A Balanced Art Diet : Open Thread
In the decade from 1998 to 2008, worldwide sales of contemporary art at auction swelled from just $48 million to over $1.3 billion, representing a more than eightfold rise in the sector's market share, from 1.8 percent to 15.9 percent of the global fine art trade. During this same period, contemporary art would also overtake Impressionist and modern art as the most valuable sales category at the world's leading auction houses, an astonishing feat given the long-standing supremacy of these established categories and the sheer speed of its ascent; whereas just 8 percent of artworks selling about $100,000 were contemporary in 2005, this figure more than doubled to 19.5 percent at its peak two years later.Why this happened is complex, but the factors clearly playing into it include how scarce great works from other the categories had become (a factor related to the proliferation of art museums around the world and subsequent snapping up the few Impressionist and Modern works still available); the rise of the global art fair industry and the impact that had on accelerating the buying process (which increased the amount of flipping-at-auction based speculation, and hence these numbers); and what I'd call a very successful advertising campaign by the contemporary art market, in which buying contemporary art became a high-profile, very sexy, very conspicuous practice sprinkled with equal measures of glamor and celebrity. The rise of the contemporary market has been a triumph of capitalism's best practices: create scarcity, increase demand, promote brand loyalty, etc. etc.
But have we become victims of our own success? What are we giving up through creating such a unprecedentedly strong contemporary art awareness.
Last week (while we were in London), Holland Cotter presented a thought-provoking piece in The New York Times titled "Under Threat: The Shock of the Old." In it he notes how this success of the contemporary market is impacting the choices budding art historians are making at our art schools:
[T]he reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one. To an unprecedented degree, contemporary art, no matter what its geographic or cultural source, is now thoroughly tied to and buoyed by the global economy. This phenomenon is fairly recent. Not long ago the contemporary market meant Europe and America. Now it also means New Delhi, Beijing and Dubai. New art has become a worldwide industry. Industries generate jobs.
Holders of degrees in contemporary art history don’t have to limit their career prospects to the low-paying teaching gigs that remain the fate of their colleagues in more traditional studies. They can, in greater numbers than ever, become curators, corporate advisers, auction house experts and dealers in a luxury business that has, so far, floated above the prevailing economic turbulence. Sticklers for academic orthodoxy are prone to hint at corner-cutting features of a contemporary-art major. Language requirements are often minimal, English being the global art world lingua franca. And with only the history of today and yesterday to deal with, primary research can be done, over a Starbucks latte, via Google.
I have to confess, with things moving as quickly as they are, I feel constant pressure to learn more about contemporary art and the latest artists to emerge on my radar than I do to continue my education about older art. I assume I'll have my retirement to troll through the halls of the great encyclopedic museums, and dust off those large books weighing down the lower shelves of my bookcases. Right now, though, there's a new crop of new artists with new ideas every year. (And it generally takes me longer to learn about what they're thinking than it does to down a latte.)
Still, I do see the perils of focusing too much on the here and now, least of which is not recognizing when some "new" idea is actually a well-established "old" idea you simply weren't familiar with. (We have a joke in the gallery about younger artists who think art history is to burdensome to learn: "Hey, did you know someone else already presented a urinal on a pedestal once?")
Of course, the flip side to broadening beyond contemporary art in our institutions is to begin to water down the context entirely. One realm that is (again, through money) seeping into the fine art context (and if you look at me on any given day, you'll know why I am at best ambivalent about it) is high fashion:
Not everyone (including yours truly) really appreciates this infiltration:
Officials at the American Association of Museums say that there is no data available on the annual number of fashion exhibitions at member museums across the country. Some, including the Museum of the City of New York and the Chicago History Museum, have been doing them for years. It’s not surprising that design museums, like the gallery at the Bard Graduate Center (scheduled to host a Stephen Jones hat show) and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (now showing Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry and the designs of Sonia Delaunay) regularly work clothing into their rotation.
But suddenly it seems as if a world of tomboys just discovered dresses, whether they like them or not. Since John Buchanan took over as director of the de Young, he has mounted not only the Balenciaga exhibition but a series of fashion and jewelry shows, including one on Vivienne Westwood and another on Yves Saint Laurent (a Montreal show that went on to Paris).
Behind the rush to fluff up ball gowns for display are fierce philosophical disagreements among board members, museum directors, curators and critics on what is art and what is not, and whose underwriting checks are acceptable.But that kind of misses the real question here, imho. What is "art" is something people will debate (although, I'm still not clear why), but what should be preserved is the concern of museums. Not even fashion designers agree on that:
A fashion exhibition can only stay up for a limited time because exposure to light damages fabrics. “I always thought of clothes as a disposable art form,” Mr. [Oscar] de la Renta said in a telephone interview. “I never thought that clothes were as important as they have become.”But I'm getting off track here. Within the context of "fine art," the recent rise of contemporary art is clearly having an impact on who pays attention to more historical works as well as other types of art being made now. As in all things, I believe maintaining a balance is a good idea. But what do you do? There's not enough time to see all the contemporary art shows in Chelsea; visit the area museums that exhibit contemporary; keep up to speed with what galleries and museums in other places are exhibiting (via the internet); do studio visits;and read, read, read the latest analysis of it all.
One idea I was particularly fond of was the site Art Inconnu (which seems to be on a bit of a hiatus). From their "About" statement:
Collected here are works by artists who are forgotten, under appreciated, or little known, as well as news, reviews and ephemera from the corners of art history. Works of startling quality can be found beyond the big names in the visual arts, whether it is just one exceptional work, an area of an artists oeuvre, or an entire career worth re-examining.The weathered faces in the portraits by Charles Frederick Goldie (1870 -1947), for example, are fabulous if only in how the suggest rugged landscapes (which I imagine as maps of the places his subjects were born). Perhaps you knew Goldie already, but Art Inconnu introduced me to the work (I suspect he's from New Zealand) and although it's not work that makes sense in my gallery, I would still make the trek to see them in person should the opportunity arise. I'm sorry to see that site's not still active. Hopefully, they'll pick back up soon.
The site also has this fabulous randomizing set of links to previous posts (over 350 artists are included) called "5 Random Artists from Art Inconnu," making it fun to happen upon some artist you never knew before. Of course, the reason Art Inconnu works is that someone else took the time to scour the records, assemble the images, post the details, etc. And it's a lot to ask that someone keep doing so for free. But like all of the blogosphere, so long as the work is divided up among enthusiasts, this online history lesson is one good example of how to keep the dots connected and your diet of art well balanced.