From the Archives: How the Avant-garde Sold Out

Known for her impassioned writing and opinion that art’s purpose should be to effect social and environmental change, artist and art critic Suzi Gablik was the conscience of the art world long before having a conscience was in vogue. She was a regular contributor to this magazine in the 1970s and ’80s, and died on May 7, 2022. In Gablik’s obituary that appeared on, Elizabeth C. Baker, the editor of Art in America from 1974 to 2008, is quoted describing Gablik as “indefatigable in dissecting the morality and ethics of art in the world at large.” In this article from A.i.A.‘s April 1980 issue, Gablik argues that the commodification of art was having a nefarious effect on artists, SoHo, and art itself.

I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall. —Andy Warhol

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OTHERS MAY CELEBRATE the end of mod­ernism and all that it stands for. They may watch with a sigh of relief as it falls, perhaps unmendably, into pieces; they may ready themselves to dance at its funeral. I find myself, however, like Mark Antony, wishing to praise Caesar, not just to bury him. For some time now, it has been evident that the vital, fractious spirit and critical intransigence of the avant-garde is evaporating in front of our eyes. Positions that once seemed radical have long since lost their power to transgress. And yet, I shall argue, the subversive impulse of modernism has been, in many ways, our culture’s saving grace. I think we shall only perceive the true meaning of what we’ve lost by becoming ful­ly conscious of conditions which have brought about that loss, and of the conse­quences now posed to the balance of forces within our social scene.

Those who are aware of the present bank­ruptcy of modernism speak and argue as if modernism were itself over and done with, as if it were not something intrinsically pre­cious. By attacking modernism and all that it stands for, they become unwitting accom­plices of the forces that maintain the status quo; at the same time, they slur over the real problem that has caused art to lose its power of rebellion and has crippled its impact: bureaucratic absorption. Trapped more and more in a situation that seems both hopeless and inescapable, artists have become in­creasingly dependent on the complicated bureaucratic machinery which now organiz­es and administers the consumption of art in our culture. But this apparatus does much more than merely organize and administer; it also preconditions the drives and ambi­tions of the artists whose well-being it osten­sibly exists to promote. It encourages accommodation and surrender to our society’s predominant values and in so doing, it has undermined the very basis of artistic aliena­tion.

The crisis of modernism originated in the contradiction between a business society, with its corporate values and interests, and the kind of spiritual consciousness that can only come from religion and art. What the “death” of modernism really signifies at this point is that our art no longer sustains and protects this contradiction. Art is no longer irreconcilably antagonistic to the order of business, no longer indicts and denies it. “Being good in business is the most fascinat­ing kind of art,” claims Andy Warhol. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Com­ments like these may be just talk as such—­and like everything Warhol does, they are amusing, if morally ambiguous—but they don’t really leave anybody flinching now, and are a disconcerting sign of just how far artists have drifted in the direction of cul­tural adaptation. Warhol’s exaggerations only bear witness to an essential part of the truth.

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Anyone prepared to doubt the extent to which society’s corporate and bureaucratic interests have become the innermost drives of its artists need only consider the number of artists who parachute down in SoHo each week, hoping to “make it” in New York, even if it means hanging from the lampposts until they can secure those emblems of con­formity, a loft and a dealer. It hardly seems to matter that a “market-oriented personal­ity” is incompatible with any posture of iconoclasm. The difficulty of constructing a new and radical individuality consonant with the objective conditions under which we now live is, perhaps, the deepest problem of our times. What needs to be argued at this point—in a manner that convinces but does not accuse—is that the failure of the avant-garde as an effective negative and oppositional social force does not cancel its premises, or the need for its basic critical function. On the contrary, the survival of its adversary role seems even more necessary today than it was 50 years ago. The need for refusal and subversion is, if anything, even more urgent now that culture has been incorporated by the economy and converted into a commodity for promotion and prof­it.

It is also the case that the principle of eco­nomic self-seeking has a positive side—has given us, after all, the possibility of excep­tional material prosperity—and it is under­standable that everyone should want a piece of the cake. As everybody knows, however, the market has become so powerful that it now shapes the entire universe of discourse and action in which art occurs, and its dis­torting influence has begun to outstrip its beneficial effect. It is also known that art’s “value” at this point means, quite simply, its price: economic merit equals moral merit and since the market system swallows up or repulses all alternatives, only the economi­cally fit are encouraged to survive. But con­science is absolved by the general necessity of things; whatever happens, everyone needs to earn a living.

THE MENTAL AND MORAL corporateness of our society has no parallel in history. This corporate mentality, which deter­mines the tone of society at large, has already distorted beyond recognition the in­ner life of the world in which our art is pro­duced. Its effects have invaded everyone’s mind and character, and subdued more than one artist’s soul. “Cash,” says Warhol. “I just am not happy when I don’t have it. The minute I have it I have to spend it. And I just buy stupid things.” Since we are living in a money culture whose cults and rites dominate, whose bureaucratic and commer­cial instincts have all but taken over, just about everyone—not only Andy Warhol­—takes the “cash-nexus” for granted. We are all victims of what Marcuse has called the “Happy Consciousness”—the belief that the established system, in spite of every­thing, delivers the goods.

When a society is profoundly wrong for the artist, he cannot, after all, remain unaf­fected. Most of our allegedly radical artists now reflect the culture of consumerism more than they challenge it. “I sure wish,” writes Peter Plagens, “I had the balls to be dyspeptically weird, to hate things out loud, to take crazy, half-baked, unprincipled, vac­illating stands on pointless questions, to pee in somebody’s fireplace. But, Your Honor, I’d also like to become a licensed manufac­turer of baubles-for-the-rich, with a palatial studio and a baronial wine cellar. I want Zuni baskets on plexi coffee tables …. ” That everyone now has “like-minded” inter­ests precludes the emergence of any effec­tive opposition against the whole system.

Marcuse is very instructive here; he points out exactly how the productive appa­ratus tends to become totalitarian—how it determines not only social occupations and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspi­rations. The principle of production for prof­it (whether it is art or consumer goods) is a basic institution of our society; but more insidiously, it has been internalized and con­verted into an unconscious assumption—a sense of entitlement even (expectations have increased even faster than material im­provements). The “alienated” artist (once so blunt and disobliging to business and industry) has virtually disappeared, since in a still more progressive stage of alienation, he now identifies completely with the values that have been imposed on him. Besides making art, he must also make a profit on himself—sell himself successfully on the market. American society, in particular, is marked by stress on personal achievement, which means secular, occupational achieve­ment. The “success story” is everyone’s treacly dream, the one prophylactic against the amorphous contingency of life.

Marcuse also points out how difficult it is for the individual to emerge from servitude once he has accepted such needs and satis­factions as his own, once they have been so deeply introjected that their repression would seem to be an all but fatal depriva­tion. Inclinations and aspirations then be­come vital needs which must be satisfied. The rewards of affluence thus make the whole system immune to attack from within as well as from without. For if everyone is happy with the fulfillments handed down by the system, why should anyone demand that things be any different? If art once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contra­diction no longer exists.

THE DRIFT TOWARDS accommodation and surrender will seem particularly tragic if we think of it in relation to someone like Albert Pinkham Ryder: a lonely, solita­ry, reclusive figure who cared nothing for money, social prestige or comforts, who was not in the least concerned with public stand­ing or material circumstance. Ryder lived on 13 cents a day and slept in a carpetbag; at night, he spent his time wandering the bridges, ferries and waterfronts of New York, “soaking up the moonlight.” His refusal of a dealer’s offer to pay him liberal­ly for ten pictures to be completed over a period of three years—although he badly needed the money—seems all but unthink­able now, a self-imposed austerity that is mildly eccentric and certainly out-of-date. These are not ideas today’s art major is like­ly to pick up about his role. He or she will learn instead that all true artists should be in New York.

The ways in which Ryder suf­fered, his religious asceticism, his ideals about art, have all but lost their allure for an art world transformed beyond recognition by material prosperity. Modes and catego­ries inherited from the past no longer seem to fit the reality experienced by the new gen­eration. It is much harder to resist today than it was a hundred years ago, when Ry­der lived; and besides, social conditions today foster a survival mentality. What is admired is an ability to hold one’s own and to get ahead. There are fewer people left who resist—as Marx observed in Capital, the victories of progress seem bought by the loss of character.

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But no matter how essential such needs may have become to the individual, they must still be understood as having been his­torically developed, and to a large extent socially induced. They must be seen as what Marcuse would call “false” needs, so that their gratification is not a condition which should necessarily be maintained and pro­tected—if, as a consequence, the individu­al’s ability to recognize society’s disease and to grasp the chances of curing that disease have been dangerously impaired. For once the “outer” dimension is transposed into the “inner,” the freedom of individual con­sciousness—embodied in the will to re­fuse—is trapped, as if under a bell jar. Then “there is only one dimension, and it is every­where and in all forms.”

Our culture is perhaps the first complete­ly secularized culture in human history, and what seems most alarming is that the whole idea of the artistic vocation—of the artist who has renounced worldly ambitions in order to dedicate himself to values that can­not possibly be realized by a commercial society—does not exert much power of attraction any more. “The artist,” Ryder wrote, “must live to paint and not paint to live. He should not sacrifice his ideals to a landlord and a costly studio. A rain-tight roof, frugal living, a box of colors and God’s sunlight through clear windows keep the soul attuned and the body vigorous for one’s daily work.”

Self-denial is not anyone’s idea of self-­fulfillment at this point, but dear Lord, what would Ryder have made of the brontosaural herds lumbering past in SoHo? In the worsening situation we all inhabit, not only is the “need” to make as much money as possible taken for granted, but the artist’s worth will often be measured by his ability to “make it on sales alone.” These days, art is a “worldly” calling, and a great deal of creative energy goes into the savage battle for success and fighting one’s way to the top. More than that, the intellectual refusal to go along—to play the game by the rules, even if one is lacking in conviction—appears neu­rotic and impotent.

Such is the tenor of the times that Ry­der’s exemplary life, his commitment to negotiating on his own terms, doesn’t stand for much. For by now, the iconoclastic pos­ture—the artist as an outcast who stands for another way of life than the established one, whose purpose as a religious, spiritual or moral hero is to create a symbolic life that will have meaning for others—has been reduced to the same kind of mechanical order and bureaucratic fixity that engulfs other professions in our society and tends to stifle the free, self-possessed personality. “Why do people think artists are special?” asks Warhol. “It’s just another job.”

Once the practice of art becomes a career like any other, once artists give up their autonomy and become compliant employees and satellites of the economic, managerial middlemen they serve, whether consciously or unconsciously, they lose their identity as artists. The temptation to regard as freedom what is in reality a disguised tyranny is pre­cisely what keeps art in our society so per­manently off-balance. It should be obvious that radical art, of necessity, turns into its opposite when it agrees to play by the rules. At that moment, it no longer negates social practice, but complements it, and thus rein­forces the logic of the status quo.

This assimilation of creative ideals into an impersonal, calculating, contractual and secular reality indicates the extent to which the realm of the soul or spirit has been trans­lated by our material culture into pragmatic terms; such assimilation represents a perver­sion of the whole idea of individualism to conform to the practices of a money culture. In this transformation, as Marcuse has shown, art loses the greater part of its truth. When art sinks to the level of merchandise, it loses its essence. Hence the need for end­less compromises, and the conflicts arising from the fact that aims and standards have been confused beyond anyone’s comprehen­sion.

ALL OF THE TENDENCIES towards cultural conformism in our society also sup­port the assumption that the avant­-garde has become obsolete or irrelevant. But the fact is that the future of any worthwhile modern culture would seem to depend on the survival of precisely the kind of dedi­cated group that the avant-garde has been. The familiar posture of alienation from society was a crucial element among the balance of forces in modern society, and without it, there is nothing at all to counter the drift towards uniformity and conformity brought about by the bureaucratic adminis­tration of art.

If there is any doubt as to how far we have strayed in the direction of an artificially induced uniformity, we need only consider the phenomenon of SoHo, and the patterns of conformism it encourages. Othe­rs have commented on its quasi-factory conditions, its atmosphere of mass producti­on and its daily invasions of trained “modern artists” for whom there are no “jobs” in relation to the market. No longer the partly communal, partly idiosyncratic refuge of artists that it was even ten years ago, SoHo creates a pseudo-community within society, a sub-group where individuality is sacrificed for a false sense of union and where conformity prevails. Its standardization is the perfe­ct example of what Erich Fromm has called “consensual validation”—the ass­umption that since the majority of people share certain ideas and feelings, those ideas and feelings are proven valid. Yet individu­alism loses its quality of freedom if it is exerc­ised “en masse.”

Bureaucracy, as Max Weber has exp­lained it, is simply the structuring of authority in terms of impersonal positions and offices rather than specific individuals. Considerations of emotion or sentiment are excluded, and values alien to the efficiency of operation are abolished. The self-determ­ined, independent, creative being becomes just another cog in the mechanism which prescribes to him a fixed route of march. It was Max Weber’s greatest fear towards the end of his life that the world might one day be filled with nothing but these little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones; he wondered how to keep a portion of mankind free from “this parceling-out of the soul,” as he put it, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life.

Until now, that oppositional force in our society has been embodied in the small, con­scious elite known as the avant-garde, and in its permanent challenge to the established order. Being an artist has always meant maintaining a certain independence of mind and not adapting to the competitive per­formances required for well-being under the established system, even at the cost of intense personal sacrifice. But since Ryder’s time, we have experienced a radical decline in the individual’s potential to stand firm and alone. More than anyone else in our own day, Duchamp understood the necessity of this independence, and throughout his life he displayed a unique sensitivity to the fact that the artist is characterized not only by what he does but also by how he does it.

If there is any solution to the crisis in our culture at this point, it will surely depend on the recovery of an effective and creative individuality able to engage with, and resist, the tremendous pressures on all of us to conf­orm and play by the rules. If art is ever to become a transcendent force again, it will have to be rooted in a qualitative change in the individual’s aspirations and goals; otherwise, any change will remain self-defeating. The problematics of art and society need careful examination by everyone at this point if we are somehow to grope our way through a situation as confused and divided within itself as ours is at present. Intelligent consideration of the consequences of what we are doing seems the first step out of the confusion.

What has changed is not the con­tradictory character of culture, but the nature of the contradictions capitalism now poses for the artist. What we have lost is not our power of creativity so much as our ability to determine the psychological and moral imperatives of the economic and political system under which we live. The bourgeois stress on achievement and economic growth has provoked a crisis for artists, distorting the ways in which they value art and alter­ing their motives for creating it. Art will inevitably lose all of its negative and dissi­dent dimension if artists do not begin to con­centrate on this crisis and seek to create alternative institutions and values. Our fu­ture prospects depend as much on how art­ists define their needs and problems as on how they experience the functions and dysfunctions of the bureaucratic management of culture. “Dig out the truth,” says Clyf­ford Still, “and one man is a match for all of them. Accept their premises and you will walk on your knees for the rest of your life.”

Author’s note: I cannot claim credit for originating many of the indispensable ideas I have drawn attention to here, which come from the writings of Herbert Marcuse, Max Weber, John Dewey and Irving Howe. What I have tried to do is register their importance by extending their application to present conditions in the art world.


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