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.