Superficially Progressive: Elitism in the Art World
The art world has always been a place where anyone can create anything and use art as a means of expressing novel ideas; hence, we often think of it as a progressive industry as many social movements and activism have been propelled within this field.
The art world has always been a place where anyone can create anything and use art as a means of expressing novel ideas; hence, we often think of it as a progressive industry as many social movements and activism have been propelled within this field. However, what we see is only a face-value narrative, and the art community may not be as progressive as we would like it to be.
From the outside, the art world seems to be the place to challenge existing societal norms and social institutions, and it regularly boasts the work of minority artists. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston is famous for its "Women Take the Floor" exhibition. With the motto "Her vision, her voice across a century of art," 200 pieces of art from female artists, such as Georgia O'Keefe and Ruth Reeves are featured, perfectly giving the floor to artists who have been undervalued in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Furthermore, artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Shepard Fairey use their works to highlight the beauty of non-Eurocentric cultures to show how artists "stand behind the message of love and [are] going to stand behind the message of unity."
But while the industry has certainly pushed forward many social initiatives, it is still wracked in elitism and discourages many aspiring artists from circulating their work.
Contrary to popular thought, the doors to the art world are very selective and not accessible at all. An anonymous artist-educator acknowledged that "getting a job in the art world is much easier if you already come from the ruling class and have family connections, speak three languages, and feel comfortable ordering subordinates around while making polite conversation with curators, collectors, and celebrities." People often think that success is dependent on the artist's originality, creativity, and hard work. However, that is rarely the case. A study by curators Ingram and Banerjee shows that those with more social connections and economic privilege are more likely to succeed regardless of their creativity. Aspects such as art school education, financial support to reach a larger audience, the privilege to travel frequently and experience different places and cultures, give many members of the upper-class a leg up.
But art has always been an elitist pastime. Throughout history, the consumption of art has also always been something reserved for the rich and wealthy. During the Victorian era, paintings were commissioned by the wealthy, government officials, and anyone with money or power. Even if the standard of living has risen significantly over the past few centuries and more people are able to afford art, the art market is still largely exclusive to the rich. Just last year, a sculpture by Jeff Koons was sold for $91.1 million as the most expensive work sold by a living artist. Even then, this large number pales in comparison to Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Jesus Christ that sold for over four times the price for $450.3 million. Of course, these are two extreme examples, but even the average price of an auctioned piece, around $30,000, can be too expensive and inaccessible for the average person.
While many artists have tried to initiate social change, the upper-class still largely controls the industry and determines whether or not a novel movement gains traction. For example, the pop-art movement popularized in the 1950s was rebellious and broke stereotypes. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are revered as leaders of this new movement and are known for their work in screen-printing and color-blocking paintings. However, when similar styles are applied through graffiti or street art, mediums usually untouched by the rich and unmentioned by critics, they are deemed illegitimate.
The art world has definitely become more open to a new progressive agenda, these small changes are not long-lasting because its elitist culture often hinders new artists with novel ideas from entering the institution's exclusive bubble. If we do not recognize this problem now, we will only continue to live in shrouded judgment and falsely believe that the art industry is as progressive as it seems to be.