The process of canonization reflects a de facto cultural imperialism. Genuine globalization has not yet fully crystallized in the art market. Canonization still reflects the the social geography of finance more than it does the social cohort of culturally relevant aesthetic production.
In contemporary metropolitan society, whether art or any other commodity, whatever garners the highest price will tend to gather the most attention. The presumption is that those with the most money are Darwinistically favored with good taste or, at the very least, can afford the best advice about what they should buy. The prima fascia reasoning is that wealthy people presumably can afford the best and are disinclined to squander their money on art that is not important, or at least won’t retain its market value during their lifetimes. Hence, if one wants to be “successful” at anything, even collecting art, simply emulate the wealthy.
Where is the most money to be found? New York, London, LA, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Dubai….. Whatever trend that dominates in these markets will tend to become the global imperialist taste. It will find its way into the cathedrals of MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Tate, the Whitney, the Venice Biennial, Art Basil etc… Of course it’s the chicken or the egg thing. Ostensibly, once an artist has been canonized by one of these elite venues, then the commercial galleries with elite client lists come calling, secure in their investments.
But the distance between the elite gallery and the cathedral is not so far. Curators in these “cultural capitals” are usually well acquainted with the elite gallerists and thus to make the radar of either tends to lead to awareness by the other. They operate in the same social milieu and are dependent on the same class of individuals, often the very same individuals, for patronage.
Hence, in art, as in most things, concentrated wealth tends to call the shots. Problem is, money doesn’t always know the actual value of a commodity. In recent memory, all the “wealthiest” financial institutions in the world couldn’t seem to figure out the value of a 5,000 sq. ft. house, plus or minus 50% let alone what a market might actually be willing to pay for it. How much less likely are the wealthy to be reliable arbiters of the aesthetic value or historical importance of a work of art? Why does the fact that the work of art was purchased by a wealthy collector or exhibited in a cathedral in the vicinity of that wealthy urban resident make it inherently more important than any other?
The answer is financial imperialism. As long as our cultural values prioritize money as the definitive metric of success then the tastes of financial imperialists will dominate. In such a context, financial imperialism will dictate the aesthetics of cultural imperialism. And to the degree to which the society at large inculcates the materialist priority then to that degree the cultural imperialism will prevail. It will in essence have a democratic mandate for its imperialism.
Must we necessarily presume that one has not yet achieved virtuosity until one has played Carnegie Hall? Does exhibition in a cathedral necessarily indicate the presence of supreme virtuosity? Or does it simply indicate awareness by a cultural cohort who’s singular greatest auspice is its geographic proximity to the social cohort of concentrated wealth? The relationship between aesthetic canonization and wealth is currently a convenient bit of circular reasoning in which, much like in real-estate, value is often self created from virtually thin air.
Artists sometimes like to rail against commodification, but you don’t hear many of them singing this tune once someone starts offering them six figures for a work they created. The problem is not so much commodification but the irrational nature of the market itself. Once all art became subjective, then the value of any given work of art became predominately political. Artists are to some extent to blame here. With the rise of the irrational as a subject in art, with the deprioritization of objective technique, with the meaning of a work becoming more driven by the psychological idiosyncrasies of the artist, then determining the objective value of almost any work becomes essentially irrelevant. Indeed, to even attempt to postulate such a thing became heresy.
It is often said that “truth is the first casualty of war.” At the dawn of the 20th century, in many ways, truth became a casualty of art as well. Is it any surprise then that in a world where such epistemological uncertainty reigns that profiteers alone will prevail? When as a culture we come to better appreciate the distinction between what is true and what is false, that distinction will inevitably be reflected in our art and how we determine its intrinsic value. Until then, we will get the culture and the art we deserve, and it will likely continue to reflect the arbitrary values of cultural imperialism and its deity, Finance.
Originally Written: September, 2013