that all artists pushed to the inside had to make work that was totally abstract, that is, “politically silent,” and free from any European influences. In other words, the American capitalist class, at that point in time, had enough power to create, in effect, a cultural factory. Out of this cultural factory, American Expressionism and the phenomenon of artists dependent upon capitalist cultural power, otherwise known as ‘inside artists’, were born.

Manuel Lanca Bonifacio 4

Work by Manuel Bonifacio

How Work is Produced: Capitalism is a specific way of making our houses, cars, computers, and even the way we grow our food. It is a system of production. Within this system, there are people designated as bosses: these are the people who work with their minds and do mental work. These people are the owners, sometimes referred to as planners. Not too long ago, they were called the bourgeoisie. And then there are the workers who in their work life are told what to do. They work with their hands and do mindless work. They are sometimes referred to as blue collar people, people who work on the line, or just plain workers. Not too long ago, they were called the proletariat. In the art world, they are called assistants.

All major artists, for a hundred years, prior to WWII were outsider artists. They controlled their own work in studios or out of doors and inveighed against the bourgeoisie regularly. They were consciously independent. No one told them what to do in their work. But by the 1960s, some artists began adopting capitalism a way of making their art. They called themselves “executive artists” or “ideas men” and turned their studios into factories, using other artists (assistants) as workers to make their art. Notable among these executive artists were Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and others. Roy Lichtenstein predicted that all (inside) artists would eventually adopt factory values and practices in their work. These capitalist artists, working closely with capitalist financiers, marketing specialists, and luxury goods manufacturers were absorbed into the capitalist-class run museums-academy-auction-house troika. This is the core of what may be called the ‘inside.’

Alan Doyle 2

Work by Alan Doyle

The Inside-Outside Artist Division: Work that is dependent on the approval of gallerists, financial backers, is produced for a particular market, or made in collaboration with luxury goods manufacturers, can be said to be instrumental, that is, produced as a means to satisfy some end external to the artist. This instrumental rationality is what defines the inside artist. His work (and it is mostly his) is always based upon a calculation: what must I do to please another and maximize market value? Every artist who works within this charmed inside circle is infected by this way of being and thinking. Wonder or mystery may not enter spontaneously into his process because his process is always a controlled activity of production. This uninviting situation is born of dependence and obedience that is central to the values of capitalist production.

At the moment that the inside artist is born, so too is the excluded ‘outside’ artist. Because she has not been directed into the inside circle, she is free from the need to make art that meets criteria external to herself. Independent and free, she is able to find passages into a realm where wonder is revitalized. She is free to give greater expression to play in her work as she feels the need. In other words, her work is authentically an expression of who she is. Her process is an activity of expression and of becoming.

Obviously, the outside artist needs the material rewards that accompany inside artist status so that she is able to sustain the liveliness of her work in comfort. But addressing the question of how the outside artist might go about achieving that end requires a further discussion of strategy. The point here, only, is to think in terms not of the art product, or genre or quality of the product of the outside artist vis-à-vis the product of the inside artist or of ways of penetrating the inside circle, but to think in terms of celebrating and protecting the process out of which the work of the outside artist has been given life. The inside-outsider separation is along that fault line.

By Jerry Fresia


One thought on “Three Ways Capitalism Impacts the Insider Art World

  1. Bob says:

    You got it….it’s nice to pay the bills and stuff. There is nothing like an original. STEM should be STEAM as in “A” for arts. “The Fun Of It All !”

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