In the late 2019, Miami’s Art Basel hosted its 17th annual art fair, with galleries worldwide showcasing some of the best modern and contemporary art pieces available to them – and this was the very moment that history was made. With nothing but a single banana, a roll of duct tape, and a dream, Maurizio Cattelan’s “The Comedian” was born.
The aforementioned art piece (once again, just a single banana duct taped to the wall of the gallery) was sold for just about $120,000, intended to be a mockery of the very thing it represented – the almost comical elitism of the world of fine arts.
The fine arts haven’t really developed the best reputation in recent years. It’s in the name, after all. To quote the Eden Gallery, “Fine art, often labeled as “high art,” stands as the pinnacle of artistic expression, emphasizing aesthetics over functionality. This inherent aesthetic quality sets fine art apart from “low arts” which are crafted with a more utilitarian purpose in mind.” To most, those that collect, enjoy, and even create fine art appear horribly pretentious and ‘holier than thou’.
As a general enjoyer of all things artistic (and a frequent supporter of art museums and exhibitions), however, I’m torn on this. On one hand, I’d hate to reduce the product of an artist’s hard work and creativity into something as simple as a ‘quick, elitist cash grab’, but on the other hand – there are a lot of problems inherent to the world of fine arts that may even go beyond what people are aware of.
[Although this article will mainly be focusing on said problems, because I feel they need to be addressed in order for the world of art to truly grow and develop into the public space, I have to state first that none of these problems should be an excuse to stop supporting artists in any way. The world is a boring (and debatably soulless) place without the existence of art, and artists should never be demeaned for having their work recognised, no matter how pretentious it seems.]
Fine Arts, in a Nutshell
To fully understand what made the world of Fine Arts the way it is now, we need to understand its history.
It’s obvious to say that arts and the act of creating art has existed since the dawn of time – with cave paintings in places like Altamira, Pech-Merle, and our very own Gua Tambun being proof of that. Fine art can be found in a variety of places throughout history, in a variety of forms. From the proto-sculptures of Venus (〰200,000 BCE), to Italian artist Giotto’s paintings of the Mourning of Christ (1906); we, as humans, have always been creating for the express purpose of artistic expression.
In fact, ‘fine arts’ held much less of an upper-class standing for a majority of history. During the period of ancient Mediterranean civilisations, fine artists were mainly just skilled workers – recognised for their creativity and talent as carvers or interior decorators, giving fine arts a more applicable usage in households. It wasn’t until the Renaissance era that the title of “artist” became a more noble and aristocratic pursuit, with a larger focus on aesthetic value.
Most notably, in the 18th century, French philosopher Charles Batteux pioneered the term ’fine arts’, derived from the French phrase ‘Beaux Arts’, entailing something finely and delicately made. He separated fine arts into 6 distinct categories, that being paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, dance, and literature (with film to be added much later on in the 20th century).
[Though, its late addition does make one wonder if movies like The Room or Paw Patrol could technically be considered fine arts, but I digress.]
Why so Elitist?
The truth is, art is fairly accessible in the age of social media – with many of your favorite artists likely building their portfolios online for public access. However, when it comes to fine arts, there’s still a strong barrier keeping it from shedding its image of elitism and privilege.
For one, modern and contemporary arts are very conceptual, and it’s hard to blame the public for not understanding what, at times, may seem to be just messy splatters of paint on a canvas – and though I have my own opinions on the importance of abstract art, there’s no denying that much of this art was made for collectors (or other artists) to understand, as opposed to the average middle-class citizen. An existing foundation of knowledge when it comes to things like art history and composition are often needed to understand the layers behind exhibition pieces, and oftentimes, this knowledge is locked behind the doors of a formal arts education, such as BFAs or MFAs (Or, if you’re anything like me, a 4 hour video essay on Youtube.)
There’s also just an inherent elitism that comes attached with the title of ‘fine arts’. Art museums themselves are generally advertised as places for the ‘culturally elite’, which can bring an air of discomfort (or a lack of belonging) to casual visitors – and that’s without touching on the ‘networking’ aspects of the art world. The auctions and opening receptions hosted by art museums not only maintain an air of exclusivity to them, but are intentionally designed to network artists and collectors that are already high on the social and financial ladders of society – with a barrier of entry that’s nearly impossible to leap as someone without connections.
More importantly, what’s defined as ‘high art’ is entirely dependent on that higher oligarchy of art enthusiasts – which leaves a lot of traditional art in the shadow of pieces that centralize Western ideologies. When it comes to the public especially, the first thing most people think of when it comes to fine art are the Western paintings of the renaissance. Hence, most of the biggest art museums suffer from a severe lack of diversity, which is ironic, considering that the world of arts prides itself on its freedom of expression and progressiveness.
The Capitalism Problem
It’s not easy for artists either. As much as the public likes to drag abstract or contemporary artists who make it big off of seemingly effortless pieces of art – the success rates of fine artists are absolutely abysmal compared to the sunk costs of a career in art.
What’s unique about an education in the Arts is that the costs don’t stop coming after the initial tuition fee. The price of good and consistent art materials, at times those that are specifically requested by lecturers in order to pass assignments, rack up a debt like no other on a career course that’s famously difficult to earn money from on an entry-level scale. From canvases to charcoal, to even electrical set-ups and tools needed for exhibition pieces – it’s clear that the financial risks highly outweigh its returns, to a point of near-impossibility for students that aren’t from a wealthy family background.
All of this could be forgiven, if it weren’t so unbelievably difficult for artists to find employment coming out of their degrees. Fine arts majors are, according to The Hamilton Project, some of the lowest-earning graduates, especially during the formative years of their careers. In a world that centralizes existing connections, those without family ties into the art business need to get their own footing in the world of fine arts – and the only ways to do so are through (usually) unpaid internships in studios and galleries.
Not to mention, nepotism is not only horribly rampant, but sometimes even encouraged in the world of fine arts. Familial dynasties of designers and artists (such as Vitra) are held up in prestige within the art world, passing down opportunities in their industries, openly, from generation to generation. Galleries are no different, many choosing to go by their family name, with high positions kept open exclusively for those within the family. This is the biggest cutting point for entry-level artists in terms of survival, as having commission and job opportunities completely boarded off for you to no fault of your own can definitely leave artists feeling disparaged at the state of the industry.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Most interestingly of all, the art world is ripe with money laundering, a problem that has existed within the community for years. The process of money laundering (which is defined by the covering up of funds earned through illegal activity to appear as if it came from a legitimate source) is prevalent in the world of art primarily due to the highly subjective pricing process of art.
Not only is art highly expensive, but the ability to assign any price point to any work of art through auctions and competitive bidding, at times even through anonymous and secretive price settings, make it so that it’s the perfect cover-up for any amount of funds earned illegally. In one of the biggest examples of such in recent years, an investigation conducted in 2020 revealed that almost $18 million in expensive art purchases within Russia could be sourced back to ’shell’ (or, simply put, fake) companies to slip through U.S. financial sanctions.
What about Us?
So, what does this mean for the Malaysian contemporary and fine arts scene?
While the above problems are definitely applicable to the world of fine arts in Malaysia, our local arts scene primarily suffers from a lack of profit. With an already dwindling customer base of art enthusiasts in Malaysia prior to the pandemic, the world of arts has still yet to fully recover from the MCOs, which has not only led to the shut-down of various galleries across the country, but has also made it much harder for artists, who’d usually find an audience and funding for themselves through exhibitions, to kick start their careers.
Not to mention, Malaysia’s art scene also uniquely suffers from issues of censorship. For example, local artist Pangrok Sulap had his art piece “Sabah Tanah Air-Ku” briefly taken down for its depiction of the problems that Sabahans are experiencing, including illegal logging and political corruption. This has led to many artists nationwide being afraid to express themselves through their art in fear of the consequences towards their safety and careers, which severely limits the potential of art in Malaysia, having always been used as a means of expression in terms of one’s passion and beliefs.
Knowing this, the best thing we can do is keep supporting local artists in any way we can. Frequent galleries on dates with your friends, visit conventions, explore any exhibitions happening locally! Though all the problems of the art community can’t be fixed overnight, it can certainly be made a much more positive place for artists alike given that they’re supported with a good amount of resources and feedback. Gatekeeping the arts isn’t any good for anyone involved – so let’s open up the doors to making our community a more interesting and diverse place.
Written By: Natalie