La Boheme and Warhol

            “Good business is the best art” changes the face of art.  The best art for the late 19th, early 20th century was that which offered an alternative to the hierarchical representation of what had been called academic art. If you were any good at that, you would be included. Later, the best art was … art that was expressionist, or non objective, or abstract, or minimal. If you were doing that, you showed. Now, good business is the best art. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t show. Ranciere writes that what becomes visible within the visual arts cannot be there unless it has already been included within the distribution of the sensible. The revolutionary aspect of the art of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, etc. only presented what was already in play because of the social/political upheavals of the 19th century. The many and various opera’s written or presented at this time exemplify this quite nicely. Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme would not have been possible without the previous Parisian upheavals and resultant communes. Much American abstract, non objective, minimalist art of the middle 20th century would not have achieved visibility if it were not for the equalizing imperative put forth by the country’s social movements of the 1930’s through the 60’s. What does this say about the best art of today and its visibility? What does this say about the artists, the makers and doers?

            In La Boheme, Rudolfo describes his poet/artist’s situation as being one of living “in cheerful poverty.” This image, or caricature, of the artist, as living in a loft, scraping to get by, continued well into the late 20th century. Vestiges of it can still be found in TV ads for “Starving Artist” sales at interstate highway motels (“nothing over $50”, the perfect venue for cheap quickies!). Living in cheerful poverty is the last thing any current aspiring artist would want to admit to, let alone be seen as. What is aspired is to be a professional, like a dentist, lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Today’s professional artist must be able to be plunked down anywhere on the planet and produce art, much as an architect or veterinarian would be able to function. The economics of such mobility implicates business acumen, for without it there is no globalization. Louis Armstrong may have been described as America’s goodwill ambassador during the cold war but this was only because, at the time, such a performance schedule wouldn’t exactly have been described as good business. Having a great paying, steady gig in Vegas, LA, or New York would have been. The difference of note between La Boheme and Warhol is not that of economic status, of poverty or wealth. Rather, it is difference itself. It is the status or place of alterity. La Boheme embodies an alternate imaginary and considers its possibilities, outcomes, consequences, sustainability, viability, value and worth. There is an “other” to what is the presumed or accepted status quo (just as Armstrong’s art provided an alternative). With Warhol, there is no alterity. All is simply subject to the studied principles of good business. “Good business is the best art.” Bad business, or no business, is no art at all.

            There is another, even more subtle undertow here. One that sheds light on the best art of today more than it does on its producers. It could be said that Rudolfo embraces an idealistic positivism. Warhol, on the other hand, embraces a pragmatic positivism. Is art just about maintaining a positive attitude? That rich or poor, it really doesn’t matter as long as the art embodies a cheerful outlook? Maintaining a positive presentation is fundamental to marketing. Such art would not be visible (as the best art) if it weren’t for the dominant omnipresence of marketing over the past half century.

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