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Democracy in Art

A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.

I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.

From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.

Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.

Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.

The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.

Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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