Anyone Can Make It
I’ve seen many artists attacked from the left and right by accusations of elitism that, despite their superficial similarities, fall into roughly two camps. The first is that their art is costly to make, and the second is that it is difficult to understand. The challenge of addressing these concerns is that it poses a dilemma—art is usually only one or the other.
One way of framing the debate is in terms of art occupying a space defined by two axes, one labeled “production,” and the other “consumption.” An artwork’s positive or negative position along an axis would categorize it as either more “elitist” or more “populist,” which in this context denotes greater or fewer socioeconomic barriers to production or consumption. If we take the above claims for granted, most art lies along a diagonal line running between the upper left and lower right quadrants.
I came up with this visual as a way of illustrating my theory that there is an inverse relationship between artists and their audiences—that media that are easy to consume are generally harder to produce, and media that are “easy” to produce are generally harder to consume. If this theory is true, then it would explain why certain pockets of the creative community are carved up the way they are—why a college-educated person might be more inclined than someone without a college degree to attend a low-budget indie movie. (Such a generalization might not be a malicious stereotype. Those who are wealthy enough to afford more education are less likely to have aesthetic concerns that rely on production value than those who are drawn to escapist blockbusters as a palliative for their oppression).
This might be why the abstract wire sculptures of Fred Sandback are found in college courses on minimalism while the prosaic tableaux of Jack Vettriano are reproduced in holiday greeting cards, even though the material resources and physical skills needed to produce the former are theoretically available to more people. This is a grievance frequently made by critics of modern art—that “anyone can make it.” Realism is perceived as valuable by non-artists because fewer people can pull it off.
This criticism is often leveled against experimental works whose fabrication requires minimal effort but whose appreciation demands a conceptual leap—something that usually comes with an education affordable only by those with a high income. However, dismissing those works as elitist fails to recognize the irony that the same works often emerge from marginalized communities deprived of representation in the mainstream art world. They turn to alternative forms of self-expression because they have fewer means of externalizing their suffering and preserving their cultural histories. This means that if the premises of the debate are true, they lead to the problematic conclusion that some communities don’t appreciate their own art, which is nonsensical. The resulting dichotomy neglects the fact that the producers of art are also its consumers.
That being said, there exist too many exceptions for such a characterization of either side to be accurate. There is a lot of art that is inexpensive to make and accessible (like street art) and expensive to make and inaccessible (like modern opera). Moreover, the kind of polarization I describe is unique to the film industry, which is shaped by market forces that are not representative of the rest of the art community. Still, it shows how a division might arise between the producers of art and its consumers because of the nature of their relationship to art itself.
Alexander Atienza recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate, he majored in cognitive science and philosophy and minored in consumer psychology and linguistics. He currently resides in Maryland, where he freelances as a filmmaker, graphic designer, and digital artist. He previously contributed reviews to the Moviegoer, an online film criticism journal. His writing has been published in Filament Magazine and his art in The Penn Review.