In Defense of Commercial Galleries
Of course, everyone would expect me to take that position. But this ain't gonna be your run-of-the-mill "we help artists pay their rents" or whatever type defense. This is a put-up or shut-up clarion call to those who would single-out commercial galleries as a symbol of corruption of what, one must assume the implication is, would be a much better (more "humane" one reader called it) art world, were commercial galleries to be abolished.
The argument goes that any art that enters a commercial gallery loses its "original sense as it automatically becomes an object of luxury for sale." This strikes me as a myopic delusion, as it implies that money is the only currency that has the potential to corrupt art, when on the contrary fame and critical acclaim can change art and artists just as much, but we don't see calls for abolishing the systems whereby those are perpetuated. If the original sense of art is lost in the context of it being for sale (with the potential feedback being cash), why doesn't it lose its original sense in the context of it being on exhibit for public approval (with the potential feedback being praise)?
The anti-commercial argument presumes a purity and selflessness on the part of the "true artist" that quite frankly I find mythological, if not downright ludicrous. It's an extreme, one-dimensional reading of a much more nuanced circumstance. To see that clearly all one needs to do is flip the extreme and look at its opposite: because one can become just as addicted to praise or other types of positive feedback as one can cash, the only way to avoid any corruption of any sort in one's art is to never show it to anyone at all. Indeed, that is the only failsafe way to ensure the art is always truly pure. Of course that would then eliminate the communication aspect of the endeavor and reduce it to masturbation, but it would protect the art from corruption.
So if purity is a fallacy, the question really becomes how much positive feedback (in the form of praise, acclaim, or cash) can an artist tolerate? How much can an artist expose themselves to before the potential for corruption becomes dangerously high? I believe that there's a spectrum---a range of feedback types and degrees that are simply a matter of personal choice for each individual artist. Some artists can accept lots of positive feedback (of different types, per each) and stay grounded. Others will be influenced and let a desire for more such feedback change what they might have otherwise done.
But overstating the danger here also presumes the artist is somehow not in control of such choices. It's condescending to the artist ("oh, they won't be able to resist the allure and they'll cave in and set up a factory, pumping out the same signature pieces"). While that may indeed be a risk, the idea that one has to protect the helpless artists from that potential by abolishing the system is authoritarian in the worst way.
Yes, I know, there are other perceived problems with commercial galleries. One reader suggested commercial galleries are "the reason our museums look more like a collection of flat-wall luxury objects than a space of true artistic experiments like happen in art centres." While possibly true, that is hardly the fault of the commercial galleries. Curators at museums can acquire work from any number of sources. They're not limited to what commercial galleries exhibit. In fact, this is a re-occurring theme when looking at this issue...the assertion that those in decision-making positions are at the mercy of the commercial galleries. (Again, the conclusion is that no one is responsible for their actions in all this but the commercial gallerist.)
In the end, a commercial gallery IS a business. Business decisions do influence what is exhibited, and therefore commercial galleries are not the best indication of the overall art world. No kidding. But to single them out as the villain preventing other art from not getting attention is to project the responsibilities of other spaces onto them. Not only do commercial galleries NOT harm non-commercial spaces, we spend a great deal of our own time and money every year supporting them. We volunteer for fund-raising committees, donate artwork for benefits, buy memberships, serve on boards, buy advertising in their publications, etc., etc., etc.
What I think colors perceptions here is the high-profile nature of commercial galleries. We advertise a lot. More people know about us, because we're always in their faces. But to assert that with that comes the responsibility to represent a segment of the art world that 1) doesn't belong in the context of a commercial gallery or 2) is earnest but underrepresented, is to assert that the viewers looking for other type of work have no responsibility themselves to seek it out and that the artists whose work isn't a good match for commercial galleries don't own the burden of bringing their work to the public's attention. Indeed, the implication seems to be that if commercial galleries were not distracting the public with their glossy ads and such, that the public would somehow automatically find the (implied) better work on their own. Which in turn implies that the public is being fooled or lazy. Which again is condescending.
In the end, a commercial gallery is just one platform available for artists. It's an attractive platform, because it is high-profile and potentially lucrative, but it's not like gallerists are forcing artists to work with them. Artists who don't like the context can communicate with the public via other channels. Rather than calling for the abolishment of commercial galleries, those who don't like them would put their efforts to much better use developing and supporting those other channels and stop pretending there's some dangerously corrupting aspect about commercial galleries that's making the world more inhumane. That's a cop out and, worse, a pointless distraction.