Fine Art (The Invention of) and Democracy

When we talk of the democratisation with regards the fine art, what we are really talking about is the democratisation of the fine arts, because it is the fine art culture itself we are contending with. The first aim of the essay will be then to offer a history of the term “fine art”, how it has shifted and evolved over the centuries. This will allow us the perspective with which to address whether the fine arts can come to terms with the concept of ‘democratisation’.

My interest in this question stems from a personal experience I had in (Dublin’s) Temple Bar Galleries, on Saturday the 4th of February, 2013. The exhibit on display was Bit Symphony an installation by Liam O’Callaghan, “an audio-visual installation consisting of an assemblage of turntables, amplifiers and speakers, reconfigured and manipulated so as to autonomously perform a complex musical composition of looping records.” What the show consisted of was a central sculpture made out of the materials and gear evocative of the sound that you hear on turntables dotted around the space, there was an element in tacticly, of dropping the needle, playing a record. I found the show to be very strong. Then it began to rain very heavily outside, I looked out the window and noticed how a large Saturday crowd on Temple Bar square scattered to get shelter, in the entrances of shops and pubs, but none entered the art gallery, despite the fact it was avowedly uncommercialised. It was as if there was a force field around the place discouraging people from entering it. What was it I wondered that created this force field, why do people instinctively feel more comfortable huddled in the entrance of a pub or café, than in an art gallery, which is free to enter, is there something about fine art that actively repels? If by the democratisation of culture, we mean for more to access it, if there exists within fine art a force that manifests in excluding not including people within a space, can the notion of democracy and the fine arts ever truly be reconciled?

Figure 1. Temple Bar Galleries source: Architecture Tours Ireland URL

Figure 2 Liam O’Callaghan Bit Symphony The Good Room, URL

Figure 3, Liam O’Callaghan Bit Symphony source Pallas Projects, URL©_2013_(2)_900_598_s.JPG

Figure 4 Temple Bar Square, as seen from Temple Bar Galleries, source Built in Dublin URL

In The Invention of Art Shiner sets out his thesis that our modern concept of fine art (or art with a capital ‘A’) is a relatively new, one which was formed mostly in the 18th century as a result of both intellectual thought and socio economic factors and then gained momentum and calcified in the 19th century in tandem with the expansion of the capitalist system and the spread of institutions such as museums and art academies.

The ancient Greeks, Shiner argues had no word for ‘art’, “neither Plato nor Aristotle — nor Greek society generally — treated painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and music as belonging to a single, distinct category.” (Shiner, p.20). In his history he identifies the concept of fine art being one which combines what is “a matter of inspiration and genius meant to be enjoyed for themselves in moments of refined pleasure” (Shiner p. 5), with an awareness there is such a thing as an ‘artist’, as opposed an ‘artisan’, someone who’s manifestation of creation is a product not just of obeying rule and skill, but of imagination, inspiration, and genius. There is an awareness of an aesthetic that goes beyond serving mere functionality and instead serves both itself and an imagined higher aesthetical ideal. Lastly there is the relationship with the audience, which is both the private art market and the public, “The key factor in splitting apart the old system was the replacement of patronage by an art market and a middle class art public.” (Shiner p.7).

Under the old system of arts, there was a patronage in place, an artisan would be commissioned to work on an art piece that had a specific place and function. “Greek and Romans admired sculptures of poetic recitals, as they would have admired will-made political speeches”, (Shiner, p 25) Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, was commission as part of an altar piece, to a specific size with the specific imagery outlined in the contract, it was something no different from any other trade. The first stages to receive Shakespeare’s plays, were bawdy venues, not the quiet spaces of hushed revelry of today, where mobile telephones get shushed. The artist was a craftsman, and art works were not something to be engaged with in any deep manner.

Figure 5 Leonardo Da Vinci Virgin on the Rocks, source: Wikipedia URL:

So what happened? First there needed to be a unifying category to act as a theoretical rallying point, the category of “beaux (beautiful) arts”, began emerging in encyclopaedias in the mid 18th century, Charles Batteux is credited with first using the phrase in his book 1746 book, Les beaux arts reduit á un meme principle, his conception of the beaux arts as being those whose aim was pleasure, naming them as music, poetry, painting sculpture and dance. (Shiner p.83). There was codified a way to engage in aesthetic contemplation, engravings in publications such as in The Goettengen Pocket Calendar of 1780, suggested the correct and incorrect ways of enjoying a sunset or a statue (‘affected’ vs. ‘natural’), solemn and without wild gestures, the places where audiences gathered were no longer boisterous, but silent spaces for collective concentration, “these fine art speculators are at once moved yet calm, combining intellectual concentration with intense feeling, the sort of attitude later theorists would call “aesthetic”” (Shiner p. 143). This sentiment was echoed in the philosophy of the era, the writings of Kant, his Critique of Judgement calling for a disinterestedness in our appreciation of the aesthetic.

Figure 6 & 7 Daniel Chodowieski Natural and Affected Sentiment & Natural and Affected Knowledge of the Arts. First published in Goettingen Pocket Calendar 1780, source: The Invention of Art, p.143–144

So here we can see that there is a history to the sense of what is proper and correct in contemplating art, something, which informs the public to this day. There is something sacred about the art spectacle, it requires a kind of worship. If people did commonly run into art galleries for shelter when it rains, we can imagine the floor getting wet, people feeling awkward about making conversation, the space would be somehow desecrated, you are not as free in an art space as you are in a more commercialised public space. People do not run into churches for shelter from the rain either, is fine art a secular religion? It has superficial similarities to religion (the solemn worship, the reliance on charity), and some deeper ones too (its use to validate power), but it would be over the top to call it a faith, the rituals are too informal or too bureaucratic to be truly ceremonial, the doctrine too vague and obscure to be widely assimilated by the public.

As an awareness of the category of fine art and how it was to be contemplated formed, so too did other facets of the concept solidify. The artist was now seen as more than a mere craftsman, they were a prophet. Shiner cites William Blake to drive the point home, “A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian. You must leave Father and Mother, and House and Lands if they stand in the way of Art” (Shiner p. 197). The status of artists within society rose, it became a path towards attaining a degree of respectability, Art was idealised as a higher calling, by some (such as William Blake, but also later figures such as the romantic poets and Oscar Wilde) the ultimate calling.

In addition artists less and less worked to commission, rather they created works aimed towards a market, the role of the patron was taken up by the private collector and the state, both for the sake of a kind of glory. For the private collector, their collecting is a sign of both their good taste and their wealth, something of special importance to the nouveau riche, who despite being monied lack the same social status as the aristocracy and wished to express their worth, their taste, going as far as to create new markets. A taste for the pastoral emerged, still lives and landscapes, it created a demand for such works, especially in Italy and the Netherlands, which created a general shift away from historical and religious paintings. The art museum also played a role, one of civic education and also empirical might, the Louvre began its life as a place to display the art collections of the monarchy, saving them from destruction by the revolutionary mob, but also rendering them politically inert, the Louvre later became recipient of Napolean’s plunders, one article of which became the world’s most famous painting.

Our experience of art then remains an alienated one, not one of ownership, but a simulation of ownership. In museums and galleries we are presented with objects for contemplation, look, but don’t touch. In this state of contemplation something happens, or is supposed to happen, the aesthetic experience. Even those who are contemptuous of Art and its assumed special status, do not storm into exhibits denouncing the work, they stay away, tacitly they obey the rules, even in their absence. But the Louvre is always packed, Temple Bar Galleries often empty, perhaps it is merely a case that the Louvre does something more effectively than Temple Bar Galleries ever could? It has fame, it has The Mona Lisa.

With the idea of Art so solidified in the 19th century, what of the 20th, did it not too add something to its meaning? With the cleave between the fine art and crafts established, new generations aimed to erase that gap, modernists such as those to be found in the Bauhaus sought to merge the aesthetic with functionality, the Dadaists sought to take from art its special privilege by elevating the everyday to the status of Art, such as Duchamp’s famous fountain. The 20th century gave us mass production and modernism, and in response art pivoted, it shifted away from the reliance on representation and thus away from skill, it gave the forces of the market and academia leverage to determine what art was, by erasing (or at least attempting to erase) the lines between art and the everyday they left it in the hands of not the artist, but ultimately the market to determine what art is (the market being the dealers and private collectors and the public institutions which bestow funding or status or both). Much as the saying goes, whoever you vote for, you end up with the government, so with art, whatever art you make, it ends up in the gallery (otherwise it is never seen and suffers the same fate as the unheard tree which falls in a wood). The market for art expanded, prices rose, games with money were played, Japanese companies looking to launder paper assets created a boom in the late 80/early 90’s for impressionist works, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $86.5 million, then a world record. The 20th century gave us the differentiation between art and craft in the colleges too, as women and the working class were admitted to art colleges, there needed to be something for them to do, so we got technical schools with a vocational focus, schools of design, whilst the fine art courses became ever more enamored with the combination of theory with practice, art speak was born.

Figure 7 Vincent Van Gogh Portrait of Dr. Gachet source Wikipedia URL

Research has shown that the greatest predictor for engagement in the fine arts is education (DiMaggio-Useem 1978), especially at a young age. “Higher education, income, occupational prestige, occupational status, and class position tend to be associated with more active and more frequent cultural participation” (Katz-Gerro 2011). When an art does not adhere to what the viewer thinks art is, the effect is an intimidated indifference. Intimidated because art is encountered in the gallery or the private home, it is usually bound up then in some signifier of institutional status manifested in a form of property, a spot lit space on a wall, people might not know art, but they do know when something is afforded special status. The vast majority of artworks we encounter are not and never will be owned by us, if we are in their presence it is because a degree of permission has been granted to us to be in its presence, a gallery after all must be ‘open’ for us to enter it. For the uneducated the effect of intimidation comes from the sense of alienated property and a sense of ‘not getting it’, the outcome is not (usually) anger (attacks on art works are rare and news worthy), but indifference, they would rather stay away, than subject themselves to confusion or frustration.

We have analysed the historical progress that has led us towards our modern conception of art, but what about democracy? Earlier we noted when we use the term “democratisation of culture”, in the context of the fine arts, we crudely mean for more people to access it, but this isn’t the true meaning of the term ‘democracy’, democracy takes it’s meaning from two Greek words ‘demos’ (people) and ‘kratos’ (rule), meaning rule by the people. The structure of democracy we have today was set up largely in the 17th century to reflect a world that existed at the end of aristocratic power and the beginning of bourgeoise capitalism, this gives us what we contemporarily think of as being democracy, something that is a hybrid of parliamentarianism and consensus. This sense of democracy is something modern Western leaders claim they can transfuse into a society through the means of military intervention. However when we speak of the democratisation of culture, we do not mean, the air bombing of museums, or sending armed soldiers into art galleries. The association of art with the military is not that ridiculous, fine art has been used for the purpose of propaganda, US intelligence services collected the works of abstract expressionists, such as Pollock and Rothko, the freedom of US artists was in the propaganda wars symbolic of the freedom of US citizens in general, of democratic capitalism of the US over the state capitalism of the USSR. We can take our inference that underneath the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘culture’ there is an implied tacit understanding of what is meant, much like when someone asks the question “what is art?”, it is common that the questioner already has an idea about what art is. The democratisation of culture means access, but only the right kind of access, it doesn’t just mean bums on seats, if that were the objective it would be attained via crude populism, offer free coffee, places to sit, magazines to read, perhaps a foot massage and a DVD of the latest Hollywood release.

So can the concept of the fine arts and democracy ever be reconciled? There are some examples we can call on. When we ask why do people not enter art galleries when it rains, we can look at examples of museums and galleries that the public do enter. The Tate modern in London, opened in 1998 is regularly packed, with annual visitor numbers between four and five million. Bums on seats, blockbuster shows which are written about in the national media. In the main Turbine Hall you usually encounter a massive aesthetic carbuncle which inspires in the viewer a sense of the sublime, to be overwhelmed by scale and grandeur. The space itself is traversed using escalators, a great shopping centre of art, it is a pleasant experience. The Tate Modern of course operates at a scale smaller galleries in less cosmopolitan cities simply cannot, they have access to a wider audience, more funding. If Temple Bar Galleries could put on blockbuster shows, like Mattisee’s cut outs, would people feel confident enough to enter the gallery space to take shelter from the rain? If the gallery were packed, if the block was busted, there would be no way to get in the door. If on the other hand Liam O’Callaghan’s Bit Symphony proved to be massively popular, to the point one had to queue to listen to the recordings, that would diminish the experience, it would feel less special, less intimate, you’d be less able to hop from one recording to the next, ear hygiene might be a consideration.

In his book ‘Art as a Social System’, Niklas Luhmann compares art to other functional systems within modern society, such as science, politics and law. The more art tries to immerse itself into society, the more it differentiates itself, because the system of art is ultimately one which strives to replicate that difference, between art and non-art.

“In the twentieth century, one encounters artworks that seek to cancel the difference between a real and an imagined reality by presenting themselves in ways that make them indistinguishable from real objects. Should we take this trend as an internal reaction of art against itself? Or is it an indication that confronting a reality that is the way it is and changes the way it does no longer makes sense? There is no need to answer this question, which is bound to fail anyhow and would prove only that this failure has become the object of reflection. No ordinary object insists on being taken for an ordinary thing, but a work that does so betrays itself by this very effort. The function of art in such a case is to reproduce the difference of art. But the mere fact that art seeks to cancel this difference and fails in its effort to do so perhaps says more about art than could any excuse or critique.” (Luhmann 2000)

If the differentiation between the audience and the art work is highly formalised, perhaps the answer lies in looking in the other direction, for less formalised manifestations of culture, think African drumming, pantomimes, traditional Irish music sessions, line dancing, where the ethos is very much one of joining in as opposed to passively watching, if you are not joining in you are in many respects not present, after all why bother going to see a pantomime in the first place if you won’t call out “he’s behind you”? Art too can have it’s jokes, it’s audience participations, perhaps the most famous one of all is John Cage’s 4,33, the pianist gets on stage, he opens the piano and sits in silence, now the sound is not coming from the stage but from the audience, the tables have been turned, the silence has become a mirror, the audience the performer, democracy in action.


Dimaggio, P., Useem M., 1978 “Social Class and Arts Consumption: The Origins and Consequences of Class Differences in Exposure to the Arts in America.” Theory and Society Vol 5: No 2.pages 141–161 accessed 15th March 2016 URL

Japan inc ‘The Art of a Failed Economy’ access 15th March 2016 URL

Katz-Gerro, Tally. 2011. “Cross-National Cultural Consumption Research: Inspirations and Disillusions.”Kölner Zeitschriftfür Soziologie und Sozial psychologie 51 (Sonderheft): 339–60. URL

Luhmann, N. 2000 “Art as a Social System”, trans Eva M. Knodt, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Shiner L. 2001, “The Invention of Art”, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

Statistica “Number of monthly visits to the Tate Modern gallery in London, England from April 2014 to November 2015” accessed 15th March 2016 URL

Stonor Saunders F., 1995 “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’”, Independent newspapers accessed 15th March 2016 URL

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