Home Magazine What makes Art a Luxury?

The relation between Art and Luxury, and the influences on our tastes. Can we pin down what defines and distinguishes artworks?

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The strict link between Art and Luxury is well-known. The rich décor of a wealthy lifestyle is lived between the opera, ballet and the finest galleries. Nevertheless, it is difficult to actually pin down what are characteristic that art has which actually makes it refined and fitting for the life of luxury and wealth.

Conventionally, there a division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art. Stereotypically, on one side the artworks of urban communities, common people and poor artists. On the other side, the high-end décor and luxury canvas wall art of an upper class. This is the side which has the money, and which strives and earns in the Luxury Industry of the Art Market. 

It is a division which is characteristic of Art History, and it is not only one of the Past. The dual contrasting aspect still strongly distinguishes speres of the Art World today. But what is this separation based on and how does the Modern Art World relate to these archaic categories?

Art has always had multiple functions, homes and forms. However, it is difficult to define Art, let alone set boundaries to what is better Art and what is worse. Even today the crucial dilemma divides experts, artists and the public.


Melek Brune, LUXURY Nr. 1, 2021, Courtesy of the Artist.


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Is it pure material culture, a world of consumption, or is there more to it?

An eternal dilemma for those who know the Art World. Even those who have little to do with this field, know about the controversial big sales of the Art Market. Nevertheless, getting to grips with the definition and boundaries of what is, should be and what makes Art more valuable, is practically impossible. This field is intrinsically limitless, with new perspectives, materials and even spaces being used. As a consequence, the boundaries of a fixed system of classification are hard to agree on or enforce.

Originally, in the Western world, but not only, Art has been used to adorn and tell sacred and divine stories in religious spaces. As well as this very public function, the common use was to adorn the palaces of the rich. In the 60s/70s Art invaded public spaces more aggressively with public art, land art and, of course, street art. This has caused the walls surrounding Art to slowly crack under the strain of questions and societal changes which have affected the market.

So, beside galleries with high end wall art for the modern-day palace, there is also the art of meaning, sensations and political message – one which reaches out of the galleries and has something more than the function of decoration.

Gallery directors, curators, collectors and institutions still have a privileged selective influence on the Arts – they define what we remember. Is the old distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art still valid? Is it still influencing the official version of Art History? And is it strong enough to be acceptable in contemporary culture?


Giampiero Romanò, Trump-Wall, 2019, Courtesy of the Artist.


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Philosophically speaking…More or Less Art: But What is Art?

To understand the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ Art we must first figure out what this separation is based on. If there are different types of Art, how can we separate and classify works? What is the characteristic which makes us state that Oil Painting, Ballet and Opera are ‘high art’ and street art is not? Or, to borrow Philosophers Ted Cohen and John A. Fisher’s analogies, what sets ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘South Park’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ apart?

If there are different grades, distinguishing ‘more-Art’ like and ‘less-Art’ like – we should suppose that on one side of the spectrum we have ‘Absolute’ Art and on the other ‘Absolutely Not’ Art. If a work is considered ‘high’ art it would be positioned closer to the idea of ‘Absolute Art’, if the work is considered to be less worthy of this title, it would be closer to the idea of ‘Absolutely Not Art’, falling into the category of ‘low’ art. The division and differences rely on this spectrum. 

Defining Art seems fundamental. However, although it is relatively easy to define what Painting is, music is and architecture or dance, defining an overall category of what Art is results practically impossible even for experts and academics. 


n.d., ‘Werken’ by Bernardo Oyarzún at the Chillean Pavillon of the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine.


In a similar way, American Philosopher Ted Cohen (1993) tried to spell out this logic by defining Art. He comes to the conclusion that it is both connecting and defining. More precisely, for Ted Cohen what I consider to be worthy of the tile ‘Art’ is something which gives me pleasure, emotions and sensations which connect me to other people. Our common experience, appreciation or understanding of a particular work links us. We all believe that it is worth our time experiencing and that there is a certain value to the painting, music, sculpture or performance.

Ted Cohen explains how the appreciation can be widespread or narrow. In fact, some types of Art connect a lot of different people; other types of Art connect only a small group. But one is not superior to the other according to the American philosopher.

For him, the different types of Art, whether eclectic, popular or alternative, are in some way defining of subjective tastes, education, context, age and a series of other factors. The works he likes define him, the artworks I love and enjoy define me, and the ones which you appreciate define who you are. Ted Cohen’s is a very personal perspective, but the traditional division does not enter into this logic. So the question remains: Is there an overall division which connects specific artworks and people?

Whether we believe that a wide or narrow appreciation validates it or not – it is defining for the people who like it. The strong association that exists between power, status, luxury and Art make the Art World one which reflects social stratifications. In fact, for centuries this has characterised the Arts.


n.d., Photo of the Luxurious Chapel of Versailles, n.d., Courtesy of agoda.com.


Dividing Classes, A Status of Art 

Our tastes are influenced by so many factors – which American philosopher Ted Cohen would say define us. But from a wider angle, specific groups of people like and enjoy various things reflecting social class and cultural differences.

There are discrepancies based on what we are surrounded by, what we grow up with, and how we see ourselves in Society – our role, wealth and education. It does create a sort of hierarchy depending on all these aspects and this does, to a certain extent, reflect on our tastes.

The structure of society, our socio-economic level, education and that of the people we are connected to influence our knowledge, cultural baggage, what we appreciate and see as Art.

In fact, from a sociological perspective the hierarchy reflects the classes of our society. The tastes I have connect me to other people of the same class – and the higher the class the ‘higher’ the Art.

Cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talked about how power relations influence the definition of these classes and that each one has its own ‘cultural tastes’ and ‘cultural competence’ – a product of the baggage of ‘cultural capital’.

Theoretically this is what distinguishes highbrow from middle and lowbrow. This is what makes Ballet something which we consider as having a ‘higher’ status. It is what makes Breakdancing belong to a ‘lower’ one, even making this dance style less worthy of the title ‘Art’ for some. This is why we see the first as ‘high art’ and the second as ‘low art’.


n.d., Banksy’s painting ‘Show Me The Monet’ sold for £7.5 million at Sotheby’s auction the 21st October 2020, n.d., Courtesy of faroutmagazine.com.


At the end of the day, what does this division mean? Probably not much – unless it makes you despise one art and elevate the other. In fact, to a certain extent it is an old, traditional way of seeing and classifying Art. 

Street Art has become luxury wall art for the rich. A work by Banksy was sold at auction overthrowing the idea that it is ‘less valuable’. His work, traditionally ‘low art’, has been considered worthy of being collected, as much (or even more) than ‘high’ artworks. 

One is not more important or worthy than the other. They are different, yet at the same time they are all valuable artworks which communicate something of significance.

Other art forms are also being ‘elevated’, democratising and broadening the horizons of even the most traditionally influential and exclusive environments of the Art World. Artworks of different cultures are becoming part of that ‘high art’. It is not only a category fit for the typical White Western cultural traditions, but for performances, rituals and incredible sculptures and paintings as well. 

Different works are entering the world of ‘high’ Art in the spaces of the luxury industry. They are starting to be seen as true art forms. Various products of different worlds, of distinct tastes, traditions and cultures are entering Western galleries, auction houses, museums and collections. They are not conventionally ‘high’ Art from a Western perspective, yet they are truly authentic and highly valuable works.

We have been witnessing a democratisation – opening up and diversifying the definition of Art. This will definitely influence our perception of the hierarchy in the Art World.

In fact, the history we look back on tends to only remember the Western ‘high’ Art, but slowly we are realising the tremendous failure that this represents. The Art World is gradually starting to act. We are looking at the present with an open mind, not through the selective and discriminative lens of ‘high’/ ‘low’ Art which has created a contested and partial Art History.

Gallery directors, curators, collectors and institutions are all influencing the Arts. The old distinction between high and low Art is changing.

But if the archaic division is not strong enough to be acceptable in contemporary culture, what is it which defines Art? There must be more to it than a hierarchy of tastes.


streetartbln.com, Blu’s Graffiti in Berlin, 2012, Courtesy of streetartbln.com


Value of Art: Personal & Subjective

How can we value a specific artwork? What are the parameters we use to judge them?

If there is no system of classification, what does it come down to?

At the end of the day, Art is communication. It is a reflection of society, but there is more to it. Artworks are material, sensation and passion, meaning or visceral. Created by one person, the piece answers their need to express, transform and materialise something – whatever that is.

This is what distinguishes each piece, each artist – and each of us. It is subjective and personal. Not one artwork gives the same response, same power or same feelings to everyone.

Even Neuroaestetic studies, which look at the brain’s response to Art, have proved this. Our brains do not all respond in the same way. There is an activation, with neural connections and chemical reactions. It is a physical reaction which helps us reflect on our own position, our own selves and the relationship with what we are looking at.

Value is still embedded in a tradition, culture and function. The class division continues to resound in the Art World.The subjective world and specific physical emotional response of the audience, participant or collector is connected to the constructs – and artworks ‘play’ with this. But regardless of this, the piece resonates in us, through symbols, marks and certain traditions but re-elaborating and breaking boundaries. 

The time when one art form was considered superior to another has gone. The echo is still audible in our society, and can be seen in many artworks, but the Art World is at least trying to step away from the class structure to which it is intertwined – smashing this rusty connection.

Do we, or should we think of the ‘high’/ ‘low’ Art division in front of an artwork? No, I do not believe so. This outdated division should not define our response to a piece, or our artistic taste. It is a limiting definition, far from the personal and subjective nature of Art. There is always a context, but the way we respond is informed by emotion, knowledge and material.

In front of an artwork our response is sensuous, even visceral. It is, in the end, pure chemistry.



South Park Digital Studios LLC., Disapproving Audience South Park Gif, n.d., Courtesy of giphy.com ©2020 Comedy Partners.


Cover image: Robin Harper, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s video ‘Apeshit’ was shot in the Louvre in Paris, 2018, Courtesy of rollingstone.com

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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