Reeling in the Insecure and Uninformed

Yesterday’s NY Times delivered an article about a shady corner of the art market that I thought was revealing about a few dimensions of the interactions of art with our larger culture.  The Cranky Professor (whom I cited in my last post…) posted some tidbits from the article, bringing it back to the front of my mind.  I posted a comment there that I’d like to work up into a post right here.

A link to the article is here: Art Auctions on Cruise Ships Lead to Anger, Accusations and Lawsuits.

While the article focuses on the facts, complaints, and events surrounding the ocean-borne art auctions, I think some of the underlying cultural currents that those accounts allude to are especially interesting.

First:  What of the widespread, sensationalized misunderstandings about the monetary value of art?  It’s a thing I ran into with my students all the time.  In the midst of a slide show:

Student, “I just don’t understand how something like that could be worth millions of dollars.”

Me, “Um, actually, that one was made by a colleague of mine last year, it’s in storage at his studio now, no one’s ever paid anything for it.  I’m showing it to you because I think it’s interesting.  I want you to think about it.

Somehow, a mythology about the expensiveness of art precludes many people’s understanding of everything else about an art work.

On a side note, I think the various facets of the graphic design community suffer from an opposite problem.  Many clients seem to not find reason to pay rates reasonable for experienced professionals and/or not understand the time, effort, and work that good design requires.  See:

Second:  What of the idea that “art” and “culture” can improve a person through something akin to osmosis without any engagement or active processes on the part of the viewer?

The truth is that, like most things, the more work you do to engage an art work, the more you’ll get out of it.  That work does, also, much of the time, involve learning about history, materials, and other things external to a particular object.  It requires a viewer to think and learn and educate him/herself and look and think some more and alternate between passive and active modes – and the richer the art work, the more work a viewer can do.  Good art strives to be accessible, but it just can’t do that work for you.  If you’re not willing or capable of making that effort, or if you do and you don’t find anything, what makes you think that an art work is particularly good?   (On the converse, if you don’t or can’t make that effort, don’t assume there’s nothing in there – a kindergartner most likely could not have made it.)

Ironically, there seems to be a widespread acceptance that the expressive content or “genius” of an artwork is somehow beyond the grasp of a normal audience that runs parallel to another widespread acceptance that a lot of art is either moronic or insane.  In both cases, I think the culprit is a lack of effort, too much passivity on the part of the audience.  It is also, as James Elkins has articulated in depth, that the art world and people outside of it often judge art by different standards.  (Enter the “skill” question!)

In my first T.A. position in art history, I realized quickly that many of my students were capable of developing intelligent responses to a range of art works – they just often didn’t because they were afraid to apply their knowledge and experiences to those works.  They hesitated to begin the work of engagement, instead deciding they simply didn’t understand the art.  They believed they didn’t have permission to do so, that I was there to give them some magical key…  But what I gave them was mostly that permission – to look and think and to mine the archives of their own experience, i.e. to do (what I think is rewarding) work.

One thing about Picasso’s late work, mentioned in the article, other than that prints from that period aren’t worth nearly what they’re recounted as being auctioned for, is that they are widely regarded as having astonishingly little artistic merit.  That and there are TONS of them. It’s as if he just stopped caring.  To each their own and if you do like them, I’m no one to tell you better.  But, the high sale prices in those cruise ship auctions capitalize on an implicit “genius” based on the artist’s name/past work.  (Oh no, not the “G” word again…) And, I’m going to guess that many buyers grabbed onto notions surrounding that concept and readily accepted that the work must be “powerful” (or something) without bothering to stop for a moment and ask if they themselves actually find any personal resonance with an image.  Perhaps they didn’t believe they had permission to do the work of engagement.  Or if they did, perhaps they didn’t feel permission to decide that a work by Picasso, et al, didn’t have much to offer them personally.  An efficacious, dishonest salesman may have even used their insecurity about art to convince them they did respond to some “genius” in one print or another.

If you’re not knowledgeable as an investor-level buyer, please don’t believe you’re going to develop that knowledge in between the tiki bar and shuffleboard.  Because it’s a lot of work. You can get that knowledge… I’m here to tell you that I have first-hand knowledge that, until the state and federal budget planners are done dealing the final blow, there are classes you can take.  It’s just that your learning is unfortunately likely to happen in the absence of umbrella drinks.

So, if you’re basically just going to hang the picture in your house, why buy something unless you’re really going to enjoy spending time looking at it?  If you’re buying something for your personal appreciation, why pay more than you think that relationship is worth?  Oh, because it’s business too, it’s reliquidifiable; art and genius must always equal cash, right? And besides, once you put a famous name on your wall, you’ll sure as hell impress your friends.  As long as you don’t tell anybody you’re not genius enough to extract same said genius from that art work, you’re friends will never know, and, shit, they’ll probably never admit they don’t see the genius either…


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