Americans, like most other people, admire families who have succeeded in accumulating and preserving wealth. But it’s not just wealth alone that accounts for the respect accorded the country’s most prominent families.
For generations, America’s patricians have been turning wealth and power into prestige through art collections and other cultural pursuits. Despite America’s well-known tendency to revel in base-material culture, real prestige is built through patronage of the arts and high-class philanthrophy, not by gaudy mansions and Cadillacs in the driveway. Even if a private art collection is not made accessible to the public, the very fact of its existence endows its accumulator with a certain degree of benevolence and philanthropy, not to mention class. Such prominent families as the Rockefellers and the Mellons provide extraordinary examples of art patronage as an important ingredient in the transformation in image from hard-driving capitalist to benevolent aristocrat.
In the ’60s, these image enhancing qualities of art collecting were taken a step further. With the right kind of art collection you could buy not only status but media celebrity. With a house full of pop art, a collector could share the glamour and the chic notoriety of the young art worlds. In the ’70s, art patronage as an image maker was taken even further. It was demonstrated that corporations could use art to benefit from the same sort of image enhancement that private collectors had enjoyed. In fact, art became more than just image enhancement, it became part of the corporate public relations package. Philip Morris Inc. has used art as an image maker more extensively and more successfully, perhaps, than any other company. The corporation’s principal products include cigarettes, beer, and soda pop. One causes lung cancer, another contributes to alcoholism and car crashes, and the third induces tooth decay. A company with that sort of product line is highly vulnerable to image problems. Philip Morris might easily have found itself publicly regarded as a breeder of disease and atrocious habits, a parasite on the American economy. But instead Philip Morris is more likely to be perceived as an innovative, progressive company, one of the foremost corporate citizens. George Weissman, currently the company’s chairman, and the brilliant public relations agent who created the Marlboro Man to give filter cigarettes a masculine image, was just as brilliant in his use of art patronage to manipulate the company’s image. Art as corporate PR is now down to a science. One of the country’s largest public relations firms, Ruder and Finn, has a fine arts division that specializes in packaging art patronage to shape corporate images.
The celebrity of the ’60s pop art collectors such as Robert Scull had another even broader effect than the instigation of the art-as-public relations industry.
Americans like nothing better than a great get-rich-quick scheme, and Robert Scull demonstrated that art collecting is perhaps the easiest, most glamourous, and even most enjoyable method there is to make a fast buck. The attention given to art and art collectors in the ’60s also helped stimulate a whole new generation of potential art collectors. The teenagers of the ’60s have now reached the art-buying age and more than ever before the art market is a place for the middle-class professional. The days when it was the province of the superwealthy and the cultured elite are long gone.
Despite the effects of inflation and the recent credit crunch, America’s achievement-oriented professional class is living well these days. Salaries have kept lawyers, doctors and professional managers well above the danger zone. More people than ever before have the resources to purchase art and luxury goods. But the travails of inflation have so severely affected American economic psychology that sophisticated buyers feel that they can no longer just pour money into luxuries. Each purchase, no matter how extravagant, must also be an investment. People have come to the realization that one of the only ways to preserve their capital is to spend on real estate and tangible goods that will hold their value as the value of money drops. A young couple right out of school may buy a tremendous three-bedroom house even though they don’t need anything quite so large. But the rationale is that real estate is one of the best investments that one can make and that a three-bedroom ‘Colonial’ is the most saleable house in the marketplace. Buying an extravagant piece of property is as much a business venture as a personal indulgence.
The young upper-middle class has the same attitude toward art collecting. The college graduates of the baby boom generations had much more opportunity to educate themselves in art history than preceding generations and the arts have become increasingly popularized. The livelier art museums can pack in the crowds and even television carries some art-oriented programming. A much wider public has the background and the resources for serious art buying.
Today’s new wave of collectors buy art the way they buy dwelling places — tasteful structures in sophisticated neighborhoods — tasteful-looking art with sophisticated intellectual underpinnings. And just like the house, the art must be a good investment as well as an object of aesthetic pleasure and social status. The more saleable the work, the better the investment.
This inflation-resisting practicality, mixed with an affluent generation’s taste for high culture and luxury, is the basis for the galloping pace of the American art market during the past several years. The type of nest-egg investment money that would have gone into the stock market in the ’60s is now going increasingly into real estate, art and other so-called tangibles. People feel that they ought to at least be able to enjoy themselves as they watch the value of the dollar decline. This investment orientation appears in all sorts of other purchases as well. Clothing stores advertise suits and shoes as ‘good investments.’ People purchase expensive motorcars with the intention of reselling them for their original purchase price after several years of driving.
But the current art craze is about more than just inflation fear, improved education levels, and the inspiring example of Robert Scull. The current vogue for art and advanced culture has to be understood in the context of the extraordinary consumer society.
The development of American capitalism was based on the austere principles of the Protestant ethic. One was taught to work hard and live modestly. The fruits of one’s labors were to be invested back into the business so that future generations could benefit and look back in admiration at the determination of their predecessors. The Protestant ethic taught denial of unnecessary pleasures. Milking the business to throw money into hedonistic indulgences was absolute anathema to the sober old-time capitalists. But the extraordinary irony of American business history is that it was largely the promotion of hedonism that made American enterprise prosper. Many of those sober capitalists made their fortunes by convincing Americans of their inability to do without each succeeding materialistic advance. The capitalists’ unwitting erosion of their own moral foundation is explored by Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
Perhaps the dominant American preoccupation is participation in this cult of materialism. Americans have been able to take measure of their identities by cataloging their possessions and comparing their totals with their neighbors. A house in the right suburb, two children in college, two new cars in the driveway, an ice dispensing refrigerator, and a mink coat in the closet were enough to allow almost any American to breathe deeply and smile in satisfaction.
But in the past 15 years, constructing this catalogue of status and complacency has become quite a bit more complex. The cars, the college, the house and most of the other goods on the inventory list with the exception of the fur, perhaps, were things that every middle class family could almost take for granted. The current inflationary crunch with its resultant deflation of American living standards could change all this, but the blossoming professional class as yet remains insulated.
Well, what do people do who have been infected with the materialistic impulse since early childhood and who either take for granted, or are otherwise well beyond, the latest consumer goods that are hyped to them? Here, materialism enters a higher plane. The reflex to buy, or to strive to buy the latest hot items shifts to the cultural arena. People whose parents compared themselves with their contemporaries on the basis of concrete material possessions and achievements now shop for status in the cultural marketplace. On the basest level, the crux of the matter now is not whether or not you own status jeans, but whose status jeans you own. And of course if you’ve really arrived in the trendiness hierarchy, you’ll know what brand of nonsignature jeans has the special subtle markings to indicate membership in the select group of those who really know what’s hot and what’s not. Through constant recreational shopping and perusal of the trendsetting periodicals, these ultra consumers have become so well aware of the subtle differentiations between products competing for highest class status that, indeed, their ‘own initials are enough.’
The ultra consumers are well beyond linking their identities to possession of the traditional consumer products that are flogged on television. Their new ground is the world of advanced fashion and the trendy housewares and status food celebrated so splendidly by the New York Times home and living sections. But for the ultimate consumer, even the intricacies of hip consumption in the fashion world are taken for granted. Their arena of challenge is no longer culture, but high culture.
Knowing who the best young artists are, catching the widely talked about art museum exhibitions, and finding an entree to the inner art world are now among the concerns of top-of-the-line consumers. Not just objects of art, but the art experience, has become the ultimate consumer good. A large measure of the success of Woody Allen’s Manhattan was its ability to package a sense of the inner art and literary worlds for the thousands of culture-consumers eager to get inside.
Only recently, artists were people on the fringe of society. Even the most esteemed of them were barely able to make a living. Now the artist is not only the producer of one of the hottest investment commodities of the decade, but the producer of the ultimate consumer as well. This new state of affairs outrages and sickens many of those who have become aware of it, but it presents an extraordinary opportunity to artists who can figure out how to exploit it.
from Flash Art n°94-95,1980