ESSAY: Are We a Culture That Produces Artworks or Things?

Written by NYPD on . Posted in New York Photo Diary

The influence of capitalism on the art market seems to be stronger than ever. Holland Cotter’s New York Times piece on the current state of the art industry repeated this statement time and time again. The pressure of the art market – who’s buying, what’s selling – is influencing many artists, especially those just beginning a long career, to the point of adapting an almost universal aesthetic that’s easy to market and sell. His view, though reasonably negative, is realistic in arguing that most artwork is now made in order to be sold. Yet, not every artist creates pieces that are things before they are works. The idea of an art object as a work of art versus a thing to be bought and sold is somewhat dependent on factors like location and age, but most of all on the thing that most drives the art market today anyway: money.

It is arguable that many works of art not produced with this ‘commercial intention’ but rather for the sake of creating are done by a younger set of artists, due to their possession of the freedom to experiment and create that is so elusive for older artists concerned with the industry and a career. Pre-art school and before a career-oriented, professional standard of creating, teenagers have the luxury of creating for creation’s sake. Teenage photographers and other artists still living with their parents, financially supported and often living removed from a major art market, are left with a non-commercial method of production far removed from the overhang influence of the art industry. There is no need to earn money from their art, and so work is created almost entirely separately from the financial pressures of an art market. In spite of the mostly-amateur nature of the work being created, this time period may in fact be the only time when artists are free to create almost entirely detached from the influence of a career; there is no need to create commodities or to work within a marketable aesthetic.

Once the young artist grows, perhaps attends art school and enters the professional art market, the line between works and things blurs significantly. (Art school, regardless, is mostly a privilege afforded to those with at least some semblance of financial stability and a support system. In this sense, art schools are already churning out somewhat privileged and industry-ready workers to then be picked apart and narrowed down by a more powerful elite group.) Unless the artist is financially stable and relatively unconcerned with achieving professional success, it is nearly impossible to create without at least considering the sway of the art industry (‘Is this marketable?’). For the rookie working artist or even the experienced careerist, nothing happens in a vacuum. Art is an industry, for better or worse, and is therefore inextricably tied to capitalism – which then determines nearly all other practical factors for living and working in this postmodern economy. Outside of the hobbyist and the youngest group of artists involved in work production, nearly all working professional artists are somewhat tied to creating things that will fit within the art industry’s marketable, capitalist standard. Money creates artists that create more money for a group that already controls a mass amount of finances in the art world.

Most professional artists do not enter the process of art creation with the intention of creating a product: something that is reduced, at face value, to a price tag. However, as previously stated, capitalism is constant background noise. Do artists want to reject the traditional artwork to create things? No, and most of the time their intentions stray far from that objective. However, the capitalist market, a pressure for financial stability, and the current state of the art industry render many, if not most, complicit anyway.


MMeghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.