It bothers me when art becomes dictated by capitalism. Not in a Warholian, appropriate-capitalism-and-fuck-The-Man kind of way, but in an if-this-doesn’t-pay-The-Man-won’t-fund-it kind of way. Arguably, this is the way the world works — for anything to be produced and sold, there needs to be consumer interest. And according to popular trends, something noted as “best-selling” or “popular” isn’t necessarily high-quality, innovative work.

Somewhat cliché examples of popular trends (a redundant statement) include “Marley and Me” (which grossed over $36 million in its opening weekend), Thomas Kinkade (the “Painter of Light” and mass-producer of commercialized, soft-colored Christian-themed art seascapes of crashing waves over rocky harbors) and chick-lit books by Meg Cabot (author of “The Princess Diaries,” whose books center on find-your-man-and-be-happy fairy tale promises).

What do these pieces all have in common? A sense of sentimentality — a settling on laurels. They capitalize on what has already been tried-and-true. People love animals and will always want to see a cute, lovable puppy on the big screen (see the “Beethoven” film franchise, which has produced six films since 1992). Kinkade capitalizes on an alluring blend of Christian evangelical values (his company aims “to share the light of God everywhere”) and realistic 19th century painting, which is now widely accepted and marketable. Cabot plays off of the stereotypical ideas and images of young American women who are supposedly food-obsessed, man-obsessed and shoe-obsessed; these ideas have been capitalized on numerous times in chick flicks and magazines like Teen People.

These money-fueled films, paintings and books don’t dare to step outside of what is already known; they capitalize on what has been proven to sell well. And arguably, this is where the line between “art” and “consumer product” begins.

Sam Wagstaff, an art collector and curator who also happened to be in a relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, put it simply: “The kiss of death in art is sentimentality.” There is a problem that occurs when art gets too sentimental: We dive right into banality. We see our culture the same way we’ve always seen it — as a glowing, mass-produced, QVC-marketed oil painting filled with NASCAR races and American flags flapping vapidly in the wind. We get kitsch without its irony. We get nostalgic, unassuming postmodernism. Simply, we get art that is not meaningful, which is a horrible thing.

If art becomes fueled by a want for sentimental commodities over thought-provoking dialogue, all is lost. Safe, conservative works will prevail, and censorship will uproot any idea that ever deviated from the norm. Why do people want to watch “Marley and Me”? Because it presents viewers with uncomplicated truths, has no homosexual couples or questionable political themes and is inoffensive.

This is similar to Cabot’s writing; while a book like “Big Boned” may depict “racy” sexual female norms, that’s what they are — norms. And it’s normative when women are laid out as a predictable formula, one that outlines the supposed fact that the white, middle-class girl always wants a.) sex with men b.) weight loss c.) clothing d.) popularity. And this not always true for everybody.

There are whole demographics not represented in this equation, where those of the lower class, immigrants, homosexuals and racial minorities (to name a few) are not represented. If the creative hand of Cabot domineered the world, I would have no representation in it as a first-generation Asian-American. While people of my demographic may not represent a significant slice of the buyers of her books, I know that I, and many others, do not fit into her safe book-selling formula. And why is this? The representation of minorities and incorporation of controversial topics in art is risky. Does it sell well? We don’t know.

And while it may be risky, I appreciate art that deviates from the norm and causes people to question things. Included are books about the Dominican-American diaspora, like Pulitzer-Prize winner “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. I would like to see more graphic novels like Adrian Tomine’s “Shortcomings,” in which Asians are represented as a diverse, unexoticized, integral part of the demographic of the United States. I also want to see more films like “Waltz with Bashir” that examine controversial issues and the hazy line between what is political and moral. I want to see more art by people like Swoon, a female graffiti artist in a male-dominated field of art; she questions the limits and boundaries of property and visibility with her beautifully crafted paper graffiti depicting urban minorities.

When the things we create question what this world is about, that’s when they become art. And while I’m still often pleasantly surprised by the art America is capable of producing, I’d like to see this potential used to its fullest.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.