Is this art I bought good?
May 17, 2009
I was invited to donate some artwork to a charity art auction. I gave two rather large pastels, and to my surprise and disappointment, they were returned to me unsold. The work wasn’t my very best, but it wasn’t bad either. It was certainly many times better than the visual vomit I’d recently seen on some gallery walls.
What was happening here? The best-seller from the auction was a woman who is always in the local papers with her art. Other pieces that sold were by ‘names’ known in the art world locally.
Therefore, people only bought art because they had seen the artist in the media, therefore that was Real Artist, and the work must be ‘good’, or at least a good investment.
How did we all get to this point? When did art become an exclusive domain where only the initiated few are in the know and everyone else has to trust an expert’s judgement to tell them whether the art they were looking at was ‘good’ or not?
There is a long answer and a short one. The long one can be read in Suzi Gablik’s,’ Has Modernism failed?’ Here is the short one:
Artists work in the realm of intangible realities, and these are relegated to the margins in our society (ie, you can’t make money with them very easily, and they have no recognizable function). Because children get no structural education in creative process, most grow up ignorant of art processes; then the arts are delegated exclusively to the artists.
Artists work from an inner vision, rather than an external criteria. Therefore in most cases the authority for judging the work is artist herself, or fellow artists, or art critics. To people not versed in symbolic language and gesture, much art is incomprehensible using logical faculties. But art speaks to the right brain sensibilities which in most people are underdeveloped. It takes time and a certain sensitivity to get inside an artwork to the point where it will speak to you. Very few people have developed this quality of attention. So we get a siutation where the average person is left on the outside of the arts.
Various sensation seeking artists have abused this situation in the past, by creating purposely horrible, vulgar, or vacuous art- sometimes as a statement, but also as a way to shock and gain media attention. All of this behaviour is supported by our commercial, greedy, sensation-oriented society. If that weren’t in place certain artist personalities couldn’t play into it.
But most artists are dedicated individuals who work quietly in their studios creating beautiful meaningful objects. They don’t make waves, so are invisible. These artists in the past usually had a few regular buyers, enough to meet their survival needs anyway.
But these days, art is so completely accepted as a product, that unless the artist is adept in business, there is no way to earn even a minimum income from one’s work.
Going back to the auction, the art that sold was by recognized artists because people have abdicated their right to judge whether they find a piece of art good or not.
This implies that other professional artists, as good as or better than the more media -visible ones, need to work at making a name in order to sell their work. ‘Making a name’ is a dialogue between wallet and wallet. Art is a dialogue between souls.
From Lewis Hyde’s book, ‘The gift, Imagination and the erotic life of property’:
A work of art is a gift, not a commodity…Every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange .