Holy cow, the Incredible Shrinking Middle Class is a horror that even Hollywood wouldn’t touch. A just-released study out of Stanford University states that the middle-class in America is shriveling at an unthinkable rate, citing U.S. Census data that shows more families are finding themselves among the very poor or very rich. A frightening statistic considering a vast middle-class was once considered the core audience for the arts — and still is in many European countries. Consider the demon as consumerism run amok.

American democracy was originally conceived as a system to bring order and contentment to a society of independent farmers and yeomen (craftsmen-proprietors). Production was decentralized and distribution was localized at the market or the trade fair. Little by little the situation reversed as production became centralized and consolidated and distribution beat a path to every door first through the Sears Roebuck Catalog, now through the internet and the proliferation of the big box store. Today, the artist-craftsperson is one of the last vestiges of the independent yeoman, flying in the face of the modern market-driven economy. Shamefully, consumerism has penetrated every aspect of our lives, forcing the art world into a class war. 

It seems that in America the main focus of the art industry is on raising value, thereby raising prices with an eye on raising profits (which is fair enough, the art business being a business like any other).

But in the short-run that is accomplished via more investment (more catalogs, more lavish parties, larger art fairs), all with an eye on generating demand among the very wealthy. Art for the middle-class is simply not a priority. It really can’t be in this system. Needless to say, the poor are focused on food and shelter, the bare necessities of living. 

But travel across the Atlantic to the Motherland, and a different picture emerges. The U.S. has a large and growing wealth divide, but in Europe the middle class, healthier due to government social programs and higher taxes among the richest, is still buying art. In fact, many middle-class Europeans pride themselves in owning a few pieces of original work, and far more traipse to galleries and museums. There is little stigma or pretension associated with contemporary art, whereas in the U.S. many seem to view it with some suspicion of elitism, especially conservative pundits. This cultural attitude is a legacy of Europe having survived two world wars plus having limited space and natural resources. And I think this attitude also informs how different cultures place more intrinsic value on art.

Of course, economics has not a single damn thing to do with actually creating art. Real artists live to make art, not the other way around. If they don’t make art they shrivel up and die inside. Creating is like oxygen, and I can assure you that most artists don’t think about class when they are standing at the easel or adjusting their camera lens. It is only later in the process that the object of beauty and curiosity is seen as a commodity on the open market, available to the highest bidder. Will art win out in the end? With it’s core audience shrinking, a Hollywood ending now seems less likely.

— SCOT C. HART