It’s great when a newspaper story about art jumps off of the kitchen table and demands to be noticed. This week, it happened in two very different articles about money in the arts, both laments, about where our culture is going and how its creative edge is being dulled through neglect.
The tighter, more straight-forward piece was in Sunday's Washington Post. Philip Kennicott asks, “As the price of art rises, is its value plummeting?” It’s a great, if oft-posed, question: as asking prices for blue-chip art enter mathematical ranges, and it becomes monitized, what does that do to the motives behind its creation, curation and distribution? How can that have an other-than-malign impact throughout the food chain? If one assumes that art is meant to be for something does not the commodity role squeeze other things out?
It can be argued that other assets—grain, for example—successfully perform dual roles as repositories for wealth and useful social functions. But those roles, different as they may be, are apples-to-apples: they are both utilitarian. Art has a quasi-spiritual function and that is what differentiates a urinal from a DuChamps. As we move into a supra-corporate model of wealth, with oceans of opacity between owners and assets—and increasing walls between people, I can say as an artist that it’s despairingly difficult to connect money and meaning in art.
Kennicott opens the piece by describing the record-breaking sale at Christie's of a Francis Bacon triptych. He closes by noting that the piece will be on display in Portland for a short time and notes that the anonymous owner is being heavily reimbursed for the loan through a tax deduction. The bad thing in my view is this: almost no one will go to see Bacon's art (although justifiably many people love his work); let’s be honest—everyone is going to see the huge container of wealth, ostentatiously displayed by someone who is ironically uncomfortable (also, I think, justified) about that very wealth. And even this one act of sharing is heavily caveated.
If I were to hazard one explanation of art’s social purpose, it would be that art is an exploration of each maker’s individualistic condition and that by midwifing those ideas into an object and putting it into public space, it transforms into an independent object among us all for discussion and reflection. It brings us together despite all of our differences because we all have varied but equally valid connections.
But by standing in as an explicit class signifier, the Bacon becomes a symbol of difference. Instead of bridging barriers, it is wall itself and the crowds that will go see it do so in the spirit of fascination with a car wreck. Is that what art is for? Is that what Bacon intended? As an artist, it is discomfiting, to say the least.
Surely we can do better.
Editor’s Note: This phenomenon is the reason why Monticello Road is explicitly non-commercial. Too often, the confluence of money and art is a barrier between people. As this project strives for the opposite effect, it was important (though difficult) to find a way to get money out of the picture. Anyone who wishes to have a picture can have one through a variety of channels and support strategies, all deriving from the community, not through government or foundation financial.
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate
to be to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on
the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.