What is Independent Culture?
All artists wish to be independent – or wish to be seen as independent – and all artists profess to be independent; but what does independence mean?
The Impressionists called themselves 'independents'; and few would argue with this given their history of rejection by the salon and their subsequent charting of a new path, beginning with their 1863 Salon des Refusés ('Exhibition of the Refused'). 'Great artists. . . live in permanent conflict with their administrations', writes Theodor Adorno, in The Culture Industry. This idea is expressed in numerous works of social theory: One-Dimensional Man, The Impact Of Science On Society, Postmodernism and Consumer Society, etc. All artists who do not specifically insist on independence will be absorbed, or controlled by, the system. Plato's Republic, books III and X explained (for anyone interested in governing a republic, or any other kind of society) that artists are a disruptive, if not dangerous, subversive force; and should, therefore, be censored and/or regulated.
Open censorship is not acceptable today, of course, though this does happen in more subtle ways. Artists who have not been through the official channels, the 'unschooled' (or those who adhere to more traditional modes), are generally not considered by major public institutions.
Truly independent artists are generally the best artists however, if for no other reason than they have managed to continue their work, and distinguish themselves (or earn a living at least), despite a system set in place to specifically marginalize them (and their ideas), and to prevent their work from being seen by a wider audience. Censorship, in its various forms, is often an ineffective way of keeping independent art from the public, because the public is frequently more savvy than the ruling elite believe; people often know, instinctively, when they're being sold a bill of goods – despite theories to the contrary. From the 1944 work by Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment:
'The rate at which they [the consumers of culture industry product] are reduced to stupidity must not fall behind the rate at which their intelligence [cultural savvy] is increasing.'
A far more effective restraint is now taking effect, which was predicted many years ago; that is, the need for artists to earn a living. No matter how much a society appreciates a fine painting or sculpture (well-crafted art work in any form), if the people themselves are struggling financially, they cannot support their artists.
'[A]s private fortunes dwindle, artists become increasingly dependent upon the patronage of public bodies', writes Bertrand Russell, in The Impact Of Science On Society. The private fortunes dwindling now, of course, are those of the middle-class. 'In Russia they [the artists] are already mere licensed sycophants', he continues, echoing Plato's advice to the ruling elite. He goes on to say, elsewhere, 'before long, with conscription of labor, no one will be allowed to practice literature or painting unless he can get twelve magistrates or ministers of religion to testify to his competence'.
In his famous 1939 essay, 'Avant Garde And Kitsch', the world's most acclaimed art critic, Clement Greenberg, famously stated that art 'actually belongs' to 'an elite among the ruling class', going on to explain that this group had 'abandoned' its role in the 'development' of culture for the 'masses'. His suggestion therefore, implicit in this work, is that the 'ruling class' should once again take back its art. This happened in the early fifties, as the untold history of modern art reveals.
Robert Hughes explains, in The Shock Of The New, how the ruling elite lost control of art in the first place (in one area of the world), in the period leading up to the Russian Revolution. The relationship of the ruling-class and the middle-class to the artists, is made clear in this work; and indirectly, the difference between the independent artists and artists in the pay of the ruling elite (system artists). Ultimately, whoever has money has power, and ideas that support the dominant system will be transmitted through art. Wealth may be highly concentrated in a small ruling class – the church, a Monarch, or a corporate / financial elite – or, more equitably distributed over a wide swath of the population, as when the middle-class grew to the point of being the largest demographic, in the 60s and 70s. (More on this in the next section 'democratic').
As money became more evenly distributed, the base of support for artists grew (that is, as the number of people sufficiently affluent to purchase art and attend performances increased). As the number of artists grew in this model (in which support came from many individuals, rather than one central authority), the number of perspectives also became more numerous; this diversity of ideas and views is crucial for the well-being of society. Just as in natural environments, the greater the bio-diversity, the healthier and more resilient the system. Using this analogy, a mono-culture, which seems the most 'productive', is also the most precarious; when the environment changes, a system of this kind is likely to collapse entirely.
It is equally important to make the argument at this point in time (as so very few understand the importance of art in society), that the disappearance of independent artists should be alarming for the simple reason that this signals the contraction of money in the hands of the middle-class; and thus, a diminishing of the middle-class predicted for this point in time (three generations after the Second World War). Whether or not an individual should wish to purchase art is almost irrelevant here; every aspiring middle-class citizen should expect to be affluent enough to make such a purchase, should they wish. If it were understood that it was artists that ensured this would be the case (in the past) then artists might be taken seriously enough again in order to unite the population and bring positive change. (Please see the untold story of art).
Instead, 'each will be turned against the other, forcing individuals to deceit and fraud, in order to survive', Adorno describes the effects of the contraction of money in, Late-stage Capitalism (known alternatively as 'Advanced Capitalism' and 'Inverted Capitalism'). Naturally, in such an environment, the middle-class (or the remnants of a middle-class), will not only be unable to support the independent artists who represent the interests of the people, but they will become so preoccupied and distracted with survival, that art will be considered irrelevant. Artists, in this scenario, become a nuisance the moment they stop being entertaining.
In this environment of discontent, the artists who remain (supported by the same state that has allowed the hollowing-out and impoverishment of the middle-class) will indeed become a 'licensed sycophants.' Those artists who criticize this system, of course, will not be supported, and their voices will not be heard. Attempts to promote this idea of an independent culture will be marginalized as long as possible; and if this does not work, independent movements will be co-opted, and brought into the system. This is a model with a long tradition; in the fashion world, what springs up as a fringe movement, will be folded into the apparatus, and promoted as independent, rebellious, renegade and cool.
In his book, Curationism: How Curating Took Over The Art World And Everything Else, David Balzar says, of Relational Aesthetics, 'no previous movement was so quickly absorbed.' Arguably, the first instance of this was when American Dada movement, which billed itself as 'The Society Of Independent Artists', invited Marcel Duchamp to exhibit at the 1917, Armory Show in New York. Duchamp would not reveal what he intended to show until the very last moment. He purchased the now famous urinal, scribbled on it, 'R.Mutt', and delivered it. When the committee, understandably, rejected the piece, a media furor followed; and the rest, as they say, is history. This is a story of the power of the media to block certain stories; to put a new spin on those they can't control (or have an interest in promoting otherwise); and to create an alternate history. The 'Culture Industry,' as such, did not exist at this point, but many of the same controls were in place. When the Culture Industry did organize itself, Duchamp's work was not only made famous, it was mythologized (with rarely a mention of the actual story).
What is most important now, is that the next generation (generations) of independent artists be supported. In the tradition of Regionalist artists' past, who brought above improvements in the lives of everyday people, we are now working toward reform of the monetary system (rather than reform of the social system, which was the focus of previous Regionalist artists) with the aim of restoring the middle-class to its pre-1974 status – that is 2/3 of the population, rather than an ineffectual 1/3 (which is now the case). This should come, of course, with a commensurate improvement in income. In a traditional 'value-based' monetary system, money circulates more equitably among the middle and working-classes, rather than flowing continually to the top of the social pile (as described). Only when the debt-based currency (quietly substituted for our original Canadian dollar in 1974) is phased out, will the middle-classes see an improvement in their lives. Perhaps the time is right, and maybe we will enjoy the same success as the Romantics (which allowed the first true middle-class to emerge), and the American Regionalists (whose advocacy for the New Deal, allowed the middle-class to continue, after the Great Depression crashed the world economy in 1930s).
In the meantime, as the fortunes of the middle-class continue to diminish, we are continuously looking for new models for independent artists to continue their work. We are not a charity (as CRA rules would strictly limit the issues we can discuss and advocate for, in this case). So rather than a 'Donate Now' page, with the promise of a tax receipt, we must draw your attention to our calendars, prints and original art, the purchase of which will support artists directly, and help us continue our work. Instead of a perfunctory tax receipt, supporters will receive a meaningful piece of art from an independent artist, and your contribution will help us share this important and little-known history.
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