Friday, November 02, 2007

Art and Patriotism

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.
---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.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Edward_ said...

I should note that the Shaw quote at the top is merely my favorite on Patriotism. It doesn't apply to Halpert as she wasn't born in the US.

11/02/2007 09:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Ginger said...

But isn't this also the essence of regionalism? Think of all the grants which go to artists living in a specific location or galleries which only show locals or regional museums which focus on locals. It's a variant of taking care of your own. It has positive impacts and negative.

11/02/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's a variant of taking care of your own.

Surely.

I guess where I want to question it is when it's conflated with an intellectual assessment of what's more important or influential. Halpert had a pretty brilliant mind and eye, yet she let something (I suspect the resentment that her family was forced out of Odessa when she was a girl and she was able to be herself in the US) color her sense of the value of art from other places. Then again, she championed American art of a particular genre/period over later American art as well, so perhaps it wasn't a "patriotic" bias as much as it was, as you note, taking care of one's own.

The trick, to my mind, is having criteria that define who is "one of your own" that transcends something as arbitrary (at least in today's jet-setting world) as geography.

11/02/2007 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Off topic -

Edward, check out Dennis Hartley's post on http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/ about the four year old abstract painter. It's a good post.

11/04/2007 10:57:00 AM  

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