The origins of corporate art
If you’ve ever taken an art history or music history course, or surveys of architecture or literature, it’s likely you have seen various styles and trends in the arts cordoned off into various “periods” beginning and ending at certain dates. For instance in music the Classical period is generally said to begin in 1750 (the death of Bach and the end of the Baroque) and end in the early 19th century, about 1820, at which time the Romantic period begins. Today, I’d like to introduce a recently ended artistic period: The Corporate Period. But before that, some clarification.
These classifications are very useful for students as they help breakdown and simplify extremely complex and long-lasting trends and make it easier to compare, contrast, and categorize various works as they are encountered. They are ultimately not realistic, just like the broad periods used in history in general. The Renaissance did not simply begin one day; it was a natural outgrowth of the late medieval, just as the Baroque was a continuation of the Renaissance. Time is analogue, flowing and changing constantly.
In music as in all arts, styles overlap considerably. J.S. Bach might have died in 1750 and we might consider him today the pinnacle of the High Baroque style, but his son Carl Phillip Emanuel was already working in the Galant and Classical styles when his father died, and George Frederic Handel, a contemporary German composer (living in England) lived for nine more years. Beethoven, a very popular Classical composer, was contemporary with romantic composers such as Carl Maria Von Weber, who died about nine months before Beethoven. Meanwhile Beethoven’s later works stylistically fit into the Romantic period.
The ends are fuzzy, and there is also much development between those ends. Styles sometimes explode in popularity, but also evolve slowly. “Classical” as a style and period idea is still very useful. If you encounter a composer who lived and worked within a certain time frame, you start with a window of basic expectations as to what his music will sound like, and while there are often originalities, there are seldom big surprises. This holds for literature as well as visual arts and architecture.
The 20th century presents some difficulties as far as stylistic classification. A student will feel an inevitable dissonance when a course reaches the 20th century, as he recognizes a great difference between what he was experiencing at a given time and what the textbook or professor considers the defining styles of said time. An older student might remember clearly the popularity of Elvis Presley in the 1950s, who would be absent from discussion, but have never heard of John Cage or Milton Babbitt. That same student might find the idea of “Post-modernism” confusing and strange.
This is because the 20th century introduced something that was in prior periods undreamed of: mass media. Mass media didn’t happen overnight; the first mass media was via the printing press, so the origins of the corporate era stretch back into the 19th century with the growth of cheap genre fiction novels and a multitude of newspapers and magazines (Life magazine began in 1983). However, widespread media consisting of more than the printed word only really took off in the 20th century with the creation of media that otherwise would need to be experienced in person somehow: recorded music, radio broadcast, cinema, printed art, and television.
The idea that everyone in the world could be watching not only the same play, but the same production, the same performance, of that play during a single year would be inconceivable to a person born in the 18th century. That everyone could listen to the same piece by the same performer, the same performance of each, at home without anyone present with music training is to suggest the existence of magic. And yet, that is what the 20th century gave us.
As a result, we got not just mass media but mass culture, and the culture was dictated by general popularity of the ideas and media in question: Pop Culture. It is in the first decades of the 20th century that we get a great split in art, not just in form or styles, but in the substance and purpose of each. On the one hand was the academic tradition, becoming more insular and self-referencing than ever (and also growing further in substance from what came before it. Compare cubism to impressionism to the romantic period masters)— becoming, in truth, unpopular art. On the other hand, there was the art that everyone else made and enjoyed: art that was popular not by accident, but by design.
Here is where the Corporate Period earns its name. Access to mass media is not cheap. Printers and paper cost money, and it costs money to ship magazines to every town in the country. Film is expensive. Magnetic tape is expensive. The machines to turn these into high-fidelity representations of a subject (cameras, microphones, etc.) are expensive. Pressing vinyl records requires significant capital investment as well as specialized technical skills. Broadcasting radio or television signals is a large ongoing cost and also requires major capital investment and human resources.
And, like other eras, artists are poor.
Whereas in the past artists relied on the patronage of the wealthy, either aristocrats, governments, or the Church, in the corporate period the patronage comes from corporations, legal fictions that allow groups of people to pool their capital resources and divide profits. The methods are similar, in that the patron funds the work of the artist, but the motives are what is novel in the 20th century—profit, hence the need to make work which is designed to be popular.
So what defines the corporate period is not a style or even a range of styles, it is a system of production. It is companies hiring or working with artists to produce art for mass consumption with an intent to earn a profit. Thus, a multitude of styles, genres, and formats exist in the corporate period, along with variance of popularity. Trends come and go quickly, but the system remains consistent through the end of the 20th century when conglomeration and new technology forced a shift into a new paradigm.
The corporate period is best sampled through “hits”—pieces of art that are massively popular for a time and enter into the collective catalog of pop culture. This ascendency of the art in question occurs along several paths: chance, marketing, or by brute force.
We’ll pick it up from there in part 2. In the meantime, check out my manual on creativity and some of my newest fiction: