THE DEMOCRATISATION OF ART-
A CURSE IN DISGUISE
"[...] take the quote by Picasso:
'The purpose of art is not to decorate our houses, but it is a weapon against the enemy.'
The question is: Who is the enemy?"
Since Joseph Beuys declared that "Everyone is an artist" in the 1960s, the call for the 'democratisation' of art has become one of the most powerful forces in the realm of culture and has since dominated, shaped and controlled art to an unparalleled degree. Yet the fact that this phrase's vast success lies less in being a powerful concept for art itself, but instead in having -inadvertently- become one of the Culture Industry's most successful advertising slogans, perverting Beuys' original utopian intent into its very antithesis (with outright anti-democratic consequences), is a truth that remains strangely hidden in plain sight.
The Culture Industry, a phrase coined by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their book "Dialectic of Enlightenment" (1944), had developed slowly but steadily since the early 1900s. Yet in the late 1950s it was exactly the seemingly most radical and revolutionary ideas and developments within the realm of art which provided the perfect ideology for this Culture Industry's own exponential and rampant growth. The combined effect of Joseph Beuys' statement "Everyone is an artist" and his idea of 'Social Sculpture', Marcel Duchamp's Readymades, Andy Warhol's serial production, everyday objects and consumer products as the subject of art, as well as John Cage's 'democratisation'/de-hierarchisation of sound, have enabled the Culture Industry to reshape the idea of what art is in a way that is today pushing art as a discipline to the brink of extinction.
Joseph Beuys' statement "Everyone is an artist", instead of ushering in a phase of heightened autonomy and creative self-determination for each individual, at the hands of this industry, paved the way for the complete standardisation of art which we witness today and helped to enable a mass manipulation of individuals on an unprecedented scale. With little (i.e. no) concern for Beuys' original intention, his statement and his 'extended concept of art' was abused as the perfect ideological excuse, underwriting the introduction of art external standards into art and the subsequent excessive lowering of standards, as well as complete replacement of art internal/art-specific standards with everything that is non-art - a development which has played a central role in producing the vacuity and crisis we witness in contemporary art today.
The fact that Beuys' work was a direct expression of his personal need to heal the trauma inflicted by the horrors of the Nazi regime, which triggered World-War II (in which Beuys himself was instrumentalised), led to the unimaginable suffering and murder of 6 million Jewish people, and the deaths of an estimated 40 million people in total, all of which were triggered and facilitated by the mass-manipulation and mass-mobilisation of the entire German nation, is a fact that, worryingly, in the context of art seems to need to be highlighted again. The question of how to ensure that this kind of mass-manipulation will never be repeated again - and of the role art, music, literature and philosophy can or must play "after Auschwitz", was at the heart of post-war cultural activity in Germany. In stating that "Everyone is an artist" Beuys attempted to root an absolute self-determination for each individual, leading to a complete unmanipulatable autonomy, and sought to place exactly this kind of person at the core of democracy. His 'extended concept of art', his idea of a 'social sculpture' and his statement 'everyone is an artist' must be seen in this context.
Post-war history and art did not unfold and develop as Beuys had hoped. Instead, at the hands of the Culture Industry "Everyone is an artist", did not -and does today not- mean raising the degree of autonomy, self-determination and freedom of each member of society to that exemplified by the artist, but means instead lowering the extent of autonomy, self-determination and freedom of all artists to that of the status of the manipulatable -and manipulated- individual. And as 'everyone is an artist' this, logically, means lowering everyone to this unfree level.
Beuys' endeavour to 'extend the concept of art', for the Culture Industry, no longer means promoting works which continue to seek the boundary of art, and to extend it, but means instead that the concept of a boundary of art, constantly reviewed in ever-changing circumstances and explored, pushed and moved through new artworks by individual artists, has been abolished altogether. Any boundaries and any criteria specific to art, of what it means to be an artist, or what constitutes a work of art, have thus become obsolete at one stroke. 'Extending the concept of art' as a concept is thus no longer to be applied to future art production, but is something that has already been settled once and for all.
By promoting this pseudo-democratisation of art -declaring every one and every thing as now automatically artist and art- and by removing the concept of a boundary of art altogether, art has consequently come to a standstill and has produced the hollow vacuity and outright stupidity of works, now exclusively guided by sheer arbitrariness, which we are confronted with en masse in the contemporary art world today. With vast success, the Culture Industry has thus turned Beuys' statement into a force that today acts against art.
The call for the democratisation of art, amended over time by an even more wide-spread and in-depth demand for 'political correctness', are today two of the most important signifiers of art. The Culture Industry has so successfully promoted both, democratisation and political correctness, in art and culture, that anything which does not explicitly comply with these terms is deemed unacceptable and irrelevant. Art that is not explicitly 'democratic' and does not purport to be explicitly focussed on politically correct content is branded 'elitist' and denounced as 'irrelevant', 'unfair', 'irresponsible' and so on. This kind of work is, therefore, logically, deemed unacceptable - thus the content and purpose of art are clearly defined.
It is no longer up to the individual to seek a (new) definition of art, and it is no longer acceptable for the audience to be interested in art outside of this industry's predetermined politically correct remit and standard. At the same time artists who are unwilling to comply with these new conditions are branded 'boring', 'obsolete' etc. and again 'elitist' - which are the terms by which the Culture Industry justifies the sidelining of these artists and the effective censoring and near-complete exclusion of their work from the public realm.
The Culture Industry presents the absence of these artists and works from the public realm as evidence of the obsolescence of the paradigm of autonomous art. It is the pinnacle of the overwhelming success of this industry that it now produces artists and critics who enthusiastically buy into the idea of the exhaustion of the paradigm of autonomy, and who go on promoting (their own) infantilisation and nonage [Unmuendigkeit] as an ideal.
Thus Beuys' rallying call to individuals and the 'extended concept of art' have been turned into a destructive force which is not only obliterating art as a discipline but is undermining democracy at its very core. The artwork as a standard in culture / the artist as a paragon in society for unique individuality, and their out-of-the-ordinary and beyond-the-everyday potential and achievements have been lost; in turn, the loss of this measure contributes to society's inability to judge what individuality -and therefore art- is.
This pseudo-democratisation in art, and consequently the pseudo-democratisation of society itself, finds widespread and enthusiastic support. Those who are part of the political and cultural 'elite' seem particularly keen to be seen to be supporting this so-called 'democratisation' of art as it not only makes them look politically correct but also feel less guilty about their own status - as at the same time, and by the same tokens, the 'commoners' are made to feel cultivated and included. Whereas historically the banal in art could be seen as a protest against the bourgeoise elite, banal art today ensures that the separation between the two is hidden. Thus art has developed into a globally promoted and accepted belief system, which has ‘Everyone is an artist’ as one of its tenets, suspending the critical judgement of everyone, regardless of their levels of education, station in life, degree of involvement or cultural background.
And luckily, those who have been fortunate enough to have received education in the history of art and culture and have continuing access to that history, can still retreat into and feed on the beauty, complexity, comfort and nourishment of works of the Old Masters and the culture of the past. The cultural elite, including the many art critics and art journalists who enthusiastically promote and drive this industry, appear to see no problem -and fail to see the irony- in condoning or even demanding the ‘democratisation' of art, i.e. in the offering of junk to 'the masses', whilst simultaneously in private delighting in the sophisticated wisdom, and spiritual and intellectual nourishment of a Cicero. Whilst they feed on the universal and timeless quality of art of the past, the masses only get to consume this in its downgraded form: 'timeless' in contemporary art is tacitly replaced with 'devoid of development' (i.e. stagnation), whilst 'universal' is openly sold out as 'ordinary', 'banal' and 'everyday'.
It is relatively easy to explain how the spectacle of this banal art-entertainment/art-leisure industry can attract those who have not received a high-quality education. It is also quite easy to see how people who are highly educated in disciplines other than art and culture can get drawn into participation in this industry, lured by the air of sophistication and cultivation this industry has created for itself and purports to bestow on its followers. Yet the critical silence - the complete suspension of the critical judgement- of those with in-depth knowledge of the discipline and history of art and culture, in the face of the utter infantilisation, stupidity and vacuity of contemporary art, on the whole, is the most disturbing aspect of this situation. How has their manipulation become possible?
To denounce the pseudo-democratisation of art as the lie that it is, and to expose it instead as the very antithesis of democracy, would mean to disable that most powerful myth that the 'democratisation' of art is - the myth which sits at the heart of -and thus powers- this global industry which is simply driven ever onwards by its own overwhelming success. This myth is welcomed and promoted by those who have very little, or even the very least, interest in the true autonomy and self-determination of individuals. And as the majority of the audience simply has not got any -does not know of any- standards by which to measure the works of art they are presented with, and has been sufficiently manipulated to embrace and believe the Entertainment- and Culture Industry's own standards, today's cultural and economic elite humbly and happily bows down before the now shared altar of the banal. For in the end, it all works quite perfectly, seamlessly -for them-, leaving no room whatsoever for anyone to point out not only the blindingly obvious vacuity but also the continuously exacerbated separations, exclusions and hierarchies - the actual lie of an apparent union of the elite and the masses- which is hidden by the art industry in that cleverest of ways: in plain sight.
Democratisation in art today is an industrialised form of cultural starvation for the vast audience which the Culture/Entertainment Industry purports to serve and please (feeding and starving in this industry are one). Today the primary function of Art is to be the Opium - silencing any critics and providing the motor that drives and the glue that protects the capitalist system from showing any cracks. In this sense today's infantilisation and vacuity is an ideal and is indeed ideal. It is a perfect system which could very well carry on for a very very long time, without producing or requiring any development or new content whatsoever.
Yet outside the realm of the rosy 'we-are-all-equal industry' things are not going quite as smoothly. With the rise of far-right fascism in Europe and the US we are once again faced with the question of its roots and causes. Is it really too far-fetched to look for one possible answer in the mechanisms and the impact of the global Culture Industry, which has the distortion and hollowing out of individual autonomy and the distortion/hollowing out (of the definition) of democracy at its core? What impact has this cultural vacuum/the consumption of completely vacuous and outright stupid content on this vast scale on the whole of society/on societies globally - and on each individual? We believe that these questions urgently require discussion.
In order to resist the Culture Industry and to even begin to create a new point of departure for art of the future, we must today understand that democracy, equality and political correctness must be fought for in every area of our society - EXCEPT ART.
Art is the absolutely only single realm in which the call for democratisation does not, and must not, play any role.
If we are hoping for any possibility of a true development of art and culture in the future, ending the stagnation of the last few decades, and enabling a production of art that is actually worth passing on to future generations, then we must become vocal and active opponents of the Culture Industry's most powerful strategy of 'democratisation' and 'political correctness' in art. In order to ensure that true individuals can emerge again who take up the task of finding, identifying and pushing the boundary of art in the new and unprecedented circumstances of the 21st century, we must defend and promote the absolute autonomy of art from the above demands. This, paradoxically, would ensure that democracy is rooted at the heart of art and society.
(Just how deeply institutionalised (pseudo-)democratisation is at a governmental level can be seen in this astonishing document by the English Arts Council (published in September 2018):
The dissolution and abolishment of the discipline of art and the abolishment of the relevance of (knowledge of) art history is explicitly enshrined in government policy. In the name of total inclusion and absolute equality, the professional, knowledge-based and intellectual approach to art is branded "elitist", "prescribed", the "privilege of a few" and so on, and thus systematically eroded.
The art world has made it possible that democracy itself has become a commodity / the (pseudo)-democratisation of art promotes pseudo-creativity and pseudo-freedom - capitalist commodities which are promoted on a global and literally industrial scale.
Noteworthy in this context is a recent development in Germany:
"Ganz so frei soll die Kunst in den Bundesländern dann doch nicht sein: „Die Kulturministerkonferenz bekennt sich dazu, die kulturelle Vielfalt einer freien und offenen und demokratischen Gesellschaft zum zentralen Maßstab ihrer Entscheidungen zu machen.“ Das klingt nicht nur gruselig, sondern auch deutungsbedürftig, dafür muss es Gremien geben, Jurys, Fördermittel. Jeder kann sich vorstellen, welche pädagogische Kunst wir da zu sehen kriegen." )
"Society, while it increasingly integrates itself, simultaneously breeds tendencies for decay. These tendencies for decay, developed right under the surface of ordered civil life, have succeeded quite substantially. The pressure of the general and common [das Allgemeine] on what is particular and special [das Besondere], and thus on the individual human being and the individual institutions, has the tendency to shatter that which is special and individual - and with it its power of resistance. With the loss of their identity and power of resistance people also forfeit those qualities which would enable them to resist that which at any one time may lure them into committing a crime again. Perhaps they are hardly able to resist at all when the established powers command them to do it again, as long as it is done in the name of ideals which they only half believe in or do not believe in at all."
aus: Erziehung zur Mündigkeit (translated by au)