Protected: Art? Or food for the beast?

by Janet Tyson November 17, 2011

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sometimeslucky November 17, 2011 - 19:57

Are you not perhaps, in proportion, a little too concerned with hurting the feelings of the power-brokers of the world? No doubt, there have been wonderful, wealthy patrons throughout history. I can think of a dozen easily. But if you imagine the wealthy need to be defended from the generalizations and slogans employed by the Occupy movement, I would suggest you’re either kowtowing or yourself ‘wrong-headed’. Only one party has ever suffered a deficit of advocacy. Undoubtedly you’re obfuscating by interpreting the ‘%1’ so literally. In addition, Concentrated wealth, i.e., power is no more necessary or good for the art world as it is for the democracy. It’s absurd for you to suggest otherwise. The middle class and the commons are perfectly capable of supporting a healthy art market … should that class survive.

So I’m afraid your admonition to ‘do the right thing’ might as well have fallen from the gold-plated jello-mold of career-path platitude.

Christina Rees November 18, 2011 - 15:29

The art world in its current definition has always depended on concentrated power and wealth to thrive. Historically, the majority in the middle class don’t like idea-driven or ambitious art well enough to commission or buy it.

sometimeslucky November 19, 2011 - 13:31

Is that a historical fact or myth? I haven’t noticed any correlation between income and taste and intelligence – not that more conceptual and less optic works are in any way a litmus for either. Who are the makers? Could it be that those with voice get to proclaim loudest what is so? And what about when those who get to proclaim also profit from their proclamations? Is the art world still thriving?

Even if ‘the majority in the middle class don’t like idea-driven or ambitious art …’were axiomatic such elitist pretensions are enough to ensure continued, voluntary exclusion. Who wouldn’t skip that party?

You need only travel to the Chron’s society page, ha! to see our aesthetic giants in all their botoxed glory. Let them on the caboose, I say, but if they go for the engine, toss them off.

janet tyson November 19, 2011 - 13:16

Christina, thanks for pitching in on this. Museums of modern and contemporary art try to educate the middle class about art, but I don’t believe they’ll ever succeed to where the middle-class will buy challenging work.
Besides, most people–even the Rachofskys of this world–have higher priorities. They want the coolest home, car, clothes and furnishings they can afford before they spend money on art.
As Gertrude Stein said: “When you’re not rich, you can either buy or buy pictures.” Today, she’d probably say: “You can either buy an iPad and Botox, or you can buy pictures.”
In any case,sometimeslucky (and it’s so annoying when people don’t use their real names) missed my point.
I give the 1-percent the benefit of the doubt but, basically, I’m in there with the OWSers: I think the banks, market speculators, obscenely compensated CEOs and their ilk need to be jailed for having destroyed American capitalism.

Robert Boyd November 19, 2011 - 13:37

“Historically, the majority in the middle class don’t like idea-driven or ambitious art well enough to commission or buy it.”

It doesn’t take the majority of the middle class buying art to make a viable, large market for it. A minority of the middle class being involved in the purchase of art would be enough to change the whole system. But for the most part, art retailers don’t cater to this market. Galleries are designed to sell objects to the upper middle class and the rich. Artists make gigantic pieces that can only be owned by institutions or people who live in mansions. The whole process of buying art is intimidating to a moderately wealthy newbie.

On the other hand, there are things like 20×200 that are committed to getting artwork out to people who have incomes closer to the U.S. median. (And 20×200 is derided by those with a vested interest in maintaining the more exclusive, rich-oriented art retailing system as a “poster shop.” Class always has a way of rearing its ugly head.

janet tyson November 19, 2011 - 17:27

Good points. The complicity of artists/dealers/museums prevents the middle-class from being players. A big art of the game is exclusion of those who don’t have a certain amount of money/clout. But this is one of the points I (not very clearly, I guess) was trying to make in my original post: upper- and upper middle-class artists aspire to and/or operate on a level that tacitly excludes collectors who lack the money to buy ‘important’ work.

Christina Rees November 19, 2011 - 20:15

@sometimeslucky. (Whoever you are.) It’s fact. Those of us in the selling trenches during the boom and following recent bust can attest to it. Of course the middle class isn’t bereft of taste or intelligence, but in this economy, art buying for the average income is a budget priority that dies. I’m not convinced that the art-buying boom within the middle class in the last decade was ever set up to last. It was short-lived and an exception in the longer hindsight of history. Art became trendy, and far more people went to art school and churned out work and hoped to become successful.

The real power is in the hands and decision-making boardrooms of the financially elite, whatever their taste may be, both good and bad.

There will always be grassroots local art scenes that cater to the middle classes who want something on their walls, but that’s not where any national or international spotlight lands. For most local artists, it’s usually toil, and it’s usually obscurity, except among their immediate peers.

If you want to see where the art “world” is right now, read the most recent major auction house results. The 1% are thriving on modern and contemporary art and buying like mad. Janet is asking a simple question: If you are an artist right now, what do you do with that kind of reality check?

janet tyson November 21, 2011 - 20:23

The 1-percent is going to buy the most challenging art, not only because they can afford it, but also because they like to signal that they don’t feel bound by the same conventions as the middle class. Conversely, no matter how trendy and aspirational the middling sort may become, I’m not sure how deeply they’re going to participate in the whole ‘epater la bourgeoisie’ thing that artists and the richest patrons enjoy.

Christopher Blay November 21, 2011 - 22:37

The history of artists being paid for art has always been about institutions and wealth. Where artists fucked up is believing the hype that all of us have the potential to make money doing this shit. The “market” can’t sustain the number of MFA candidates cranked out per capita each year. Nor for that matter the institutions that crank them out. Galleries and auction houses( read GAGosian, Christies) don’t seek out pedestrian ” local” art( WTFis local anyway). The issues that affect my colleagues are things like the prostitution of adjunct professors running around town piecing together part time gigs that are more often than not swiped from under them by the same professors who encouraged them to get that MFA in the first place, while the trend buyers continue their insignificant game of significance. Janet, you rock! I Think however that the model of art as commodity has mashed up into this Hydramorph of commodity and celebrity that’s a rich glaze over everything created right now. Until artists scrape that shit off and realize that audience isn’t always about worldwide distribution and being in someone’s badass collection. We can actually Make the shit we want to and let the chips ( or crumbs) fall where they may and not depend on galleries and collectors. On the other hand most of us don’t because really who’s paying attention? AAANY ways, the Patriots are kicking KC’s ass right now ( which sucks! and all this one finger typing is killing my beer buzz.

Janet Tyson November 22, 2011 - 07:41

Amen, Chris! The only way that making art makes any sense is for artists to be primarily motivated by making what they want, rather than what will sell (although there’s obviously room for overlap between the two).
Too many people have been sucked into the idea that the market validates. It’s an American thing and I can see how it proved particularly toxic for artists.

Bill Davenport November 22, 2011 - 09:26

In my experience, people of limited means are often interested in and buy challenging conceptual art, provided it’s cheap enough. Rich people don’t have different tastes from poor ones, just more money. Education is a far more important factor.

Rainey Knudson November 22, 2011 - 10:27

Agreed. The percent of people with a taste for challenging art is small, and consistently small across socioeconomic lines.

janet tyson November 28, 2011 - 11:45

If by people of limited means, you mean artists or well-educated but under-employed. Those people are going to have more sophisticated tastes. And there are rich people who are extremely conservative and aren’t going to want to pay for work that assaults their cultural values.
But I also believe that wealth brings with it an arrogance and a sense that one can flout values that others may hold dear.

Michael Corris November 28, 2011 - 10:55

There used to be a name and an explanation for the confusion demonstrated in Janet Tyson’s opinions: petty-bourgeois and class society. What the 99%s do most wonderfully is to reopen the dialogue on wealth inequities under capitalism. The 1%s who “sympathize” can afford to pay lip service; their emotional support comes cheap and leads nowhere.

That arch conservative Clement Greenberg identified back in 1939 the “umbilical chord of gold” that ties artists to patrons; even then, the suggestion that artists were vulnerable because of their relation to the bourgeoisie was commonplace. Today, it is as radical as a Rotarian.

Not quite so long ago — a mere 45 years — Ad Reinhardt wrote that the business of an artists is to exhibit their art. Not to get rich, become a celebrity or think they were better than anyone else. He put his money where his mouth was and worked, first as an illustrator and graphic designer, then as an art teacher at Brooklyn College, for his entire life. He managed to make great art, write incredibly pointed polemics, and produce a host of brilliant cartoons lambasting the New York art scene. Oh, and he was also a committed leftist who worked with mass organizations to advance civil rights, protect the rights of artists, and end the war in Vietnam.

Reinhardt’s one model, not the only model. We need more models, not more “watchful waiting.” That path leads to opportunism, confusion and more po-faced hand wringing about the state of the arts.

Janet Tyson December 1, 2011 - 07:22

After deleting my initial, typo-plagued and, yes, confused response to Michael Corris’ comment, I’ve decided to hash my thoughts out in a new blog–that I hope won’t try to patience of those who get it.


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