Summary (1500 words)

  • This summary largely corresponds with the introductory paragraphs at the start of each of the chapters in the printed book.
  • This text can also be downloaded by printing it to PDF (Ctrl p) and, if one wishes, next be printed for real.
  • The recurring term “period of serious art” refers to a period from circa 1880 to 1980, a period in which the art of the elite was supposed to be serious while popular art was thought to be mere entertainment. In the book I argue that this period is well passed its zenith but has an aftermath which lasts to the present day.
  • I use the term “serious art” instead of “high art” with its positive as well as negative connotation. For the last decades I also use the term “established art”.

Preface (Chapter 1)

The Triumph of Serious Art (Chapter 2)

In the course of the nineteenth century art becomes serious; art is no entertainment. A period of serious art commences. In this period art is triumphant, and popular art is no art. Non-profits are established and “commerce” or “being commercial” is rejected. Major art-buildings are erected. People who do not consume serious art respect and look up to it. In the last decades of the twentieth century overall respect for serious art gradually goes down. Popular art becomes more important. There is a re-commercialization in the arts and at least part of serious art is allowed to be entertaining.

The period of serious art gradually comes to an end. In the nineteenth century art-worlds become established which, with financial and moral support of governments and donors, govern the production and distribution of serious art. They do so without a need of state enforcement, as was  common‘in earlier centuries. Art-world establishments guard artistic progress. They create an art heritage and classic artists and artworks. They also put demands on serious artists, demands which over time are becoming more constraining.

Both in the arts and in popular art, avant-garde groups exist. The first resist the existing art favored by the art-world; the last the mainstream art promoted by the industry. In the (serious) arts, this leads to conflicts and occasional artistic and social revolutions. The diffusion of new genres is slow and limited. In the popular arts, many parallel avant-garde scenes exist. They do not last as long as in the arts. When successful they expand, the new (sub)genres are relatively quickly diffused, while influencing mainstream popular art. In the arts, mainstream art is taboo.

The different trajectories partly follow from a different orientation of artists. For income and reputation, avant-garde artists in the serious arts are foremost oriented on donors and governments, and those in the popular arts on markets.


Authentic Art and Artists (Chapter 3)

In various ways, an expectation and demand of authenticity in the arts affects the social economy of art. Two related forms of authenticity can be distinguished: expressive authenticity and nominal authenticity. First, artists are expected to be authentic in expressing themselves and be true to themselves. Ordinary bourgeois are not in a position to do so. They envy artists and put art and artists on a pedestal. This partly explains the almost religious ambience and atmosphere in art-buildings.

Along with informalization, for many people the atmosphere has become unattractive. Moreover, people increasingly believe that they as well can and must be authentic. This often does not work out. This is one reason why the art’s professions remain very attractive, with as a consequence precarity among artists.

Second, nominal authenticity is demanded. Artworks must be genuine. And performances must conform to the artist’s instructions or intentions, or they must conform to the dominant artistic tradition. The latter demands have major consequences for the art’s economy. It prevents the application of cost-saving techniques. Instead costs rise much faster than elsewhere in the economy. There is a cost disease. As a consequence ever-more subsidies and donations are required, while, more recently, ticket prices have been raised much. These demands make the arts more exclusive.


Exclusion (Chapter 4)

During the period of serious art, several social groups are excluded from art consumption and production. There are attempts by groups of art-lovers aimed at the inclusion of low-class consumers—rather than producers—but they are unsuccessful.

In the serious art period feelings of superiority as well as a general dislike of lower-class people and their art are intense among art-lovers.

In various ways “others” are excluded from live performances and museums. First performances were only accessible for subscribers and invitees. Later entrance prices were too high for others. The atmosphere in the buildings is anyway unattractive. Cheap (re)productions in large series are increasingly put down and their consumption discouraged. This is a further mechanism of exclusion.

In the course of the twentieth century, the intellectualization of the art discourse laeds to not only exclusion of others but also of many art-lovers. There is inner-artworld exclusion.

Exclusivity is a condition for art being serious and prestigious. Well-to-do art-lovers pay for exclusivity. This explains the presently very high prices of some visual artworks and certain performances. A love of exclusivity is an important motor behind exclusion. Rich people buy not only art but also membership in art circles.


Distrust of Commerce and Commercialism (Chapter 5)

Before the period of serious art, artists were well aware that market income could increase their freedom and they had no problem with commerce, commercialism, self-branding and the enrichment of their work, to make it more attractive. As we would say now: they were willing to compromise. But during this period such activities are taboo, and artists who compromise are blamed. Artists must be as autonomous as possible.

After 1980, along with developments in capitalism, attitudes and practices gradually change again. First, marketing and next cultural entrepreneurship by art-companies become common. Not much later many artists follow. Often without being aware of this, artworks and the art products of art-companies also change in content, with higher sales as the outcome. Moreover, some artists start to worry less about artistic autonomy and develop hybrid art practices.

Not all art-lovers agree. They resist that art-companies and artist are becoming cultural entrepreneurs. And leftist critics warn against a commercialism in the arts that is becoming as common and intense as in the commercial popular arts. An orientation on sponsors and donors is thought to lead to a loss of autonomy and compromise.

In the book I present and discuss many situations in which artists and art organizations attempt to make artistically autonomous art or follow an own mission in offering art, while in practice they often create relatively other- or user-oriented art, art that can be called market-, supporter- and art-world-oriented art. During the period of serious art, when artists are thought to do so, and even more when they are thought to deliberately do so, they are blamed for compromising. This still happens, even though over the last decades blaming artists becomes less intense. But as I notice many artists still feel guilty when they do not make “own work” but compromise.

Over the last decades, artworks and art products are increasingly enriched; their “wrapping” looks more attractive. This contributes to another phenomenon. Along with commercialization and other developments in society, a winner-take-all mechanism has become more important in the arts. This leads to extremely high incomes among a small group of artists and to a small number of very successful ensembles and venues.


Sharing art (Chapter 6)

All through the art period outside art-buildings (including art-spaces), much more art, serious art as well as popular/inferior art, is shared by higher and lower social groups than we are inclined to think. This foremost applies to not-live art. —As noted, due to exclusion mechanisms serious live performing art is not accessible for the latter.—

It follows that people are omnivorous. They “eat” from both racks. The symbolic boundary between serious and popular art is strong, but as far as consumers—rather than artists—are concerned, the social boundary is less strong.

Most shared art is understood differently by different social groups. Some art is not shared. A part is difficult and interesting only for expert-consumers. Another part is “own art”. Social groups have self-developed art that is especially meaningful for them. At least for a while they can keep it for themselves.

Over the last two decades the overlap in the reproduced art social groups consume is becoming larger. A weakening of the symbolic boundary between serious and popular art contributes to this, as do the (commercial) media. Moreover, in a new user-oriented domain in the established arts, there are now many attempts to interest more middle-class people in the art they offer. Sometimes serious and popular art is again offered in the same events.

The attempts of local governments to let more people participate in art events have increased. Important for the sharing of art is the emergence of ever more parallel channels of scouting and gatekeeping. The traditional media and nowadays also the social media contribute to this development. It much increases the chances of all social groups to produce art and have their art noticed.


Conclusion (Chapter 7)

In several ways the previous chapter is already a conclusion. In this chapter I only present a selection of findings in the book, while adding a few. One important red line in the book is related to the presence of commerce in the arts and the interventions by governments. Therefore, most of the findings in the conclusion are related to this. The findings miss nuance. This is partly deliberate and partly due to the wish to publish a moderately sized book. In the previous chapters most are explained in detail.

I assume that several readers of a book with the subtitle “are the arts becoming less exclusive” want to know what “can” (rather than “must”) be done to make the serious arts (even) more inclusive than they are now, implying that also underprivileged groups are included. I therefore briefly mention possibilities (rather than recommendations)