Is capitalism bad for art?

palette1-70x50I will be giving a talk with that title at California State University, East Bay, on October 14. Thanks to Professor Stephen Schmanske and the Smith Center for inviting me.

My theme will be the relationship between art and liberal cultures, focusing on economically free cultures especially.

dollar-sign-50x74One part of my talk will discuss how economic liberalism is empowering for artists both materially and psychologically, and part of my evidence for that will be historical: Why were the greatest of the great eras in art history classical Athens, Renaissance Florence and Venice, the Dutch Golden Age, Paris in the late nineteenth century. Why not, say, Sparta in the 5th century BCE? Or Milan in the 15th century? Or Denmark in the 17th? Or Portugal in the 19th?

picasso-photo-50x52Another part of my talk will take up the perplexing question of why, since the late 19th century, so many artists have taken anti-business and anti-capitalist stances. Pablo Picasso is representative here, having said, famously, “The merchant — there’s the enemy.” A fascinating set of adversarial (and self-destructive) issues there.

The lecture is based on my current book project, The Fate of Art under Capitalism, which I discussed in an earlier post.

2 thoughts on “Is capitalism bad for art?

  • September 14, 2009 at 9:59 am

    You may be putting the starting date of the antipathy somewhat late: Think of Rousseau, Godwin, Shelley. And even before that writers mocked “the new men.” But one reason for the antipathy can be found in the amiable philistinism of business admirers like Adam Smith. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he wrote: “Though you despise that picture, or that poem, or even that system of philosophy, which I admire, there is little danger of our quarrelling upon that account. Neither of us can reasonably be much interested in them.” One of Rousseau’s greatest quarrels in life was over the superiority of opera buffa to opera seria. The idea that there was no danger of quarrelling over art would have struck him as a monstrous product of the commercial complacency.

  • September 14, 2009 at 11:52 am

    You may be right, Roger. It’s a judgment call about when that critical mass of antipathy was reached. Clearly there was a long lead up going back at least to Rousseau. I see post-1848 as when the point was reached, but I’m definitely open to argument.

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