The art market – an oxymoron

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

14 July 2013


Rarely have we come across a point of view so philistine as that put forward by Maria Miller – culture minister in the UK’s reactionary Tory government – in a speech to cultural bigwigs at the British Museum on 24 April 2013.

In an article earlier same day trailing the speech, Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer of the London Guardian, says that according to Miller – making her first speech on the arts despite having been appointed to the culture post as long ago as September 2012 – British culture should be presented as a “commodity” and a “compelling product” to be sold at home and abroad.

While pledging to fight her corner for the arts vis-à-vis the UK Treasury, Miller says the argument for continued arts funding must be made primarily on economic grounds so that it “will get traction, not in the press, but with my colleagues – and with the country at large”.

She continues: “In an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact … We must demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment [in the arts] continues to pay.”

She maintains that the contribution of the arts goes beyond direct economic impact, helping create what amounts to a brand identity of Britain overseas – with British arts helping to market exports.

“I would argue that culture should be seen as the standard bearer for our efforts to engage in cultural diplomacy, to develop soft power, and to compete, as a nation, in both trade and investment.”

“British culture is perhaps the most powerful and most compelling product we have available to us…British culture and creativity are now more in demand than ever before … we should be increasingly proud to use the label ‘made in Britain’. The world clearly thinks this is a commodity worth buying into.”

Miller argues that when British arts are exported, they act as a kind of “relationship marketing” exercise that helps “attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home. It opens doors for UK plc and makes it easier for businesses to export and expand.”


Unsurprisingly, Maria Miller worked in advertising before becoming a Member of Parliament. With views like those set out above, she must surely have been selected for the post of UK culture secretary on the grounds that she had no qualifications whatever for the job.

Her view – and by definition that of the government she presents – is precisely that on which Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), English poet, essayist and social critic of the Victorian age, launched a ferocious attack in his philippic Culture and Anarchy published in 1869.

For Arnold, culture is the classical ideal of human perfection involving a never-satisfied search for “sweetness and light” [beauty and intelligence] – and the desire to diffuse these among mankind.

Not much of that in Maria Miller’s speech, you might think.

Matthew’s attack on the philistine pursuit of wealth clashes head-on with the instrumentalization of culture that is recommended by the culture secretary as a way of making a bob or two.

The following passage from Culture and Anarchy is as apposite today as it was in the Victorian age: “….men are always apt to regard wealth as a precarious end in itself; and certainly they have never been so apt thus to regard it as they are in England at the present time. Never did people believe anything more firmly than nine Englishmen out of ten at the present day believe that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being so very rich….The people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich, are just the very people whom we call Philistines.”

According to the leftwing literary critic Raymond Williams (1921-1988), the commodification of culture set in from 1730 onwards. In his book Culture and Society (1958), Williams says that thenceforth the production of art was coming to be regarded as one of a number of specialized kinds of production, subject to much the same conditions as general production. Referring to literature in particular, he suggests that this development “followed inevitably from the institution of commercial publishing. The novel, in particular, had quickly become a commodity….the effects were also obvious in poetry, on which the impact of a market relationship was inevitably severe.” There were grumblings that literature had become a trade.

This led to a Romantic reaction from the artistic community.

“In this same period,” Williams continues, “arose the theory of the ‘superiority of art’, as the seat of imaginative truth and an emphasis on the artist as a special kind of person, an autonomous genius….at a time when the artist is being described as just one more producer of a commodity for the market, he is describing himself as a specially endowed person,  the guiding light of the common life.” Williams goes on to say that this process also involved “an emphasis on the embodiment in art of certain human values, capacities, energies, which the development of society towards an industrial civilization was felt to be threatening or even destroying”.

Which is where Matthew Arnold comes in and Maria Miller goes out.

The idea of “art for art’s sake” – l’art pour l’art, die Kunst für die Kunst”, ars gratia artis – came into its own in the latter half of 19 C with exponents such as French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), Irish dramatist, novelist and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and English aesthete, essayist and critic Walter Pater (1839-1894).

The idea is that art has an intrinsic value divorced from any didactic, moral, religious, utilitarian or commercial function.

In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, published in 1891 in the Pall Mall Gazette, Oscar Wilde wrote:

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

Once you accept Maria Miller’s proposition that the end of culture is to serve the needs of the market, then you necessarily jettison the idea of the work of art being its own justification. Once artists pervert their inspiration to satisfy the (often ignorant) demands of the buyer or collector, they may conceivably come up with a saleable commodity. What they will no longer be doing is creating a work of art.


Note to readers: This is one of a number of posts that we have it in mind to publish from time to time on topics relating to events which occurred in April, May and June 2013, when production of the blog was intermittent.



 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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