David Harvey on the Commodification of Art and the Aesthetics of Daily Life
The struggle to produce a work of art, a once and for all creation that could find a unique place in the market, had to be an individual effort forged under competitive circumstances. Modernist art has always been, therefore, what Benjamin calls ‘auratic art,’ in the sense that the artist had to assume the aura of creativity, of dedication to art for art’s sake, in order to produce a cultural object that would be original, unique, and hence eminently marketable at a monopoly price. The result was often a high individualistic, aristocratic, disdainful (particularly of popular culture), and even arrogant perspective on the part of cultural producers.¹
This is how Harvey characterizes the avant-garde of early European modernism. Unchained from the constraints of aristocratic patrons and forced to market their wares to a specialized audience of cultural consumers––namely the bourgeoisie––they had to establish a monopolized “seal” or “aura” of integrity, or else their products could be sullied. The connections between this attitude and lingering debates over “authenticity” even in popular art production should be apparent. Harvey turns the page, however, and finds that the artists’ aura was largely illusory, since their aesthetics had to grapple with the increasingly accelerating change in how mundane life was lived in industrializing Europe.
The facts of daily life had, however, more than a passing influence upon the aesthetic sensibility created, no matter how much the art its themselves proclaimed an aura of ‘art for art’s sake…’ It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that the modernism that emerged before the First World War was more of a reaction to the new conditions of production (the machine, the factory, urbanization), circulation (the new systems of transport and communications), and consumption (the rise of mass markets, advertising, mass fashion), than it was a pioneer in the production of such changes.²
This is unsurprising since Marxists understand that being determines consciousness rather than the other way around. It would be wrong, however, to hastily close the book on the matter.
Not only did [modernism] provide ways to absorb, reflect upon, and codify these rapid changes, but it also suggested lines of action that might modify or support them…As Relph goes on to point out, the Bauhaus, the highly influential German design unit founded in 1919, initially took much inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement that [William] Morris founded, and only subsequently (1923) turned to the idea that ‘the machine is our modern medium of design.’³
Aesthetics evolved from and with the changes material conditions of life, reflecting upon them and changing course frequently, creating a panoply of new movements and aesthetic schools all competing for attention in a world of mass consumption. Today, the situation is no different except that the dynamics of capitalism have pulled the “aesthetics market” in contradictory directions, with control of artistic production and distribution increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer firms. On the other hand, the Internet has galvanized a movement in the opposite direction, as these more and more monopolistic enterprises divide and conquer their markets, refining and specializing their products and branding for ever-tinier demographic targets. In every way, the festive parade of innovative new fads in design and art reflect the acceleration of market turnover, and this is only because cultural production is an increasingly efficient branch of capitalist production. Where some see the Internet as bringing revolution and disruption, it seems to me that it’s merely changing the geography of how we consume, connecting us to more places and people and quickening those connections––usually to the benefit of some media or technology titan gracefully providing us the tech to do so.
1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1989), 22.
2. Ibid, 23.
3. Ibid, 23-24