Art Alienated: An Essay on the Decline of Participatory Art

G.S. Evans


This essay argues that art has been reduced to a commodity by capitalist economy and culture; as a result, people buy art rather than make it for themselves. The essay's basic contention is that the decline of participation in making art has resulted in a general alienation from art.

The first third of the essay discusses the various ways pre-capitalist cultures (with a focus on Medieval Europe) managed to integrate art into the fabric of daily life and the resulting widespread participation of its members in the making of art. It quotes contemporary accounts of people singing, dancing, making crafts and storytelling in the course of their normal daily lives as examples of how people can participate in art without having to make art the primary focus of their lives. The second third of the essay chronicles the gradual destruction of this communal participatory art as capitalist economic and social structures came to the fore. It discusses the greatly heightened prestige of art specialists and how their art, disseminated through art commodities (paintings, concerts, books, etc.), gradually came to dominate the artistic realm. It also argues that this domination of the art commodity over art participation reached its culmination with the development of mass media in the 20th century. This allowed the art specialists' products to reach directly into the home (by way of radio and, especially, television) in a very captivating way, thereby destroying many of the remaining forms of participatory art. The essay then explores the current state of participatory art, noting that a good eighty percent of the adult population in advanced industrial countries rarely or never make their own art, while only ten percent could be said to make their own art on anything even approaching a regular (i.e., monthly) basis. This is contrasted with the near universality of art participation in pre-capitalist societies. The final third of the essay discusses various aspects and ramifications of alienated art in our society. This includes an analysis of the hero worship of art specialists, the consequent denigration of the amateur artist, and how our living patterns, attitudes, and even the nature of our popular art (e.g., people accustomed to seeing big-budget movies will likely find traditional stage drama boring and uninteresting) make it difficult or impossible for most people to rediscover the joys of making their own art. The essay then concludes with some suggestions as to how artistic alienation could be overcome, arguing that only fundamental social and economic change could overcome the inherent tendency for art to become alienated in a capitalist society.

I would consider this essay to be complementary to the works of writers such as Ivan Illich and André Gorz. It elaborates on themes that they set forth in their writings, most notably Illich's concept of a radical monopoly (when an industry, in this case the art and entertainment industry, "becomes the dominant means of satisfying needs that formally occasioned a personal response") and Gorz's belief in the importance of non-work time (what is now called "leisure" time) as a key to the development of a radical society where people have the opportunity to reach their full personal and human potential.

Download essay: [PDF file -- 185 KB]

Keywords: art, alienation, participatory art, art specialist, art commodity, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, radical monopoly.

Length: 50 pages.

Contact: gsevans88(at) (comments welcome).