Art and Patriotism
---George Bernard Shaw
One of the changes of heart I had while reading Lindsay Pollock's book about Edith Halpert (The Girl with the Gallery) was how I felt about the fact that Halpert championed American art over all other art. Initially I thought it was a very clever niche to carve out for herself, undoubtedly backed by a sincere belief that the work was undervalued in the eyes of the international art world as well as here in the US, but a marketing strategy first and foremost. As I read how Halpert stubbornly clung to this position, even the to the point of getting tangentially mixed up with Nixon's famous "Kitchen Debate" with Khrushchev at the US Embassy in Moscow in 1959 (Halpert had curated an exhibition of American art that coincided with the Vice President's trip there and triumphantly told Soviet reporters how she represented the freedom Nixon talked about [in that she had directly contradicted one of President Eisenhower's quips about American art in the press and not only lived to tell of it but was still permitted to curate the show despite the highly publicized dispute]), though, I began to think Halpert was exhibiting nationalistic tendencies at odds with the humanist potential of great art. It's one thing to feel patriotic pride about the fact that Stuart Davis' work could have only emerged from America, it's another entirely to assume that anyone else born in the US would naturally make art superior to that of other nations as well. I'm not saying Halpert consciously did that, mind you, but I did begin to feel as if she was limiting the overall potential importance of her gallery's "dialog" by clinging to an American-only program and couldn't figure out why.
Patriotism and art have a very troublesome partnership in general in my opinion. There's no doubt that ascending economic powers quickly realize that art serves as a wonderful messenger for its image of benevolent superiority (or in some cases simply its superiority). The history of the rise of American art in the second half of the 20th century is dotted with dubious diplomatic decisions at critical moments that would make for a good spy novel. But we're the "good guys" spreading the good news (or at least we were until Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), so that's OK...at least to us. Besides, with our country growing at the rate it did throughout the 1900s, and so many new communities with middle/upper class homes that needed decorating, and universities that needed collections with which to teach, and civic committees/leaders who needed (wanted) the prestige that a museum brings, we needed more art in general here at home, and why shouldn't it reflect first and foremost who were are, rather than those other older countries? Especially when we're talking contemporary art.
Recent auction results from other parts of the world, however, suggest we're not the only nation with patriotic purchasing patterns. Chinese, Russian, and even Middle Eastern collectors are demonstrating a proclivity for buying work by artists from their homeland or regions. From via artinfo.com:
Middle Eastern artists scored record sales last night at Christie's auction in Dubai's Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, Bloomberg reports.
Christie's third auction in Dubai, which sold $15 million of contemporary works, produced the auction record for an Arab artwork with Ahmed Mustapha's Qu'ranic Polyptych of Nine Panels bringing in $657,000 (including commission). Mustapha held the previous record of $284,800, set at Christie's first Dubai sale in May 2006.
Lebanese and North African artists also set records last night, but contemporary Western art did not fare as well. Damien Hirst's Atorvastatina sold for $481,000, toward the lower end of the estimates, while his Untitled (from War Child) failed to meet the reserve.
I'm not sure there's much anyone can (or even should) do about this. As much as I suspect it represents motivations beyond mere admiration for the work, it's undoubtedly true that work that speaks to you is more likely to originate from where you come from (even more so if you limit your overall worldview). I do think as the art market shrinks, however, that this tendency should be taken into account when collectors consider the publicized pronouncements about whose work is selling for what. A Hirst in London may not be anywhere near as valuable as a Hirst in Dubai.