Art as $$$$$$$$

Jeff Koons's Balloon Flower (Magenta), which sold at Christie's in 2008 for $25,765,204.

Felix Salmon has an interview and piece today on a couple of art buyers/sellers that I found fascinating and sad. An excerpt:

Lindemann is a fascinating character: he treats the art world as a game, with the score kept in dollars. And Dayan, of course, is a great enabler — the lesson of looking at the current value of those works sold in 1973, she said, is that “if you buy great, great art, and the right work by the right artist at the right time, you win huge time.”

But of course that argument is fundamentally tautological, since Dayan’s definition of “great, great art” is precisely whatever art is most expensive right now. Similarly, when Dayan says that Picasso and Warhol are “quite consistently good, always,” that statement only really makes sense once you realize that in her mind, “good” is a synonym for “expensive.”

I started out in life wanting to be a painter. I still have a great affection for visual art and admiration for talented artists. I visit museums, galleries, and exhibits every chance I get, and my writing is often inspired by painting and sculpture. But I am also very, very glad I did not become a painter. Writing is a much more egalitarian art form, I think.

After all, anyone can have access to most of the great literary masterpieces; they need only visit the local library. To purchase even an obscure writer’s work is not too difficult now–we can probably find it on the small press’s website, or on Powell’s or (I know, I know) Amazon.  Literature is entirely available to the masses, providing you can read or write. And to create a library of one’s own is not too terribly expensive or difficult. At 33, I’ve got a pretty damn good library, after a lifetime of buying and receiving books. (And I spent most of that life with not much or any disposable income.)

But I will never own a Rothko, or a Dine, or an Yves Tanguy. I have been able to see many great paintings, by many past and current masters, but only because I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively and to live in or near large cities with major art museums. And even I will not get to see, in person, most of the great art I would like to see. I may see it in books, but that is not the same thing, of course.  And art books are difficult to find, very expensive to purchase, and art is, frankly, not a subject easy to navigate or approach unless you’ve had some grounding and exposure to it already. The gallery scene itself is incredibly intimidating, even to people who consider themselves somewhat knowledgeable.  Museums are often expensive, and scary or boring if you’ve had no experience with them. Art is priced, as Salmon points out, in way that seem to defy logic. And it’s often bought at auction, at exclusive places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. It’s a world meant to keep out most–and to keep buying and selling, and art appreciation, a very exclusive province indeed.

Certainly there are artists out there working actively to contradict these structures. And many people who are learning, through graffiti and other street artists and counter-art forms, and even (maybe) video games, to appreciate visual art in a different way.

I’m also not stupid enough to think that literature is not monetized, that publishers aren’t scraping for every dollar, that a writer’s words aren’t worth less than the money they produce. And I don’t think that all of writing is accessible or easy to find or even for everyone. Of course not. But I also think there is a real difference.  Art is not, and has never been, for the little people. Or even the medium-sized people. Art has always been the province of the patrons, the superwealthy, and because the superwealthy like to play games with money (and because many of them made their money by playing games) art becomes a money game, too. And that seems like a terrible, terrible shame. Art has added so much to the texture of my life and my thoughts and yes, my writing as well. It seems a tragedy that the money so overrides everything about the art and the artist and becomes a gated community for the private collector, one they may or may not truly be inspired by, because all they want is the most expensive thing–the thing that will allow them to play the art game with the best of the superrich.

Am I wrong? Do others disagree? I am only an amateur lover of art, not an expert and certainly not a practitioner, so I don’t claim to speak for the art world or authoritatively on it. It just seems to me, as someone who is very interested in both art and in a more equal society, that more people ought to have access to great art. In every form it takes. I know as a writer, I would be horrified to know that only someone very, very wealthy could ever buy my art. I would not be okay with that, I think.

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16 thoughts on “Art as $$$$$$$$

    • Funny you drop the link to this poem, because in my most fanciful moments I fancy myself a sort of wannabe Frank O’Hara. :) I’ve always shared many of his views of painting, poetry, and life, really. He’s wonderful.

  1. you can’t get away from the big deals and power brokers, that’s true. and that can at times be shitty, you’re right. but art is made by the little people, and the middle people, everyday (and the big people). art is enjoyed by all the people every day. even if we don’t talk about ‘folk’ art, it is. i am a little people and i enjoy art every day. i, my friends, my colleagues make it, and i and we look at it and interact with it, every day. i won’t ever own a rothko either but i own a whole lot of great art that (mostly) has been given to me (or traded to me). i get to see rothkos all the time, though it’s true that’s b/c i live in a big city. but even little cities have art museums and some of them are great. my home town of kalamazoo’s museum has a diebenkorn, a david parks, 2 ray johnsons, etc. so, yeah, the money thing can be shitty, i agree. but still. and i agree, o’hara is my hero!

    • Thanks, Joseph. You’re right that there’s lots and lots of folk art street art etc out there, and maybe I just don’t know of/see as much of that because i’m not living in that world like I used to – I see the underground writing community a lot more because that’s where I am and who I know at the moment.

      And you’re totally right, also, that even little cities have big great art. It’s true. Most every city and even some towns I visit have something great. And something I didn’t mention: lots of museums let you pay what you can, or have free Mondays or that kind of thing. So they do make a point to keep things open and accessible to everybody. So there are still lots of good ways to enjoy art for little or for free, unless you really live in the boondocks.

  2. Hey, Amber, great post. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the visual arts, watching “Pollock” and documentaries about contemporary artists and so forth. I teach at an arts-oriented liberal arts school, as well, so this time of year I get to attend exhibitions every Wednesday night of four or five artists, and often I am stunned by the caliber of the work itself. One of my students is exhibiting photography and reading her fiction this evening, and it’s fascinating to see someone who does both seamlessly, for whom the two are inextricable and feed one another. I was curious as I read your post whether you still paint for fun, and/or whether your writing is informed by the painting that you did or do.

    The other day, on a different note, I stumbled upon this: http://www.turningart.com/, where I guess the idea is that you rent works of art and return them on a monthly plan. By no means am I endorsing it, but I have to admit it caught my eye and I’ve been wanting to explore it further. It’s a strange thing to consider art so unabashedly commodified, transient as a rented dvd, but at the same time, I can see many positives, among them: increased accessibility, a slight tilting of the axis toward a democratization of art, the ability to experience many more works than I would otherwise and expose myself to a wider range of contemporary artists, the likelihood that I will pay a different kind of attention to a work that I know is only going to be ephemerally in my life, an affirmation of my belief that ownership is pretty much bogus anyway, especially when it comes to art, and so forth. Then there are the downsides: fetishization of the new, the novel versus the enduring, treatment of works of art as decoration or decor rather than an entity that evokes a continuous, evolving relationship. And I haven’t really looked into whether there’s anything there that would intrigue me enough to look at it every day.

    • Hey, thanks, Tim. I don’t paint for fun, because I learned years ago that I had no talent (none, seriously–the lack of artistic talent runs in my family) and I actually had some talent in writing and acting. So I guess I thought, why be greedy? Plus I’m one of those annoying people where if I’m not any good at it I don’t like to do it–it’s not fun for me that way. I like to think that my hand is just not where my eye is–I can see it but I can’t paint it or sculpt it–and so it doesn’t meet my standards if I can’t translate it. (I probably could have become competent had I really, really worked at it, but patience has never been my strong suit.:)) If that makes any sense. I get a lot more enjoyment out of looking at other people’s art, and it did and still does hugely influence my painting. I get more ideas for stories at a gallery opening than I do at a reading, truthfully. A lot of times my pieces start with a visual image, and I’m always thinking visually about what I’m writing. I tend to write a lot in colors, in textures, that sort of thing. I’ll always love art and worship artists for what they can do (I’m often stunned, as you are, by the work young artist are doing now. When I was in China I could not believe the the kind of work that was being turned out by students and very young artists in the Dashanzi Art District and places like that.)

      That rent-an-artwork idea sounds incredibly interesting, for all the reasons you outline so well. I’d like to see something like that yearly rather than monthly, because I hate hanging pictures, but I might actually give something like that a try. It could support more artists, as well. One of the problems, of course, with Damien Hirsch and Jeff Koons getting millions per artwork is that most artists get nothing at all–can barely sell a single painting. It would be nice to help level the playing field a bit in this or some other way. (Not that writing isn’t like that, too. But the gap isn’t quite so high, I imagine. I doubt the Corrections has netted Franzen $25 million.)

      • Amber, you absolutely should, especially if you’re interested in the issue of the “value” of our work. I would also strongly recommend Louis Hyde’s THE GIFT, if you haven’t already read it.

        The Berger is not only incredibly smart, as all of his work is, but also very engaging. And there’s a lot more where it came from. I’m reading and enjoying his ABOUT LOOKING right now, along much the same lines but not at all repetitive.

        Oh, just remembered: also highly, highly recommended is Lawrence Weschler’s BOGGS. That book is so, so great, and a really quick and fruitful read.

        I should stop now.

  3. Very interesting post, Amber, and interesting comments too. I’ve often thought about the accessibility and/or commodification of visual art too. What troubles me is the massive chasm between “underground/indie” artists and “famous/commercial” artists–the former making nothing or very little and the latter making millions per work, keeping their work primarily ensconced in the world of the superwealthy.

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