Thursday, January 18, 2007

On Art and Market Forces

The Village Voice has an interesting article on the state of the art scene, as determined by the art market. The title says it all: Seeing Dollar Signs -- Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid?

Here is the crux of the matter:

Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid? Consider the lame-brained claim made by Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, who recently effused "The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart." This is exactly wrong. The market isn't "smart;" it's like a camera—so dumb it'll believe anything you put in front of it. Essentially, the art market is a self-replicating organism that, when it tracks one artist's work selling well, craves more work by the same artist. Although everyone says the market is "about quality," the market merely assigns values, fetishizes desire, charts hits, and creates ambience. These days the market is also too good to be true.

Still, the slap-happy assertions keep coming. Last season, Amy Cappellazzo, international co-head of Christie's post-war and contemporary art, crowed that auction houses were "the big-box retailers putting the mom-and-pops out of business." Then she gushed of her clients, "After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there?" After wondering, "What's a G5 jet?", you may well ask how the current super-heated art market is changing the ways we see and think about art.

The market is now so pervasive that it is simply a condition—as much a part of the art world as galleries and museums. Even if you're not making money—as is the case with most of us—that's your relationship to the market. To say you won't participate in the market is like saying you refuse to breathe the air because it's polluted.

The current market feeds the bullshit machine, provides cover for a lot of vacuous behavior, revs us up while wearing us down, breeds complacency, and is so invasive that it forces artists to regularly consider issues of celebrity, status, and money in their studios. Yet, it also allows more artists to make more money without having to work full-time soul-crushing jobs and provides most of us with what Mel Brooks called "our phony-baloney jobs."
You'll still need to read the whole article to get the full argument and the full context, but that quote is a starter. As a poet, there are no market forces shaping my life or my art -- in fact, there is no market. The few people making any money as poets can't live on that money, so they teach in the university -- talk about soul-crushing jobs.

But there is some carry over of movements from one field to the next. There is a perception among the masses that post-modern art is not so much art as crap -- this carries over into poetry, as well, where the post-modern efforts at difficulty have turned off readers to the point that they would rather buy a book of "poems" by Jewel (the annoying fem-folk wanna be) than by Charles Bernstein or Rae Armantrout.

Robert Godwin, a self-styled integral blogger and author, finds the current aesthetic scene to be disturbing. As an integralist, he supports the thesis that human are in a process of continual development -- that we never stopped evolving. But he wonders why our aesthetic evolution seems to have been derailed (he actually blames leftist politics, but that's a whole other post).

Godwin observes:
The one thing that does puzzle me, however . . . is the aesthetic ugliness that accompanies modernity. Why is our aesthetic sense not evolving too? Indeed, we seem to be regressing aesthetically. How to explain the appalling regression of, say, Vanity Fair magazine, from the heights of P.G. Wodehouse and T.S. Eliot to the post-literate depths of a James Wolcott? Why are we producing better humans, but at the same time, making a world that is aesthetically unfit for them? This is a very important concern, for beauty is one of the portals to the Divine. A beautiful world is the occasion for constant remembrance of the Divine, whereas an ugly environs can cause us to forget our divinity and regress to barbarism (is this perhaps why leftism is primarily a phenomenon of big cities?). Perhaps contemporary art is simply the Evil One's strategy for undoing and canceling out the progress made in other human domains. It keeps his hand in the game. The other strategy would be the secular detachment of the mind from the divine intellect, so that our IQs increase even as we become metaphysically more and more blind and stupid.
Okay, there's some crap with the gold in this passage (and more than a little tongue-in-cheekiness), but he makes a valid point, I think, with which others might agree. Jerry Saltz, author of the Village Voice article above, might argue that market forces have shaped contemporary aesthetics, which is democracy in action.

If we really want to talk about art and market forces, the most successful painter in the history of the world is Thomas Kinkade, "the painter of light." This guy is a walking cliche of bad art, and yet people collect his work fanatically. There is a huge disconnect between the art described in the Village Voice article and the art that most Americans would buy for their homes.

Has contemporary art -- at the highest levels -- become too insular and disconnected from the populace? Has making art for the market destroyed the art scene? It seems that it's been thirty or more years since any fine art has been culturally relevant when it was first shown.

I have always thought that art should be challenging to a certain degree -- that art should lead people to new ideas or ways of seeing and not reflect what people are already comfortable with. But people seem to have stopped looking at art in this way. It no longer has the power to shape perception because no one can relate to it. All of which makes me ask: Has art stopped being relevant to the culture at large?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, so I'm eager to hear from others who might have more informed opinions on these topics. What do you all think?

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