Is Art Inherently Political?: The Commodification of Culture in a Globalized World

Photo via Artsy

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Situated at 1000 Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a student’s passageway to a vast expanse of world cultures and history. Amidst its extensive collection, a visitor encounters artifacts and artworks from myriad cultures, each piece offering a unique glimpse into the human experience. 

This immersive environment prompts deeper contemplation about the nature of art itself. Historically viewed as a pure form of expression, art often appears as if created solely for beauty or storytelling. 

Yet, as one delves deeper, it becomes evident that this perception may be an oversimplification. Consider, for example, a specific piece from the museum’s Islamic art section: a painting titled “Garden Gathering.” At first glance, it portrays an innocent and joyful scene; the lushness of a garden and the intricacy of human interactions are captured with remarkable detail and vibrancy. However, upon further investigation into its origins and historical context, one uncovers the embedded political implications. It is a rich tapestry woven from the threads of social norms, aesthetic ideals, and philosophical concepts prevalent in the Islamic world during the Safavid period. 

This revelation serves as a pivotal moment, challenging the initial perception of art as merely aesthetic or recreational. The process of unraveling the political ties of “Garden Gathering” illustrates a broader truth about the art world: art has long been intertwined with politics and economics, serving as both a commodity and a symbol of power. From ancient rulers who used monumental sculptures to legitimize their reign to modern governments that sponsor national art to foster cultural prestige, the intersection of art and power is omnipresent.

Art’s relationship with politics forms a complex narrative that has evolved significantly throughout history. In contemporary discussions, this relationship is deeply influenced by commodification, a process that intertwines art thoroughly with the mechanisms of capitalism. Commodification in this context refers to the transformation of art into a commodity, valued primarily for its ability to generate profit rather than for its aesthetic or intrinsic worth. This shift has profound implications—not just for the art world, but for society at large, as it reflects and reinforces the values and power structures within capitalism. With such an understanding of the system in place, one wonders: has culture—and by extension, art—been transformed into a tool for the reinforcement of our economic system?

The relationship between art and politics has always been distinctly pronounced and profoundly woven into the societal structures and power dynamics of the time. Art has functioned not solely as a medium for aesthetic expression, but likewise as a potent tool for political and religious influence, often under the direct patronage of the ruling classes and the clergy. In ancient civilizations such as Egypt, pharaohs commissioned vast temple complexes adorned with hieroglyphic reliefs to celebrate divine rule and legitimize their authority. Similarly, in Ancient Greece, sculptures and pottery communicated social values and narratives that supported the political structures of city-states. Throughout the Middle Ages, this integration deepened with the Catholic Church, the dominant institution of the time, commissioning the majority of art to convey religious doctrines that reinforced its authority. Artworks, like illuminated manuscripts and frescoes in cathedrals, were designed to uphold the ecclesiastical hierarchy, while secular leaders used portraiture to depict their power and divine right to rule. This integration of art with authority was evident in the Islamic world as well, where caliphs and sultans sponsored grand mosques with elaborate calligraphy and geometric designs that communicated the glory of Islam and their legitimacy as rulers. In the Americas, the Maya and Aztec civilizations used art to encode mythological and cosmological beliefs, which reinforced the authority of kings and priests. 

The Renaissance and subsequent periods saw a transformation in the use of art from primarily religious to more overtly political purposes as the power of individual patrons, like the Medici family in Florence, emerged. These patrons used art to consolidate power and influence public opinion, with commissioned works from artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci serving as allegories for the patrons’ wisdom and benevolence. During the Reformation, art became a battlefield for ideological conflicts, with Protestant and Catholic factions using imagery to promote their divergent views. The Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation employed Baroque art to communicate the spiritual majesty of Catholicism, aiming to reclaim allegiance and inspire awe. Throughout these periods, art was a crucial element in the communication strategies of religious and political leaders, designed to influence, persuade, and control public perception, proving that long before its commodification, art was inherently political and embedded in the power dynamics and ideological battles of its time.

Art’s transition to a commodity was furthered by the Industrial Revolution, which begot mass production techniques and broadened the reach and accessibility of art, shifting its status from an exclusive cultural artifact to a commodity within reach of the broader public. Globalization dramatically intensified these shifts, transforming art into a global commodity. As international markets extended and the world became more connected, art began to transcend local and national boundaries, increasingly influenced by the dynamics of a global economy. This era, marked by significant advancements in technology and communication, facilitated the widespread reproduction and distribution of art, making it more accessible—but also more controlled by market forces. Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “age of mechanical reproduction” encapsulates this phenomenon, where the unique “aura” of artworks is diminished as they are commodified into mass-produced goods. The replication capabilities provided by new technologies have not only increased the availability of art, but have also led to a significant shift in its perception, turning it into a consumable and tradeable commodity on a global scale. This commodification process has profound implications as art becomes embedded in the capitalist market, reflecting and participating in the broader socio-economic systems that shape our world.

In George Yúdice’s “The Expediency of Culture,” he argues that culture has increasingly become a resource in the global capitalist system, utilized for various ends beyond its intrinsic value. This transformation sees art being employed as a tool for economic growth, urban redevelopment, and social inclusion. An illustrative example is how cities around the world use street art festivals or designate art districts to enhance urban aesthetics and attract tourists and investors, as seen in neighborhoods like Wynwood in Miami or Shoreditch in London. These areas often see a rise in property values and a shift in demographic composition, raising questions about the role of art in gentrification and social displacement. Artists’ responses to the commodification of their work vary widely. Some embrace these dynamics, using the market to amplify their voices and careers. Others, like Banksy, critique the very markets they participate in through their art. Banksy’s self-shredding painting “Girl with Balloon,” which partially destroyed itself right after being auctioned, serves as a stark commentary on the art market’s absurdities. Additionally, many artists engage in creating digital art or NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), which challenges traditional market mechanisms by introducing scarcity and authenticity to digital works.

The commodification of art can lead to cultural homogenization, where dominant market-driven aesthetics overshadow local cultural expressions. On the accessibility front, while digital platforms have “democratized” access to art, they have also concentrated the distribution power into the hands of a few global corporations, thus impacting how and which artworks are seen and valued. 

The ethical dilemmas surrounding the commodification of art are profound. There is a tension between the economic benefits that art can bring and its role as a medium for free expression and social commentary. If art is primarily valued through a commercial lens, its ability to challenge and provoke may be diminished. Looking to the future, there may be a growing resistance against this trend. Movements like “Art for Art’s Sake” may regain prominence as artists and audiences alike seek to reclaim art from the clutches of commodification. New forms of art that explicitly reject market mechanisms, perhaps through anonymity or ephemerality, may also emerge.