In the introduction to Cannibals and Kings, the anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote that “cultures on the whole have evolved along parallel and convergent paths which are highly predictable from a knowledge of the processes of production.” This belief is the crux of his greatest contribution to anthropology, the theory of cultural materialism. Over the course of his career and many books (of which I own all), Harris applied this principle to explain many of the seemingly irrational practices and tenets of the world’s varied cultures, notably including cannibalism and prohibitions on consumption of pork. In a contemporary context, however, I think it can be equally well applied to the phenomenon of so-called modern art.
In recent revelations by retired CIA officials, what was once regarded as a humorous conspiracy theory among the haut monde has been confirmed: for years, the agency secretly funded avant-garde art through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Starting in 1950, the “Congress” organized overseas exhibitions with the ulterior motive of demonstrating the cultural superiority of the capitalist system over the state-sponsored propagandist works that passed for art in the Soviet Union. Examined through the lens of cultural materialism, modern art does one better — it demonstrates the very capacity of the capitalist system to harbor and encourage individual and unconventional artistic expression.
In most societies over the course of human history, art could best be described as incidental to production. Although the degree to which we fetishize Grecian amphorae and native totems tends to obscure these objects’ respective intended purposes, most of the artifacts we hail as triumphs of human creativity served tangible purposes for the artisans who created them. Carved masks and murals were not made for their aesthetic merits, but to ward off demons and preserve historical narratives. While Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 probably could scare off would-be poltergeists, it was not created with that intention. Rather, what so confounds many observers is that the piece appears to have been created without tangible intention. No. 5 exists on its own aesthetic merits.
The almost distinctly Western institution of professional artistry (as opposed to artisanship) has existed for millennia, but began in earnest during the Renaissance. The relative spread of substantial wealth among Europeans during this period enabled the wealthy to give patronage to artists in unprecedented levels, enabling them to create without the necessities of production. This tradition of widespread private, almost philanthropic support of artists has continued to the present day, and furnished the means for the development of the very art form the CIA once weaponized. Conversely, in totalitarian societies where determination of each citizen’s mode of production is the exclusive purview of the state, such individually motivated expression is impossible. In such a social organization, patronage cannot exist because art with only subjective aesthetic appeal cannot benefit the state as a whole.
This is not to say that the Soviet Union was a cultural wasteland. After all, the CIA’s intent behind the support of abstract expressionism was to demonstrate the inferiority of extant Soviet “culture.” But because artists in the Soviet Bloc relied on the state rather than private individuals for patronage, their work necessarily had to appeal to socialist sensibilities and took on propagandist qualities. The work of Mark Tobey and Aleksandr Deyneka differs fundamentally then in intent; while the former could paint with little interference, the latter was forced by the communist economic system to create within boundaries prescribed by the state. The marked differences in composition followed naturally.
What if the United States government had been more overt in its sponsorship of American artists? It is reasonable to think that Jackson Pollock would not have been painter laureate. Indeed, President Truman once remarked on a comparatively conservative expressionist work “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot!” When art is sponsored exclusively by the state, it is subjected to the whims of the state. In the USSR, this accountability led to murals of happy factory-workers and communal farms; in the United States, it could have been (god forbid) saccharine depictions of Americana à la Norman Rockwell. Capitalism and the right of individuals to decide how to make and how to spend their income nurtures innovation beyond industry — it is fundamental to the development of a robust and dynamic culture. Art does not exist in spite of a free market, it exists thanks to it.