In the early years of the cultural movement called Modernism, the artists who were its leaders conceived of their work as being in harsh opposition to society.

They particularly sought to mock and to counter all the corrupt tendencies of what they dismissively called the bourgeois—the grubby, materialistic and vapid middle classes then rising to prominence. Their art rebelled against convention and purposefully shocked the public, either through its form, its content or both.

From then on, much of the art world kept up this aggressive stance. In his 2008 study of Modernism, historian Peter Gay writes “It is striking how little changed across the decades in the modernists’ sheer hatred of the commonplace bourgeoisie.”

So little, in fact, that at the beginning of the 1960s, Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg could remark that society desperately needed the “elevation of sensibility above bourgeois values” only the artist could bring.

It would seem, however, that such dedication to art in opposition to society has finally been blunted, even neutralized, mostly by that very materialism against which modernists turned their venomous pens and brushes.Their venom has become a hot commodity.

Most everyone who follows the art world even lightly has heard of the Alice-in-Wonderland prices more and more pieces are fetching at auctions.

It’s become old hat to note that with every auction the record books are rewritten. Last week the rewriting came courtesy of a 1969 painting by Francis Bacon sold to an anonymous bidder for $142.4 million. (The previous record of $122 million was set just over a year ago.)

Dollar signs

Sales of this magnitude are not without their deleterious effects. In the wake of the Bacon sale, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith noted sharply that these days the “art is hard to see through the clutter of dollar signs.”

Is it ever. It used to be that a piece of art — especially difficult work like the distorted, often grotesque portraits by Francis Bacon — became worthy of note because informed, educated opinion held it significant. Now this painting, like so many others, is no longer famous for its quality, but famous for its price.

How did this come to pass?

It’s the fault, I believe, not only of vast wealth that desperately seeks status symbols, but of the broader culture. When there was a clear differentiation between good art and non-art, when there was a willingness of authoritative people to step up and say “Yes, that’s art” and “No, that’s not art,” such clarity contributed to a broad consensus that shaped how we understood what a piece of art was worth.

With the disappearance of that willingness, even as art began to take on radically different forms that no one previously would have acknowledged as being art, the ways in which a work of art had traditionally gotten its value collapsed.

Now, with no authoritative structure seen as valid to pass judgment on art’s identity, to rank things in terms of better and worse, we’ve defaulted to the most materialistic way of all to assign value, that of the price someone is willing to spend.

“It is a kind of fiction that has almost nothing to do with anything real,” says Smith in the Times, “not new art, not museums or historical importance.”

And not, I might have added, with traditional understandings of what makes a work of art excellent.

Smith hit the nail on the head when she wrote that such developments are “painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.” Indeed they are.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.