A few days ago, I opened Instagram for the nth time to do some mindless scrolling. And mindlessly scroll I did, until I came across a post from an anti-art account, @jackcarden.art, that I follow. The post? A beautiful old-fashioned painting with the lower half brutally removed to make place for a screen with Subway Surfers gameplay on it. The caption? High audience retention painting.
I love Subway Surfers, so I was far too distracted at first to realise that there was a message behind the piece. My mind kept coming back to it, though, every time I saw someone complain about modern art. The idea of artists having to destroy or modify their art to appeal to an audience is heartbreaking, especially when portrayed in this violent way. Moreover, the condemnation of this sentiment is everywhere: fandoms are up in arms over their artists pandering to larger audiences, self-proclaimed art connoisseurs on social media bemoan the death of authenticity in just about every medium… the list goes on.
“Nowadays, art in all forms is commodified to the point of absurdity.”
It’s not controversial to say that some artists have felt pressure to sell out — and often we have capitalistic incentives to blame for this. Nowadays, art in all forms is commodified to the point of absurdity. Paintings have become prints for purchase in museum gift shops, songs are now seen as quick cash grabs for mass consumption on social media, and films have transformed into simplified storylines blown up for the big screen and even bigger audiences. More views on TikTok or streams on Spotify will usually boost a piece’s revenue. It’s that simple. So does this mean that we’re living in a world without meaning? A world where art has shifted meaning because of social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok?
The answer: no. Of course, the internet has changed the ways in which art is marketed, and yes, it has forced some artists to change their production mentality. However, the capitalist instinct to sell out, the inseparable bond between capitalism and art, and the idea of creative production as a profitable enterprise all have long been central to the world of art — just in other forms than they are today.
Composers like Mozart were frequently commissioned to write pieces for the wealthy and extravagant, a process common to countless other kinds of artists. Unless they already possessed considerable personal wealth, they could not simply create what and when they wanted to; many were forced to change their subject matter and working mentality for profit. According to Medium.com, author Annaliese Ash-Grimm recounts how “Art like the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper is admired now purely for its beauty, but at the time it was commissioned by the [Catholic] Church to inspire awe and wonder in Christian worshipers and non-worshipers alike; essentially selling Catholicism.” Indeed, capitalism has always had its claws in the art scene. The Catholic Church financed grand paintings in hopes of inspiring audiences not only to believe in Jesus but to submit to ecclesiastical authority. Meanwhile, modern-day financing occurs through highly different mediums, like record labels that finance contrived songs for the sole purpose of accruing millions of streams on TikTok or Spotify.
Not only has art itself often been the product of capitalist exploitation, but, throughout history, the ability to become an artist in the first place is also tied to one’s status within a capitalist society. Many potential artists never had the chance to create due to their socio-economic and political position — lack of access to time, education, and resources are just three of many factors determining whether one can become an artist in the first place. This, of course, still exists: think of the famous nepo-babies trend, through which celebrities — many of them artists — are exposed for benefitting from their nepotistic connections. If anything, the number of people who can create and share art has increased exponentially with greater accessibility to tools, tutorials, and media platforms under the digital era.
“Social media platforms only aid in the continuation of this nepo-baby myth — that the world’s most famous and successful people are only well-known due to their parents.”
Social media platforms only aid in the continuation of this nepo baby myth — that the world’s most famous and successful people are only well-known due to their parents. Indeed, countless celebrities can be added to this category and it is no wonder why. As these privileged individuals begin their careers already enjoying financial success, it is no surprise that they are viewed as talented artists from the start due to their wealth. This wealth can finance the production of paintings or films, book lavish studios to record auto-tuned radio hits, and buy instant adoration from fans via social media platforms. Some of the most talented artists of the present-day are ‘nepo babies’, but they are supported by a well-connected network from birth, while other artists must make a name for themselves on their own. Therefore, in order to be financially successful, some of these non-nepo baby artists must turn to desperate measures to launch or even continue their careers — selling out to the capitalist culture industry.
So if capitalism — in the form of nepotism, selling out, or otherwise — has always been this prevalent in art, why do so many people feel that the situation has worsened? We can only hypothesise. Is it because the exploitation of artists is more acutely visible in the art industry, for example via the publicity of revenue, net worth, and streams? Is it because we are more willing to criticise the impact of elitist and capitalist processes on art? Or is it just the nostalgia effect, people yearning for a romanticised version of the alleged good old days?
It has to be said that it is always unfortunate when artists are forced to make short-form or mainstream content for revenue or when they take brand deals that damage the authenticity of their content. The historical presence of capitalism in art does not justify its dominance, even though the conditions of life under capitalism have doubtlessly inspired many influential pieces of art. The art industry clearly isn’t perfect, not then and not now. We can end on a hopeful note, however; the increasing diversity and number of viewers is allowing artists to find their own niche — to create, perhaps, more authentic, diverse art with better representation.
What of the painting combined with Subway Surfers gameplay, then? It’s undoubtedly a poignant comment on the commodification of art in the current era; at the same time, it represents countless pieces of art throughout history that have been sensationalised, altered, censored, or never made due to the fickle demands of capitalist production. Subway Surfers’ gameplay is not just reflective of 2023. It’s timeless.
And yes, you guessed it: we’re sellouts too… Our melodramatic title All Artists Are Sellouts grabbed your attention and we’re not mad about it. That’s all for now, thank you!