Q/A Lucas Mascatello
Children make art, the best art – pure and original. As long as children are born great art will be made. Animals make art, too. Even if all the children disappear, there will still be chimpanzees who paint and whales that sing. The beautiful thing is that art, like love, isn’t actually a scarce resource. One is led to believe that these things are rare commodities, but in fact they are all around you. Because art is such an abundant resource and scarcity drives value, it’s the space where art and industry commingle that’s truly in flux and at stake. If I make my work and nobody cares to buy it, did I ever make it at all?
The question “Does art still exist, or is it just part of the culture industry now?” implies that fine art occupies a space distinct from the greater culture industry. In this way, art’s position is defined by its precariousness, as something special on the edges of the market, somewhere beyond the places where rational people can, and should, shop. Nonsense. A realist painting is uncanny at best, never as accurate as a photograph, and never as beautiful as the image it’s based on. Useless. A Jeff Koons’ balloon takes something cheap and disposable and makes it perversely expensive. Garbage. Piero Manzoni’s canned shit plays the same game more honestly. Both are making worthless products, and this waste of money helps it to qualify as art.
The same people who buy expensive art buy expensive cars. The same people who buy expensive cars buy expensive jewellery. Diamonds only depreciate. The same people who buy diamonds throw their money away. The market inflates. There is nothing more luxurious than making it rain. We all fantasise about having money to waste. What makes the culture industry an industry is the ability to buy in. Culture is productised. It is given an appropriate shape, material, and price so it can be understood as a piece of a greater system of value and identification. The more predictable this relationship is, the less the product is like art – the price of milk is used as a benchmark for economies; milk is not art. Thwarting this system is its own means of making art, and that dissonance is everywhere in the western tradition. Everyone wants to break the rules. Everyone is obsessed with attention and money.
The attempt to create rules for the art market and guarantee profit has made art more and more like ordinary industry. Advertising is a profitable creative enterprise. So are pop music and reality TV. But these expressions are not fine art, they’re too stable, too much like real business. The professionalisation of art is what ties it to industry, but as these two grow closer, art begins to lose its liminal value. Artists want to be paid for making their work, but they don’t want to be businessmen. This paradox is its own cultural pursuit, the starving artist making paintings for a king, a Bear Brick figurine made in a Chinese factory for Ben Baller, the struggle and dissonance becomes its own driving force, the artists who resist commerce and those who embrace it. Andy Warhol said, “Good business is the best art,” and William Blake died in poverty, buried in an unmarked grave.
For the past hundred years artists have innovated by going against conventional value systems, nailing themselves to cars and pouring resin on stuff instead of getting a real job. Today that is no longer the case. Now many of the most famous living artists are great businessmen and their studios and the galleries that represent them are run like corporations. The professionalisation of art created jobs and those jobs depend on income, and that income is driven by value and that value comes from scarcity. The art world is niche and the culture industry is mass, but the fact is that more people today are alive and making art than ever before.
Most products can be mapped on a matrix that measures use against value. Where things are simultaneously reasonable, useful, and well-priced, we find the majority of common products – a notebook, an apple, a used car. When a product begins to be pushed into a hyperbolic state, it spills outside the space of the ordinary product and into luxury: the priceless artifact with incalculable value, the diamond-crusted bauble so useless one can only admire it. Where extreme value and uselessness coincide we find the majority of artworks on the market; an expensive painting does nothing but take up space. This vector is contrasted with use, which always points back to the ordinary and forms a closed loop (as use is synonymous with legibility and these products are deemed “familiar“. Similarly, those products that are truly worthless skate along the edge of luxury, and it is the oscillation between awareness and apathy toward this worthlessness that can place a product booth within and outside of the luxury market (the iPhone is a luxury item that, like all tech, is destined to become worthless with innovation). Each generation of tech renders the previous one worthless.
LUCAS MASCATELLO is an artist, strategist, and copublisher of the independent newspaper Civilization. He lives in New York.