How Much Freedom Do Artists Have in the Culture They Make? (Unabridged)

An abridged version of this short essay was published in Portfolio, a student-led magazine distributed within Loughborough University.

Culture is the information and artefacts we share with each other. In situations where technologies that enable culture to persist independent of spoken language, like the written word, oil paintings or DVDs are scarce, only what is considered important is recorded. Historically, amongst other things, priority was given to the reproduction of holy books and the production of art. Up until the mid 1900s in Europe, artists were specialists in visually recording the histories, mythologies and religions of their cultures, as well as social hierarchies, by way of patronage and portraiture. With the advent of photography, art no longer dominated the production of visual culture as a record. In addition to this, artists were no longer at the beck and call of religious and aristocratic elites, and instead able to sell culture to the burgeoning middle classes. Artists found themselves enmeshed in a set of institutions specialising in the production and dissemination of culture, with no consistent obligation other than to make culture, any culture. This has resulted in many reinventions of the job of art, with no resolution in sight. Does the present climate of anything goes allow artists freedom in the culture they make?

I will start by expanding on the context in which artists work, aiming for a sketch of what art is rather than what I think it ought to be: Art is culture that is made under the heading of art and disseminated by art institutions such as galleries. By institutions, I mean persistent systems of social interaction. An art gallery can persist for many decades, during which time employees can come and go and the gallery can move from one building to another. What holds the institution together through these changes is the consistent patterns of interaction between those within the institution and their interaction with the rest of society. Examples of interactions, in the case of an art gallery, include the regular organisation of exhibitions and the presentation of the gallery under an unchanging name. I’m aware that other than using the generic terms institutions and culture making, I am defining art in terms of art. I think that in the case of art, a largely circular definition is necessary; such a wide range of otherwise unrelated activities are grouped under the word art, that using the word itself is the only quick way to tie them all together.

Based on the above, artists can in theory do anything, provided it results in the making of culture. In practice, art making is controlled. In what the artist makes, some references to historical art and other cultural entities are prescribed by authorities, others proscribed. What is fashionable varies from institution to institution – from museum to contemporary gallery to art school. On the art market, useless commodities are traded, their prices largely determined by the value of the artist as a brand. An artist seeking commercial success may be restricted by the demands of networking and working towards marketable products.

The artist, like any socially situated person, is influenced by institutions. From a social determinist position, all a person amounts to is an intersection of the influences of institutions such as their family, the mass media, religion, education, class, gender and so on. Our attitudes and world-view, indeed what we take as natural, normal or even possible, is formed by this set of influences. From the viewpoint of biological determinism, the physiology and behaviour of an organism are entirely determined by an interaction of environmental and genetic factors. One can also argue that at a more elementary level, human behaviour is determined by the laws of physics. If taken on-board, these arguments may lead us to re-evaluate notions of human individuality and freedom.

I acknowledge that art institutions can give artists time, space and legitimacy to make a very wide range of culture, as well as providing an audience for it. However, I think that the issues I have raised call into question the extent to which artists are free to do their own thing, both in the sense that they are subject to influences and expectations and that what they do is mostly a reconstruction of what they’ve learned.

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