Contemporary Oligarchy

| November 13, 2012

Sociologist Robert Michels spent much of his career studying the dynamics of power in organizations. His studies resulted in a startling conclusion known as the iron law of oligarchy, claiming that all organizations, regardless of their original mission, structure, or how democratic they aspire to be, inevitably evolve to serve the interests of a small elite. Since its publication in 1911, many studies attempted to seek exceptions to the iron law. Very few were ever documented.

I was reminded of the iron law recently when a friend shared with me his experience of attempting to apply for an art grant. His art, like mine, is based on the photography of natural subjects. To the learned eye, his work is indisputably distinctive in style within what laypeople may generically refer to as “landscape photography.” His application was rejected, in part, because his work was perceived as “aesthetic” and “convenient,” and with the suggestion that he should strive to get a sense of what’s being done in contemporary photography.

Though the term “contemporary” is not strictly defined, a general review of photographic art exhibited, taught and funded in recent decades shows an overwhelming bias toward work exploring human subjects and interactions, as well as decidedly abstract art commensurate with the “art for art’s sake” dictum underscoring much of modern art. In particular, sorely missing from the institutional notion of “contemporary” is art utilizing natural aesthetics in its narrative. If, as suggested by Mahatma Gandhi, action expresses priorities; the actions of many art institutions, as manifested in the work they choose to exhibit, their teachings and the recipients of their financial aid, seems to express a degree of prejudice.

It is important for anyone attempting to navigate the murky waters of the “art world” to have some foundation in art history. What today we know as modern- or postmodern-art began with revolutionary trends in the arts, originally aimed at wresting art away from the grip of religious and political institutions, and later in opposition to the social effects of the Industrial Revolution. In all cases, artists rebelled to uphold art’s freedom of expression, be it founded in social commentary, aesthetics, or subject matter. Those in power always sought to use art to glorify themselves and to legitimize their power base (be it scripture, celebrity, ideology or riches) as well as to squelch artists’ ability to challenge and criticize the status quo. The result of such constraints was benign art based primarily on aesthetics, and devoid of any meaningful  narrative that did not comply with the powers that were.

It is understandable why, in the wake of these important revolutions, art founded solely in aesthetics and lacking in personal expression fell out of favor. This, however, is not to say that aesthetics did not continue to play an important role in the success and acceptance of art.

As expected, the iron law prevailed yet again. In the absence of political and religious authoritarianism, other interests soon moved to fill the void. These included primarily business and academic interests who took it upon themselves to assert control over what constitutes legitimate art. Among their goals was the desire to do away with anything that had been done before, including the role and value of aesthetics in art. Some went so far in their zeal as to declare that art should exist unto itself, independent of meaning and purpose – art for art’s sake.

It’s not hard to see, then, why anyone associated with the art elite has an implicit vested interest in promoting art that either validates the current academic paradigm and/or maximizes financial profit for those in the art business. Neither is necessarily bad in itself, but a balance must be maintained to insure that art remains what most of us intuitively consider it to be: a subjective, personal, expressive pursuit, free from arbitrary constraints of fashion, dogma, politics or profit.

What I found most disturbing about the response my friend received was not the rejection per se, but the profound lack of foresight expressed in prompting an artist to comply with the arbitrary sensibilities of “contemporary photography,” rather than urging him to pursue and evolve his own creative path. The application was dismissed merely by virtue of the art falling into the general bucket of “landscape photography” and without regard to its innovative and personal narrative.

Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay: I believe that today’s “art elite” has again come dangerously close to the dreaded outcome of the iron law, placing too much power in the hands of a few. I believe that it’s time for another (peaceful, intellectual and creative) revolution.

What I offer below is something of a manifesto for those of us concerned with the future of art, and particularly our art.


We are those who believe that art should be free of constraints. Any limitations applied to our work are those we choose for ourselves.

We are those who proclaim ourselves artists, in the sense that we are people who create art, and who believe that no other qualification is needed.

We are those who wish for our work to be judged, above anything else, by the goals we set for it.

We are those who believe that art should have meaning and purpose, and thus is incompatible with the notion of “art for art’s sake.”

We consider art a construct of the human mind, and as such, believe that it should benefit the human experience. Beauty and aesthetics, although not a necessary ingredient, should nonetheless never be dismissed in and of themselves.

We are those who recognize other trends, fashions and movements in art, but choose to pursue our work in the way that we do, in a manner most honest with who we are; our personal sensibilities; the roots of our inspiration; our own creative voices; our choice of media; and the goals we set for ourselves.

We are those who believe that our work holds meaning to our audience, and that such meaning trumps any consideration of genre, movement or categorization.


What today constitutes contemporary art did not materialize out of thin air. It is but a point on a long continuum, much of which is still ahead. It will undoubtedly evolve and be supplanted many times hence. Many artists in the past were responsible for the evolutionary and revolutionary events that brought us to what we today consider contemporary. These artists worked in many media and espoused a great diversity of opinion and philosophy. They all, however, have one thing in common – they knowingly chose to do something different than their own era’s idea of “contemporary.”

Treading Quietly

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (12)

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    I had not heard of the “iron law” but I have experienced it. The greatest frustration in a creative life is breaking through the barriers set up by those who are, for one reason or another, “keepers of the gate”.

    After retiring from my day job I thought I would try teaching photo classes part time but the local colleges would not even respond to my inquiries. I determined that my lack of an MFA (I stopped at a BFA for lack of funds to continue) was at least part of the problem and evidently in academia a half century of experience is not the equivalent of 2 years of their tutelage. I decided to pursue an MFA but for personal reasons couldn’t move so I sought out a program that involved minimal time on campus. I succeeded in finding one that met that need but found that their stated objective was to “train” (their word) conceptual photographers. Since (their brochure said) conceptual photography is the dominant style the program was designed to create photographers of that mold.

    Aside from the cost, it was that emphasis on “training” conceptual photographers that stopped me cold in my tracks. I have always believed that the aim of education, particularly in the arts, was to develop the individual student’s natural abilities and that “training” was something done to teach a particular skill (i.e. welding) where flexibility of method would result in catastrophe. I don’t care for the work of the conceptual photographers I’ve encountered so I had zero desire to be remade into one of them.

    Unfortunately it has always been the case that artists have needed approval of authority to get their work seen whether it was the church, noblemen who acted as patrons or an intellectual elite. Our audience is self selecting and has it’s own agenda. There is more than one audience out there. The difficulty that artists face is finding the particular audience for their work. It was hoped, at least by me and apparently many others, that the Internet would be a venue for breaking through what you call the iron law. The problem is that although our work is now “out there”, there is so much work out there that without the approval of those in authority it remains invisible to most people, like an individual star in the Milky Way.

    I like your manifesto but we are still stuck with the problem of getting our work seen. Art is a communication between the artist and the audience and the self appointed oligarchy still controls the major venues for being seen.

  2. Great piece, Guy. I couldn’t agree more. I saw the same thing at the end of my graduate school training in English. I had articles rejected because they relied too heavily on a Feminist Foucauldian theoretical perspective and didn’t address another (Deconstruction, Psychoanalytical semiotics, plug in what you will) . Frankly, I had no interest in addressingthose theories and did not see them as mutually exclusive. There were so many theoretical approaches that one could not address them all, then dismiss them, and then say what one actually wanted to say.

  3. Wow, I feel just like I walked out of classroom again (and that’s been a LONG time!) Excellent article – thoroughly enjoyed it and agree with your manifesto.

  4. Daniel Ruf says:

    Amen and well stated.

  5. Nice ‘fine art’ shot you posted at the bottom ;) Nice timing with the painting that sold for 75m yesterday too. Art is art. Those that create it and truly believe in what they do dont need to be validated or accepted by those ‘elite’. Great words again sir.


  6. QT Luong says:

    I’d say to your friend that if you want to play (this includes applying for an art grant) you have to follow the unwritten, but quite transparent, rules. As stated in your “manifesto”, there is no need to “play” for those who don’t wish to do so, therefore no need to resent the rules and the “elite”.

  7. Guy, I’m often looking for the potential good news behind the apparently bad. (Trust me, I work in public sector higher education… ;-) There might be some here in this rejection of the “aesthetic” by the supposed art world.*

    The history of the arts is replete with artists and art movements that emerged despite their dismissal by those who supposedly are in positions of power to determine what is and is not true art. In a number of cases the work was dismissed in virtually the same way that some – though not all! – dismiss certain types of landscape photography. I’m thinking right now of the initial reaction to Impressionism in visual arts (and soon after in music), where the term “impression” has been said by some to represent a dismissal of what was regarded as “not real art… merely an ‘impression’ of things” that did not reflect the old-guard attitudes.

    Another bit of good and encouraging news: The landscape has long been a major and accepted component of the visual art world – not because it was a fad, but because it is a compelling subject that can be beautiful (and even in the non-pretty ways) and which can express and address ideas that are far more deep and complex than, “Look! Pretty!”

    I do understand and sympathize with the frustration caused by the contemporary art world’s seeming dismissal of landscape-oriented photography. But our work is – as I know you know! – to mostly ignore this background noise and continue to create the work that we know needs to be created.

    Take care,


    *Although I find a good portion of the contemporary art world stuff to be pretentious and self-indulgent, it isn’t all that way – there is work of tremendous power and imagination that is modern and daring and challenging. It isn’t a binary for me.

  8. Excellent work Guy. I’m going to print out the manifesto and pin it up in my new office space. You have hit upon a few points I myself have been pondering about over the last few years. I’ve been thinking a lot about why the individual and collective actions of us humans in the pursuit of meaning in life have such wild swings and why exclusion rather than inclusion tends to be standard. In the time I’ve spent on this amazing blue marble hurtling through space I’ve come to appreciate that balance is an important element of a happy and meaningful life for any individual. Balance, though, is not the friend of power and ego where success is measured by money and fame. The honest artist tells his unique story to the world because there’s a passion to do so. Those in pursuit of money and fame tell whatever story is the flavour of the day. Please pass on to your friend to stay true to his passion and to always tell his story. There’s meaning and happiness in that pursuit.

  9. Rafael Rojas says:

    Excellent post Guy, reflecting a sad reality unfortunately. Being an artist means having no tags and preconceptions, and that is exactly what we are “told” by the art industry: see this model and stick to it if you want to become an artist. In the end, it is just a way for those who are not artist (but make a living out of it) to make sense of it all, to find a formula and to exploit it in an economically profitable way. Real bureaucrats of the arts…

  10. It’s the same in every part of the world! Agree with you guy.

  11. I think the last formal reference to Michels’ oligarchy principle that I can recall seeing dates to a course on political parties during my undergraduate years. Institutions, regardless of structure or mission, seem to be virtually unable to avoid the law’s grip and, in certain cases, forms an incredibly ironic set of circumstances.

    As it pertains to art…perhaps this is why the endeavor–the creation of art, if not necessarily its other aspects–is so inherently tied to notions of individualism….

    Very interesting, thought-provoking piece.