Art has always served power but in the premodern period, power, though associated with wealth was not its product. Contemporary power is corporate. It is the power of dead capital, which means that we are subjects not of the Sun King or the Pope but of the nameless, seemingly contingent forces that rule the global economy. This is a power that art is hard-pressed to exalt. The real story of modern art, once one gets past the self-heroicizing bluster of the avant-garde, is the story of the difficulties that had to be surmounted (the craft that had to be forgotten, the qualms that had to be allayed) before art could be sufficiently debased to serve capital.
For art to serve capital, it had to develop the means to give vacuity the appearance of effervescence. And beyond that, it had to develop means to glorify a wholesale inversion of values. Adapting to an ugly age, art learned to glorify ugliness. Adapting to a materialist age from which the sacred had been banished, it learned to glorify superficiality. Adapting to an age of diminished men, it learned to glorify stunted tastes and feelings. Adapting to an age in which the worship of technology had nullified virility, it learned to glorify effeminacy, lameness, and confusion. Adapting to an age “emancipated” from patriarchy, it learned to glorify perpetual adolescence, impotent rebellion, and formlessness. At every step, these adaptations had to overcome the resistance of artists, intellects, standards of taste and probity that retained some filiation with nobility. Finally, with the advent of postmodernism, a succession of triumphs over every lingering trace of decency was consolidated under a rubric that apotheosisized perversion and made an explicit principle out of the elevation of the marginal.
With each step forward into debasement, the diminution of quality has been accompanied by an expansion of quantity until, today, the term art is applied to the slightest affectation. We are now drowning in the excreta of swarms of “performative” mountebanks. Everything today is tainted by “art.” It is as if we are afflicted by the modern equivalent of the Midas touch–now revealed to be the curse of the total commodification of the world and the transformation of everything in it into a hectoring signifier of exchange value.
The deeper meaning of this wholesale artification of the late modern world is that it is driven by the need to aestheticize spiritual, cultural, and artistic degeneration, making the evil consequences of capital’s dominion appear deliberate, provocative, transgressive.
This is the fundamental mystication that underlies all modern “countercultural” ideologies. Thus, capital’s desecration of sex and sexuality is given the cover of a rebellion against “heteronormative” and patriarchal strictures. The destruction of tradition and the banalization of every aspect of existence are given avant-garde lustre. And, finally, every possible degeneration of taste, manners, and character is affirmed as “progressive,” so that the fatuous notion of progress becomes a synonym for civilizational putrefaction.