By: Basil Almezel
A prominent view in art culture is the perception that art is a reflection of the time and context it was created in. The significance of art urges an ongoing discussion that evolves exponentially every day; the current socio-economic context of modern art. It may be guised as a discussion, but in reality it is a sphere of art (history). Given the countless intricacies of the subject, the aim is to shed light and spark thought to a handful of the aspects of art under the capitalist umbrella: the commodification of arts, inclusivity and exclusivity, authenticity, and reproduction, in the spectrum of visual arts such as painting, virtual art, and filmmaking.
The capitalist ethos - a relentless drive for capital accumulation and market competition - draws its shadow continuously, reaching the realm of art. In a market-driven paradigm, art has shifted the source of its value from intrinsic cultural, aesthetic, and contextual worth, to shallow economic measures, subject to the forces of supply, demand, and investment. This phenomenon is not only an economic reality, but one that shapes the nature of creative endeavor in the current capitalist framework. There exists truly remarkable literature on the topic from Hanna Borgblad from the University of Gothenburg’s School of Business, Economics and Law. In her work titled “Exchangification of Art,” Borgblad analyzes the cases of graffiti and street art in particular, and outlines the systematic transformation of art into a market product, coining the term for this concept: ‘Exchangification.’ (Borgblad, 2019)
In the sphere also resides the influence on consumption and perception of art. The imperative of meeting market demands causes artistic works that fail to meet prevailing market trends, commercial appeals, and the desire of a society heavily sunk in the capitalist framework, to find themselves marginalized and undervalued. What works of art is your next door neighbour exposed to in the mainstream? Rinse and repeat action movies, ‘minimalist’ architecture and design, and Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian: A taped banana with the initial aim of ridiculing the very idea the piece reformed to when two Comedians were sold for $120,000 each.
A pressure to circle back around to market trends for artists naturally leads into a more philosophical discussion on the ‘risk-taking’ aspect of artistic expression. Trivially throughout history, artistic endeavor thrived on boundary pushing and risk-taking in all forms of art, and will remain to. However artists of today are faced with a growing factor that eats up the inherent freedom of expression: the factor of financial success hinging on aligning with established market preferences.
The field of filmmaking, which has witnessed insurmountable growth in recent decades, is arguably most susceptible to the phenomenon mentioned above. This susceptibility is not confined to film alone, and further, it is logical to assert that most subsets of visual arts would similarly conform following an unprecedented growth of a comparative level. Therefore, it is worthwhile to analyze the field of film and its intersection with the capitalist framework.
It is common to hear of the notion of a ‘money machine Hollywood.’ Edward Jay Epstein brilliantly delves into this in his book “The Hidden Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies.” Epstein provides great insight into the convergence of the film industry into a systematic, low-risk, stable, and profit mine endeavour (Epstein, 2010).
Filmmaking, Exclusivity and Inclusivity
Held by some as potentially the most effective medium of cultural representation, educational entertainment, awareness-raising, political education, etc., filmmaking is leaning further every day to a spectacle based production of market trends. The top 5 highest grossing movies of the 21st century possess a combined budget of over 1.5 billion USD, with the lowest budget out of them coming in at 200 million USD (IMDb). A similar trend follows for every movie on any top grossing list of the last decade. Such budgets are poured into blockbusters accompanied by CGI (computer-generated imagery) limited to the use of producing spectacles, and in the majority of the cases following a sure-fire recipe for success in the box office.
As such films statistically dominate the mainstream, it turns to a matter of exclusivity, which is unfortunate when it dilutes a sea of potential in the field of film. This exclusivity may inadvertently exclude diverse narratives and innovative voices that lack the financial backing to be ‘seen.’ What is then witnessed is a homogeneity of high budget blockbusters required to find mainstream success. Further, the aforementioned book by Epstein outlines perfectly the oligopolized movie scene, observed in massive franchises such as Disney and Marvel Studios dominating the field. Below is a graph by CNBC measuring the percentage of total ticket sales in
the United States by movie studio. It details the oligopoly occurring in the film industry.
Walter Benjamin’s insightful text, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” explores the reproduction of art in a technologically advancing world, and further analyzes the implications of the ability to rapidly reproduce art on what he calls ‘the Aura’ of the artwork, which in his terms refers to the ‘unique and singular presence’ that an artwork holds in its original form (Benjamin, 1935). It embodies the genuineness and particularity that surrounds an original piece of art. His claim is that as reproductions grow increasingly indistinguishable, the essence of the original work seeps away. Although Benjamin’s book was written in 1935, it can be deemed an anticipation of the current growth of artificial intelligence in the field of art, and his insights resonate in the context of AI-generated art. Circling back to the contextual worth of an artwork, the phenomenon poses a potential for discussion on the matter. When considering notions of authorship, authenticity, and the Aura of a piece, the contemporary discourse invites contemplation on how technological advancements influence our understanding of art’s intrinsic worth, and further, induces a realm where the distinction between the original and reproduced becomes increasingly intricate.
As a side note, for reasons that will not be discussed, it is worthwhile to mention that the cover photo of this article was AI-generated in a matter of seconds.
An Overview of the Interplay
The intersection of visual arts and the capitalist framework appears to be a complex sphere encompassing economic forces and creative expression. As the influence of the system in place touches on the value, accessibility, and production of art, it prompts reflections and research on the evolving nature of artistic endeavors in our contemporary market-driven world; reflection that now more than ever demands need for a nuanced understanding, relevant to the field of economics, equality and diversity, entertainment, and the rich tapestry of art and art history.
Borgblad, H. (2019). Exchangification of art: transforming street art into market products. Gothenburg University Library. https://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/61760
Epstein, E. J. (2010). The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies. Melville House.
Highest grossing films of the 21st century. (n.d.). IMDb. Retrieved November 11, 2023, from https://www.imdb.com/list/ls059204437/
comScore & CNBC. (2023, August 24). Market share of movie studios U.S. 2023. Statista. Retrieved November 11, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1400837/market-share-movie-studios-us/
Benjamin, W. (1935/1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations (H. Zohn, Trans.). New York: Schocken Books.