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Are markets to blame for bad art?
Are markets to blame for bad art?
“We have entered the age of laissez-faire aesthetics.” So grumbles Jed Perl, art critic at The New Republic in his February 5, 2007 cover story. In the “art world” we once found culture and sophistication, Perl informs us. Now we find “a well oiled machine,” an “art scene, which has been fattened and massaged and emboldened by a boisterous stock market…” The obscenely wealthy are spending obscene amounts of money on art, which probably would have prompted obscenity charges in the recent past. The willingness of the moneyed to buy, display, and approve of all types of bad art is a new development of our overheated economy. Almost channeling T.S. Eliot, Perl concludes, “Laissez-faire aesthetics is the aesthetics that violates the very principles of art, because it insists that anything goes, when in fact the only thing that is truly unacceptable in the visual arts is the idea that anything goes.”
The wrong is not in the market’s operation but rather in its use by the purveyor of kitsch to cater to the pedestrian sentiments of the viewer and thus stultify moral education.
Perl is not alone in his assessment. A recent article in the Catholic magazine Crisis launched similar allegations against the state of contemporary art. Artist and critic Maureen Mullarkey carefully attempts to demonstrate how Big Art operates, cataloguing the interconnecting networks of collectors, trustees, and patrons, all working to increase price tags and reap monetary rewards. She complains of “realities that undermine Judeo-Christian culture and cultivation itself” and asks the question, cui bono? The answer is immediate: the collectors, trustees, and patrons themselves. Good art—nay, civilization!—has been sacrificed at the altar of Mammon.
There is nothing new about either of these arguments on the merits. Whenever art and markets come together there are howls of indignation from the artists. Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” has it that
In E.A. Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevey,”
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant…
Modern poets have inveighed against the pernicious influence economic forces have on the aesthetic ideals of beauty and art. But is this criticism deserved? Are markets to blame for bad art?
That art finds the available market goes without saying. In pre-modern times art found its market in high patronage—be it the ecclesiastical patronage of the Church, the personal patronage of aristocrats, or the royal patronage of the pre-modern state. As markets grew freer and diversified, so did the potential for patronage. Compare the work of Rubens and Rembrandt. Rubens, a court painter from what is now Belgium—then a possession of the Spanish crown—is known for his monumental, grandiose canvases. Rembrandt, on the other hand, painting in the mercantile Netherlands ran an efficient (if not always lucrative) studio, catering to a wide range of upper-middle class tastes. Rembrandt is the tip of the iceberg: the comparatively open and prosperous Dutch market economy has given us myriad small, precise, similar oil works. Most museums are filled to the brim with somber Dutch still lifes, landscapes, and domestic scenes. Such were the tastes then and there, and such were the paintings. While one may quibble about the appeal of these works on their aesthetic merits, it is undeniable that they are at least pretty good art, that the Western corpus would be worse off without them, and that they would not exist save for the free Dutch markets that then prevailed.
Markets today play a different role in the creation of contemporary art than they did in the Dutch baroque. Nevertheless, the history of what we typically know as “contemporary art” (loosely used here to describe art from the latter half of the 20th Century up until the present) in many respects is a dialectic between the “bohemian” pretensions of the artists and the bourgeois markets that enable him to work. Tom Wolfe controversially termed this dialectic “the Boho Dance” in which “the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself” until “the Consummation” when the bourgeois “art world” showers him with “fame, money, and beautiful lovers.” The burgher benefactor, in turn, gets “the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes…the feeling that he might be from the middle class but he is no longer in it…” It is this synthetic tension between “bohemian” artist and “bourgeois” enabler that gave us everyone from Pollock to Rothko to Stella to Warhol to Johns and so on.
The market is an amoral tool. A “laissez-faire” art market doesn’t tell us what to buy; it simply gauges the willingness of others to buy and corrects prices accordingly.
The perennial tension between the contemporary artist’s product and the market on which he sells it illuminates some of macro-artistic trends of the last century, but it does not, in itself, answer Perl’s objections. Wolfe’s construct of the Boho Dance/Consummation is precisely the problem, as far as the critics are concerned. Perl places the blame for the current market-driven art scene at the feet of the late Andy Warhol—“the Moses who first saw the promised land of laissez-faire aesthetics…the evil prophet of the profit motive.” Wolfe notes the same fact with less censure and more cynicism, claiming that for the Pop Artist, “to wallow in the luxuries of le monde, to junk it through with absolute abandon, was simply part of the new bohemia.”
Implicit in Perl’s argument is a distaste for kitsch masquerading as art. Although Perl might rightly deny this—he seems fine with “high kitsch” as art in the proper context, which is a defensible position—as a rule such a distaste is understandable and, I would argue, proper. The appeal of “laissez-faire aesthetics” as a bogeyman is that markets give kitsch an audience—think of the Thomas Kinkade store in the local mall. But even here the market is simply a vehicle for a bad idea.
The problem with kitsch is deeper than its appeal to the mob. Kitsch is an insult to the purposes of art. As the English aesthetic philosopher Roger Scruton notes, “just as there is ‘knowing what to do’ so too is there ‘knowing what to feel.’ The feelings, like the will, are capable of education.” The education of feelings should be ordered towards universal emotional criteria, held throughout a culture and informed through tradition. Accordingly, our proper emotional reaction is merely an instantiation of a larger, ideal emotional law traversing generations of human experience, and so, “one might say…that the education of these universalized emotions is an essential part of moral development.” Art and aesthetics are an integral part of this emotional education—the word aesthetics itself derives from the Greek “to feel.” Art cultivates emotional perception. “It influences the mind, the nerves, the feelings, the soul. It carries messages of hope, hostility, derision, and moral rebuke,” writes Jacques Barzun. Kitsch trades in shallow sentiment. The moral edification that can come from aesthetic perception lacks in kitsch, which is merely a commercialized appeal to basic individual emotions. Art teaches the viewer—kitsch panders to him.
Markets offer the signals that let a kitsch peddler find mass-commercial appeal and quick profit, but they are only a means to an end. The wrong is not in the market’s operation but rather in its use by the purveyor of kitsch to cater to the pedestrian sentiments of the viewer and thus stultify moral education. Regardless of market forces and price valuation, the intrinsic artistic value of kitsch is nil.
People of good taste, presumably like Perl, should rejoice to live in an age where edifying art is more affordable than soul-degrading kitsch thanks to the Invisible Hand.
Perl’s error is his implicit concession that the price of a piece of art has, or ought to have, some bearing on its artistic value. Yes, there is some terrible, ugly stuff out there racking up high prices in galleries. It is the contention of laissez-faire aesthetics that the philosophical criteria for value criticism—is this good art or even art at all?—should be the market price. Perl buys into this contention, even as he tries to refute it. In finding high prices for bad art distressing, he gives the game away.
At a certain level Perl’s denunciations of the art scene today are fair: “Laissez-faire aesthetics makes a mockery of nothing. Even irony is too much of an idea.” We can criticize the tastes of the people who sponsor and partake in this culture through their material and moral patronage. But why should we assume that the sum-total of their bad taste—the free art market—reflects anything but that: their bad taste? The market is an amoral tool. A “laissez-faire” art market doesn’t tell us what to buy; it simply gauges the willingness of others to buy and corrects prices accordingly. That the high-end is both boorish and banal has everything to do with aesthetics and nothing to do with the laissez-faire.
The fact remains that the free market in aesthetics, currently, is more than simply not-bad. The market’s current trend towards over-pricing the value of derivative junk at the behest of the “art world” can have good effects on the pricing of good art. The collector looking for aesthetic value, not market price can find ample bargains by leaving the ersatz-sophisticates of the establishment art world to themselves. Projector installations aren’t your thing? Good for you. How about Jacob Collins and the Classical Realist School? It’s cheaper, more aesthetically pleasing, and consciously operating within a tradition. People of good taste, presumably like Perl, should rejoice to live in an age where edifying art is more affordable than soul-degrading kitsch thanks to the Invisible Hand.
The benefits of the free market do not apply merely to the collector, however; they apply to the art viewer as well. Take an example from my recent museum-going: The National Gallery is currently displaying an exhibition on Jasper Johns’ early work, dealing primarily with the interplay among four common motifs from his oeuvre between 1955 and 1965. One of the four motifs is the target, and the first room of the exhibition is full of them. Colorful targets, demonstrating the interplay between geometric form and disparate color fields. Monochrome targets, emphasizing the purity of the ideal circular forms and the rough, intentionally imperfect texture of the surface itself. Drawings of paintings of targets, presenting an all-too-knowing a priori assumption of beauty through replication. All peppered with self-consciously ironic (or inane) quotes by Johns on the “utility” of art. It causes viewers to reflect on beauty, form, culture, tradition, and technique in a way that embodies why they go to museums in the first place. And who, you might ask, brought these large, varied targets before me in the National Gallery? None other than the Target Corporation.
Michael Fragoso is a Research Assistant at the Family Research Council. The views expressed here are his own.
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