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F. Graeme Chalmers
Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts,
Sir George Williams University, Montreal.
Art serves as an aid in identifying social
position. Adrian Gerbrands,1 a Dutch
anthropologist , posits that the social status
aspect is the most common function of art,
excepting the religious one. In this paper
some historical , ethnological, and contemporary aspects of this phenomena will be
examined.
The maintenance of a hierarchical social
structure seems to directly encourage the
development of certain art objects. Where a
society has developed to include presidents,
kings, the priesthood, etc. as established institutions, there appears to have arisen the
need to express and strengthen these social
positions through symbols such as crests,
monuments, insignias, seals, and wearing
apparel. The carved house fronts of the New
Zealand Maori, the totem poles of the Northwest Coast Indians, and the elaborate headdresses of the Plains Indians each symbolized
the status of the " owners " in their societies.
Egyptian funerary art is a similar example
of conspicuous display. Wingert2 reports that

302

among the Bapende peoples in the western


part of the Congo, each youth wore, after
initiation rites, a small, carved ivory maskette
around his neck. These emblems indicated
full-fledged membership in the adult tribal
society. Larger ivory mask miniatures were
worn on the upper arm by members of the
Warega tribe in the northeastern Congo
region. They indicated the grades they had
achieved in their secret societies. In various
parts of Oceania shells were worn as decorative indications of rank. Not all face and body
painting, scarification, or tatooing was religiously prescribed by tradition. Probably a
good deal of it was used as an expression of
sheer vanity, but some of it denoted the rank
or status of an individual within his group,
and thus had prestige value. In short, many
objects in primitive societies and contemporary cultures give prestige to their owners
by indicating that the owner can afford these
luxuries or display items, or that his rank
is high enough that he is eligible to possess
them. A pertinent example is the ceremonial

Spread the Red


William Kluba, 1974

uniform provided for President Nixon's


" Palace Guard. "
The individual businessman, as a patron of
the arts, is as fam iliar a figure as a praying
donor in a Flemish altarpiece. Brown 3 quotes
the following report from the popular press:
Business is becoming cultured as art
becomes an increasingly greater part of
the American corporate scene ...
Virtually every company can tie in promotions to art, can upgrade its image through
art and can improve employee relations ...
American businessmen are catering to the
public's finer instincts while linking themselves in their customer's mind with
the arts being promoted.

In a book published in 1964 entitled The


Culture Consumers, Toffler maintains that
one of the most startling changes in American
life since the Second World War has been
the culture boom. There is, undeniably, some
impressive evidence that "Culture " (with a
"big" "C" or a "K") is in the spotlight more
than ever before. Dobbs5 sees large urban
centres as proud ly pointing toward their
new concert halls and museums as signs of
increasing growth and sophistication among
their citizenry which must vote the funds
for such ventures. The book stores, he says,
are chock full of expensive art books as well
as bargain-basement price colour reproductions so that anyone can hang a Van Gogh.
Even Sears Roebuck is selling original painting and sculpture to the average consumer.
The layman, Dobbs believes, reads of mi llion
dollar auction prices , of bequests of multimillion dollar collections to schools and
museums, and of the new affluence of a good
number of American artists. He notices that
large corporations are buying art; after the
Chase Manhattan bank filled its new skyscrape r with contemporary art, no executive's
office was complete without an original oil
or sculpture adorning his section of the
canyons of commerce. In short, Dobbs concludes, a tremendous respectability and
status now attaches to buying art, lionizing
artists, and generally being aware of the
latest developments in the avant-garde of the
Cultural world. The pursu it of "high art" is
certain ly fashionable. The witty art critic
Dare Ashton 6 writes:

If you've been hearing a lot about the


art "scene" and are not quite sure what it
all means, your best recourse is to turn
to Vogue magazine. Here, anybody who is
anybody eventually turns up, either writing
articles, being written about, or serving
as modest backgrounds for models disporting the latest fashions inspired by the
latest art. My view of the art world has
been inestimably broadened by a gift
subscription to Vogue. For instance,
I learned that the opening of Robert
Motherwell's exhibition, which I had
attended, was a " radiant family-of-art party"
and that that family-my own presumably
-included Governor and Mrs. Rockefeller.

Not only Marxist "historical materialists" but


many other social scientists maintain that
aesthetic preference originates and develops
in response to socio-econom ic conditions, but
the true historical materialist would see
separation of taste occurring in the differences in training and accessibility of art
objects according to economic position.
Harap,7 for example, argues that it is the
fashionable commodities which, in Western
society at least, make up a large part of the
aesthetic experience of most people. Beginning with Veblen ,8 and in early Marxist works,
writers have shown that fashion is important
in all things, from television sets to automobiles. which show the social status of people.
In recent years it would seem that more and
more commodities have become subject to
fashion. Up-to-datenes s is primary-everything else is secondary to fashion.
In his Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen
developed the thesis that certain features of
taste among the leisure and ruling classes are
based upon their consumption of unproductive goods and services (art works and luxuries) which are used to provide conspicuous
evidence of their class status. He shows that
standards of taste have been essentially
pecuniary in every class-stratifie d society.
Traditional standards of beauty are largely
determined, he argues, by the purchase price
of the objects rather than by any inherent
quality. For example, hand-made objects in a
machine age are usually regarded as more
beautiful than the machine made, one reason
being , because they bare evidence of more
costly workmanship ; such also may be the
case with some imported wines.

303

Despite folk art and a tradition of craftsmanship, the Puritans in America thought the fine
arts to be a frill in life essentially the avocation of the idle and rich. We might say that
what has been described in other places as
a "new renaissance in American culture"
(I would ask when was the old one?) may be
said to have been caused by a dec lining
Puritanism. However, the "protestant Work
Ethic" wh ich viewed life as a struggle to
attain economic prosperity has contributed in
part to this " renaissance." By indulging their
appetite for the arts (i.e. by casually placing
an impressively heavy art book along with
Christmas tickets to the " Nutcracker" on a
coffee table in a " family room" hung with
impressionist reproductions ) status seeke rs in
the North American middle class can suggest
that they are , in fact, attaining economic
prosperity.
In his study on the nature of art publics,
Watson 9 used the attendance reco rds of the
1913 Amory show to formulate a typology of
art publics. Watson gives the following
description of the "status-seekin g group :"
The interest in art as tar as this public is
concerned is patently a disguise for attaining values that have nothing to do with art.
Members may seek to associate with
artists and may even collect their works,
yet neither the artists nor the works are in
fact the ends pursued. It is, instead, the
feeling of status that they feel can be
gained from such associations and activities and for this reason , such people are
called "s tatus-seekers. " The negativism of
this public is derived from their lack of
commitment to art; their concern is to be
among the avant-garde of taste. In consequence, there is a perpetual need to
change artistic loyalties as new artists and
new movements manifest themselves.

The journalist, Russell Lynes 10 divides his "art


audience" a little differently, but also
includes the equivalent of a "status-seeke r"
group.
Gerbrands 11 sees " art as a means of social
prestige" as having value for the artist and
would not list the " status seekers" under a
"negative attitude dimension." The anthropological data that he cites points to the artist
being distinguished from the rest of society

304

by reason of his talents. "How far this distinction goes is a minor matter. It may vary
from modest app reciation in his own family
circle or village community to a privi leged
position at the court of the oba of Benin."
Some Western artists d isclaim their role in
the dealer-collect or business. Instead they
see art as the great equal izer and wish to
share their vi sions and experience with the
"common man." Cindy Nemser12 states that
for many young artists:
... collecting and connoisseurs hip are
abhorrent activities, symptomatic of the
evils everywhere apparent in our materialistic, object oriented culture. These artists
refuse to make objects that will be treasured as examples of virtuosity and expert
craftsmanship , or contemplated as icons of
pure sensibility. They are no longer
interested in creating decorations for the
eyes of the rich and privileged. Art, to
them, is not meant to be savoured only by
those on the art scene or by people
affluent enough to muster up the price of
admission to the Museum of Modern Art.
They want to make an art that will speak
of universal experience, an art that is
accessible to all, an art that tears down
barriers between art and life. This kind of
art, they believe, must burst the tight
confines of museums and galleries and
reach out to everyman.

The beginnings of the movement can be


traced at least as fa r back as the New York
School of the 'fifties and 'sixties whose members produced work too large for private
collections. These works demanded a pub lic
patronage, which was only rarely forthcoming.
Rauchenberg 's and Kaprow's "happenings"
encouraged spectators to become a part of
the art event itself-althoug h perhaps such
participation still gave a person "status."
Other artists began to create inexpensive
objects, some of which were disposable .
Poste rs and colour prints f looded the market.
In his letter to the editor of Studio International Sutherland 13 also suggests that more
extreme artists of the avant-garde were doing
much to erode the image of art as maintaining
the status quo : (a) " By producing perishable
works or transient " events " which opposed
the art of museums and in which " the value of
the work is reduced to the mental influence
it can exert rather than to its value as an
enduring artifact that can be bought and

sold." (b) "By producing works so uncompromisingly big, stark and unwieldy that no
bourgeois could seek to use them as flattering decor or status symbols. (c) "By producing
works of an impersonal or non-gestural
character which lend themselves to massproduction, and which, therefore, everyone
can own rather than just the wealthy elite."
The avant-garde is thus producing work
which is fundamentally democratic in character designed for consumption by all.
Art, then , has a specifically economic aspect
which philosophers may have tended to
ignore as isolated from, and irrelevant to, the
meaning of art. Louis Harap wrote that
philosophers " ... have too little understood
how the economic permeates all aspects of
the creative process. In the past sociologists
have viewed art as the expression of the
artist's milieu or of vague " racial" or "social
forces." Only the materialists, he states,

although I do not necessarily agree, have


grasped " the crucial significance of the
artist's participation in production and of the
status of his product as a commodity, for
they have had to live by it. " Harap cites an
example in seventeenth century Holland,
where, for instance, paintings were often
exchanged for goods at the fair stalls. He
continues "But philosophers have for the most
part discoursed airily about art as though
such facts had no bearing on aesthetics.
They did not see that the necessity of satisfying the purchaser of art tended to modify
what the artist said and how he said it. " 14
The status of art as a commodity, or as an
investment, whose possession may increase

The Intersection
William Kluba, 1974

305

the prestige and power of the owner obviously influences the way we perceive art
objects and the activity of artists. For the
creator a work of art may be a means of making money and winning fame, prestige and
social power. For a good many dealers and
museums, as well as collectors, art consists
entirely of valuable objects for purposes of
investment and display. In mankind there
seems to be an innate desire to display one's
achievements. Evidences of vanity and
prestige-seeki ng can be found in the most
ancient archaeological records.
In my paper " The Study of Art in a Cultural
Context" which is to be published in the
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism I take
scholars in aesthetics and art criticism to task
because they often " are inclined to conceive
of the work of art as an isolated object, as if
the social setting for which it is created and
in which it is presented were merely accidental. "ls I will not reiterate my argument here.
My own inquiry into the nature of art, and
into talk about the "why" of art , and into talk
about the talk about the why of art, of which
my concerns about the visual arts and social
status are but a part, have indicated that
visual art is useful for a number of social and
institutional purposes. For example, art may
have a pivotal role in transmitting, sustaining,
and changing culture as well as in decorating
and enhancing the environment. Art directly
and indi rectly may bolster the morale of
groups to create unity and social solidarity
and also may create awareness of social
issues and lead to social change. Art may
serve as an aid in identifying social position
and can be considered as a commodity that
may increase the power and prestige of the
owner. Art may express and reflect religious,
political , economic, technological , leisure and
play aspects of cu lture. At times the artist
may be a magician, teacher, mythmaker,
sociotherapist, interpreter, enhancer and
decorator, ascriber of status, propagandist
and catalyst of social change. In a culture
the predominance of any aspect and the role
of the artist are conditioned by the particu lar
values of that culture.
Unti l we are presented with further information we must hold the aesthetic attitude to be
a social phenomena dependent on the
inherited nature of the individual and his
culture. I believe aesthetic experience is a
result of enculturation and increasingly of

306

acculturation . In one way or another aesthetic


pleasure is felt by all members of mankind,
and although the general character of the
pleasure may be of the same order everywhere, that which gives the aesthetic pleasure
might be quite diverse, and almost entirely
determ ined by the cultu ral conditioning of
perception-which may, in some cultures,
have something to do with art being seen as
an aid in identifying social position.

REFERENCES
1. Gerbrands, A. A. Art as an Element of Culture
Especially in Negro Africa. Minlsterie van Onderwijis, Kunsten en Wetenschappen mededelingen van
het Rijkmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Lelden. No. 12.
E. J . Brill, Leiden, 1957.
2. Wingert, Paul S. Primitive Art, Its Traditions and
Styles. Oxford University Press, New York. 1962.
3. Brown, Roger L. "The Creative Process in the Popular Arts" International Social Science Journal
20:4, 1967. pp. 613-24. (p. 615).
4. Toffler, Alvin. The Culture Consumers. Pelican,
Baltimore, 1964.
5. Dobbs, Stephen. " The Arts In America: Handmaiden to Commerce and Leisure". Unpublished
paper read at the National Art Education Association's Pacific Reg ional Conference, Portland, Oregon,
1970. (pp. 1-2).
6.

Ashton , Dore. "Here and There" Arts and Architecture 83:January, 1966. pp. 8-9. (p.8).

7. Harap, Loui s. Social Roots of the Arts. International Publishers, New York, 1949. (p.152).
8. Veblen, Thorstein . Theory of tha Leisure Class.
New York. 1899.
9. Watson, Bruce A "On the Nature of Art Publics"
International Social Science Journal 20:4, 1968
(p.675)
10 Lynes, Russell. "Art and the Affluent Society"
Canadian Art 18: September, 1961. pp. 301-5.
11. Gerbrands. op.cit. (p.133).
12. Nemser, Cindy. "Revolution of Artists " Art Journal
29:1, 1969. p.44
13. Sutherland, Roger. "Art and Democracy" Studio
International 176: December, 1968. p. 240.
14. Harap. op.cit.
15. Mitchells, K. " Work of Art in Its Social Setting and
in Its Aesthetic Isolation" Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism 25:4, 1967. pp. 369-74. (p.369).

Night Flight
William Kluba, 1973

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