The Malta Independent 26 November 2022, Saturday
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Art and Capitalism

Nikki Petroni Monday, 21 March 2016, 13:01 Last update: about 8 years ago

In last week's article I focused on the positive exploitation of the present economic system for the development of a country's artistic wealth. I do acknowledge that my tone may have been rather optimistic, for although I do believe that simple solutions exist to maintain qualitative standards in the arts within our financially-driven present, there is a very fine line which separates investment into art and culture to promote cultivation and growth and the creation of what Theodor W. Adorno calls the 'culture industry'. The latter denotes the assimilation of culture to a factory production line, manufactured for the sole sake of generating profits.

A prevalent problem with today's cultural system is the dependency on quantifiable results, therefore money and visitor numbers, which have become the impetus for financial investment into an artistic or cultural project, the practice which leads to the creation of a culture industry. Adorno as well as other thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer addressed the dangers inherent in this sphere of capitalist development in the first half of the 20th century. They realised that capitalism was geared towards cultural homogeneity as part of the bureaucratisation process and was thus treating culture as a marketable product to be consumed and discarded without it having to contain any worthwhile knowledge, much like a great number of Hollywood movies and TV shows we ourselves consume today.

Adorno wrote that '[T]he man with leisure has to accept what the culture manufacturers offer him.' The promise of leisure time granted by the capitalist system was fulfilled, but in order to sustain itself the system had to produce activities to perpetuate the circulation of money and the mushrooming of more industries. In fact, due to this logic, a 2014 contemporary art exhibition held in Vienna called 'New Ways of Doing Nothing' proposed the refusal to work, to be productive, as a creative act. Aesthetics have continuously come under attack by capitalist logic because of their non-utilitarian (read: non-quantifiable) purpose. The irony of the whole exhibition was that the artworks which claimed to refuse market regulations are themselves part of the inescapable contemporary art market, an unavoidable contradiction in today's society.

Yet capitalism has also done incredible things for the arts. It gave birth to Picasso, Duchamp, Lucio Fontana, Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Bill Viola, to name just a handful, as well as to revolutionary authors, intellectuals and critical thinkers, not to mention all the great film directors and producers. The 20th century is one of the most exciting and dynamic periods of study due to the plethora of intellectual and creative boundaries which were explored and transcended.

Artistic production in Malta likewise flourished with the growth of capitalism. Artists responded to their circumstances by liberating art from its loyal marriage to the church, a relationship which survived for centuries, and still does although no longer predominant. Religious subject matter persisted in Maltese modern and contemporary art yet was entirely divorced from its ideological basis. The idea which for centuries prevailed in Malta was that the highest form of art is sacred art, and once this perspective began to change some artists challenged this traditional definition and value of art in Malta.

Capitalism gave art the opportunity to gain autonomy from the church patronage system, spreading new values and the idea of individual freedom as intrinsic to the creative process. Emvin Cremona's self-proclaimed artistic compromise, wherein his works were subjected to the regulations set by the church authorities, became a thing of the past. The fact that Austin Camilleri could build a concrete wall in front of a church altar in Gozo during Holy Week in 1998 (the exhibition 'Sacredaustin') would have been unfathomable just 10 years prior, or even less. The Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale 2015/16 was also a challenge to traditional cultural perspectives.

Maltese art's shift towards the secular occurred substantially later than in other European countries due to the moral supremacy of the church locally. Capitalist utilitarian rationality is antithetical to religious faith, yet both ideological systems suddenly coexisted in 20th century Malta which gave rise to severe tensions and a turbulent political fight for dominance. The artistic struggle of the mid-century reflects this condition, as several artists were determined to create a new art yet sought acceptance from the clergy. From the very late 1960s on the importance of moral propriety in the arts decreased and gradually artists began to confront the conventions which allowed the persistence of an artistic tradition within the modern context. The works of Josef Kalleya, Gabriel Caruana, Caesar Attard, Camilleri, Pierre Portelli, Raphael Vella, Vince Briffa and others embody these changes.

Capitalism has continued to evolve globally, becoming increasingly liberal in its ways of creating and acquiring money, and of course Malta's own economy forms part of this system. The artworld itself has expanded into a massive global business and art market speculation has sky-rocketed. In a 2012 article, Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci underlined that Maltese capitalism is currently entering into what he calls 'its violent aggressive stage', meaning that it is no longer insular and inward-looking, but on the contrary, outwardly invasive. This condition may be vividly witnessed with the recent turbulent political situation which is characterised by the adoption of global neoliberal policies.

The question which irks Schembri Bonaci, however, is whether this explosion of aggressive neoliberal capitalist values have managed to provoke an upsurge of quality in the arts, and I do agree with him that such has not yet been achieved. The rate of capitalist growth has not yet found its equal reflection in the arts. I do feel that many artists hold back from exploiting the present. The grip of tradition remains visible, even amongst the supposedly more daring younger generation. Furthermore, in Malta the idea of an art market is still in its infancy despite there being so many active artists and cultural operators

It is clear that ideological tensions between progressive and conventional worldviews are still a part of Maltese culture. This situation will certainly affect how the country takes advantage of current conditions to improve cultural and intellectual resources. Whilst Malta does not have an indigenous Adornian culture industry, the country has not yet come to realise that huge investments are required to improve the international status of its entire cultural infrastructure. 

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