The Nature of Art Business Today – Framing the Contemporary Arts Industry with Adorno 29.11.2011

29.11.2011 Alexandra Meincke

In this essay the concept of art as a business and item of capital value – and its circulation within the cultural sphere, will be explored. Not only have understandings of what ‘art’ constitutes changed across periods in art history, but also, the way art is valued, for whom it is produced, and under which circumstances it circulates, have transformed.

First, one needs to establish what exactly is meant by ‘art business’. It is common knowledge that ‘art’ in form of painting including print, drawing, etching etc., sculpture, music, literature, film and performance including dance, theatre etc. are available for purchase as some form of products in galleries, auction houses, museums (‘edutainment’ as a product), publishing houses, theatres and cinemas, but also on the internet, such as one may nowadays buy paintings on eBay from private dealers or from the artists themselves (, 29.11.2011).

Thus, the business structures of these individual platforms vary greatly. While galleries often pick their artists according to their ‘image’ as a gallery and build up their own portfolio as well as potentially client portfolios and return a certain percentage of profit back to the artist whose work was sold, museums are solely focused on their own survival and existence as an institution through public and private funding and ticket sales.

A similar structure to the latter example can be found in performance art and film, although here the aspects of producer and owner might become blurry, and thus also the monetary distribution. While an artist may use a gallery as an agent to sell his or her art, a producer of an experimental film, for example, might also be the direct link to any profits gained, or in some cases, responsible for the minimum coverage of all expenses. As the sociologist Sarah Thornton puts it in her book Seven Days in the Art World, “the contemporary art world is a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art” (Thornton, 2008:xi). There is even a new avenue within art business for ‘art consulting’, such as the role the author Alan Bamberger has taken in his latest book The Art of Buying Art (2nd Ed.) (, Alan Bamberger 1998-2011).

Andy Warhol: Marilyn

Thus, how have we gotten here? How or why do the terms ‘culture’ and ‘industry’, two traditionally opposing concepts, manifest themselves increasingly linked in today’s society? Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) theorized Modern art in the 20th century with the theoretical foundations of the Frankfurt School, together with Max Horkheimer, among others (Adorno, 1991:1). Both Adorno and Horkheimer believe that art business or the culture industry as it is present today, are products of planning versus natural developments of public interest (mass cultural interests), and state that “the culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality […] [and sells] products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption” (Adorno, 1991:1).

Adorno further suggests how this lack of ‘gaps’ between producers and consumers and the homogeneity of mass consumption can be a result of contemporary technical capabilities as well as through economic and administrative concentration (Adorno, 1991:1). Despite what consumer may think then, they are in fact not ‘the kings’ (as in ‘the costumer is always king’) but victims of manipulated inner psyches and under dominant ideologies of capitalistic calculations (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944).

The early beginnings of the culture industry can be traced back to the 19th century when German publishing houses turned into monopolies in the field of literature, and ‘uncultured’ officials would make publishing decisions on behalf of artists and writers. Indeed, an aspect both Adorno and Horkheimer agree on is the dependence of cultural forms, organisations and industries on capitalist resources such as electricity and funding, “they cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power in their sphere of activity in mass society” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944). As the balance of power becomes uneven in the culture industry, and thus in art business, the decision as to how art is valued often lies in the hands of the ‘uncultured’ or is governed by forces separate from the art itself.

In the book The Art Business, both Robertson and Chong raise the question as to how an aesthetic object is assigned value; “the art market is the place where, by some secret alchemy, the cultural good becomes a commodity”, Raymond Moulin is quoted saying (Robertson and Chong, 2008:1). Thus, in the culture industry, high art such as the opera becomes a mass commodity. One might then argue that this development of mass culture is simply an indicator of cultural democracy, yet Adorno emphasizes how in many instances the consumption of culture is in fact a top-down hegemony controlled by those in power and with necessary monetary means, as opposed to a spontaneous and voluntary choice of the masses.

Perhaps it is difficult to identify at this point which comes first, the urge or need for a certain artistic product or the artistic product itself, which then creates a need or trend within society. Moreover, one may also seek for an explanation or investigation of individuals living in our postmodern era, in order to understand the cultural industry as a ‘function’ of our time. A theoretical basis for understanding contemporary consumer behaviour and existense is presented by the renowned postmodernist thinker, Jean Baudrillard.

He suggests that consumer nowadays live in a state of being offered and wanting “hypercommodities” (Baudrillard, 1981:75). The Western population especially, lives in a state of having gotten used to reproductions of originals to such a distant degree that one may even say people buy into copies (as in cultural products) of non-existent originals (Baudrillard, 1981:1).

A cultural example of that could be the (popular) cultural phenomena of ‘Disneyland’, for example, although not necessarily an artistic example, a useful one in this case. The scenery and environment at ‘Disneyland’ is hyperreal, meaning greater, bigger and brighter than in actual reality. In the arts industry, one could perhaps point to posters and digital images of high art, which often make the work appear differently, often ‘better’, than in reality.

Baudrillard argues that culture has merely become a sphere of simulations, without context or an awareness of history (Baudrillard, 1981:78). Furthermore, the increased circulation of counterfeited art works also indicates an increasingly unknowledgeable audience and a lack of expertise, even among art connoisseurs. The web of the cultural industry today, has thus to a certain extent, blurred the traditionally clear lines between high and low art and their fixed value systems.

Perhaps a useful contextualization might be viewing Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts on the ‘habitus’ of an individual and of the concepts of social, cultural, symbolic and economic capital. Bourdieu sees the environment an individual grows up in as a strong indicator as to what kind of ‘quality of taste’ that person might adopt later in life. ‘Habitus’ can be described as the origin, place of residence and education a person comes from, while the capital variables indicate how something is valued in our society (Bourdieu, 1979:267).

Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ and a strict divide between high and low brow, does not as such strictly apply anymore today. Through technological developments, such as the internet, the cultural sphere (high and low art) is more equally accessible than ever before, at least in Western societies. Thus, the consumer of today’s cultural industry, as referred to by Adorno and Horkheimer, consists of mixed demographical backgrounds, creating the phenomena of mass consumption.

In addition, in terms of Bourdieu’s capital distinctions, these have also been levelled or increasingly mixed, in the postmodern era. An original Andy Warhol print would hold great amounts of economic capital while a Warhol ‘poster’ might hold just symbolic and cultural capital. Overall, Warhol was experimenting with the concept of cultural capital versus economic capital, such as in his work Campbell’s Soup Cans, in 1962, where he turned an ordinary object into an image of art (Hautamäki, 18.10.2011 ATC I Lecture).

Marcel Duchamp: A Hatrack, Museum of Modern Art, Paris

In the case of Marcel Duchamp, his art reflected negotiations of cultural and social value, but he also established distinct symbolic capital for himself as his art intended to provoke a reaction with works like Fountain, 1917. He sought to separate the various capital variables, and let the artwork formulate itself within the Western cultural value system (Hautamäki, 10.10.11, ATC I Lecture).

As Robinson and Derrick state in The Art Business, “reducing art’s commercial value to zero means other values can emerge […] “(Robinson and Derrick, 2008:2). Furthermore, it can be said, that both Warhol and Duchamp sought to point out the flaws of, or even ‘mock’, the cultural industry for what it had ‘made’ out of its mass audience as a society (Hautamäki, 10.10.11 & 18.10.2011 ATC I Lecture). Lastly, in terms of the nature of art business today, the point here is that nowadays an individual’s background does not necessarily limit a person from exploring all that culture has to offer (and sell), but most importantly, that the concepts of social, cultural, symbol and economic value within art have become blurred and are now read in new ways versus the traditionally fixed standards. Thus, potentially, anything can be consumed or bought, if ‘marketed’ the right way.

Finally, Walter Benjamin has taken a rather opposite stand to Adorno, in believing in the positive progression of contemporary art and culture through the fusion of art and technology; he says “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin, 1936: IV). However, Benjamin also suggests that the blending of art and technology has made the work of art, the original, lose its ‘aura’ due to this possibility of reproduction (Benjamin, 1936:II).

Viewing trends in today’s art business, this is true, as increasingly more buyers seek an original or authentic work, over reproductions (Robertson and Derrick, 2008:4). The liquidation of tradition, the withering of ‘aura’, as well as the replacement of cultural and monetary values of art with an ‘exhibition value’, has changed the way art is perceived and perhaps decreased sales of contemporary and often ‘technological’, art (Benjamin, 1936: V). At the moment, in Marxist terms, the superstructure of the art world is still based on traditional and classical value systems, as the substructure has already progressed onto new and modern means of production (Hautamäki, 18.10.2011 ATC I Lecture). Thus, the art business finds itself at a point of clinging onto the ‘traditional’ and familiar, while being pulled towards more open ideas on what constitutes art, a process which has been heavily influenced by technological advances.

In conclusion, framing the nature of the art business today has proved to be a very complex and multi-faceted task. Not only have perceptions of what constitutes art changed, but the ways in which it is available to a mass audience across various networks, has further blurred the definition of art as a business. While Adorno has emphasized his dismay with the homogenization of the culture industry, Baudrillard and Bourdieu have offered sociological frames of understanding the postmodern mentality of Western populations: craving the hyperreal and consuming through a blur of what once was a traditional distinct value system.

Finally, Benjamin sheds light onto the technological progressions of the art industry by stating that mechanical reproduction of art does indeed change the audience’s perception and reception of an art work, yet this is not necessarily a negative aspect; we find only ourselves conflicted as our superstructure seems fixed while our substructure has progressed. The works of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp have highlighted where necessary, the various moments of cultural progression, and sometimes conflict, in the age of technological advances and the rise of the culture industry.

Thus, what characteristics mark today’s art business? It is a sphere where a multitude of art works are offered through various channels, and at different capital values, be they of social, symbolic, cultural or economic significance. In addition, although there is mass consumption taking place in our society, there is also still room for artistic distinction to a certain extent, just like one is able to separate the ‘quality’ of art between opera and a musical, for example. Thus, in view of these artistic and sociological negotiations, one may conclude that in order to frame the contemporary art business, the key here is to look beyond the art. One may find that art business is based on power and capitalist struggles, and is ultimately a question of creative industry politics.

The writer participated the ATCI course at Helsinki University autumn 2011.


Baudrillard, Jean (1981), translated by Glaser, Faria Sheila (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. USA: University of Michigan.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979), translated by Nice, Richard (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. USA: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Robertson, Ian and Chong, Derrick (Eds.) (2008). The Art Business. USA and Canada: Routledge.

Thornton, Sarah (2008). Seven Days in the Art World. New York: W. & W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Adorno, Theodor (1991). ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’ in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (pp.1-8). London: Routledge. Culture Industry Reconsidered’

Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max (1944). ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1998) transcribed by Andy Blunden (no pages or publisher given).
The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

Benjamin, Walter (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction transcribed by Andy Blunden (1998) (no pages or publisher given).
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Online Sources, Alan Bamberger 1998-2011

Art on eBay
accessed 29.11.2011


Hautamäki, Irmeli (10.10. and 18.10 2011). Lecture on Cultural Industry and its Criticism by Theodor Adorno.