Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What Has Art Become to Us?

There's been a meme in the art world for a while now that if fine art doesn't find a way to reach beyond the small and insular clique of heady curators and handful of collectors who support it, that it very likely stands the chance of going the way of jazz music. It will still exist in that list of rarefied pursuits that has its loyal following (like poetry or dance), but it will no longer widely influence the culture at large. Some would say we've already reached that point, but I would submit, that something else, perhaps worse, has been happening in two different arenas, but toward the same end

First, you read it again and again in the business press recently:
  • Investors flee money markets, turn to art
  • Wealthy dump gold, turn to art
  • Jaded investors turn to wine, art, coins

Now, before young artists take that as a sign from the universe that they should go ahead and rent that larger studio, though, please note that this is not an increase in Collecting (with a capital C), but merely a different approach toward investing. And while it would seem to make sense that what's good for the art market is good for all artists, I'm not so sure this approach trickles down to the average art buyer.

Indeed, the reality of this seeming trend is less encouraging:
Some of the world’s richest families are cutting their holdings in gold to take profits on the run-up in prices and are buying high-end art to preserve their wealth during market turmoil, an executive advising these families said.

While many of these families have been holding gold for a decade or more, building positions of up to 15% of their investment portfolio, they are now taking profits and putting the money to work in the art market, said Andrew Nolan, a director of wealth management and advisory firm Stonehage.

“Families were well ahead of the market on gold. A lot of them were sitting on large amounts of gold for quite a while,” said Mr. Nolan, whose company manages US$2-billion and advises around 100 families with total wealth of around US$30-billion.

“Families are putting more into the art market, which held up far better through the crisis than a lot of other assets. There are more emerging markets buyers now, they want trophy assets, which supports prices.” [emphasis mine]
More disturbing than the trophyfication of art, though, is perhaps its reduction to simply another monument to snap in satisfying a vacation scrapbook checklist. As Roberta Smith noted in an article in The New York Times the other day, the act of taking in art through a camera (or cellphone or whatever) lens has to a large degree replaced any actual viewing:
The ubiquity of cameras in exhibitions can be dismaying, especially when read as proof that most art has become just another photo op for evidence of Kilroy-was-here passing through. More generously, the camera is a way of connecting, participating and collecting fleeting experiences.

For better and for worse, it has become intrinsic to many people’s aesthetic responses.
I've noticed a delineation of this trend corresponding with venue. You see much more of art viewing via a digital filter in museums and biennials than you do in art fairs and less still in actual galleries. This suggests to me that the closer you, as a viewer, are to the gallery system (i.e., a more concise viewing experience, stripped of extraneous signifiers like glimpses of other exhibitions, excessive signage and/or branding, crowd management systems [ropes and/or queues], barriers that tell you to stay back,...you know, the kinds of things you expect at amusement parks), the less likely you are to consider art just another tourist attraction. In fact, the whole experience of walking into a space that has been dedicated to one art viewing experience has a way of telling you to slow down, consider just this chunk, take this more seriously.

And it seems to work. Very few people will view any of our gallery exhibitions through a camera, even groups of students or tourists who we know are not that accustomed to visiting galleries.

Art viewing is nothing if not a connection between two minds, in my opinion. Apprehending the beauty or horror or insights that the artist sees or saw...viewing the world in a new way through his or her eyes...gasping as the synapses in your brain exchange information in a new pattern, making you laugh or sigh or simply stand in awe. That's what art can be to us. It's certainly what most of us remember thinking it was when we were kids. None of us were taught to see art as merely trophies or photo-ops. We were taught that it represents the very best of what we, as humans, can achieve, not merely an alternative to gold when that market seems tapped out.

Of course, seeing art that way requires actually taking the time to view it. The season is about to gear up again...go view some art.

Labels: art viewing


Blogger Julie Sadler said...

What an outstanding and uplifting post. Cheers to you Ed!

9/06/2011 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Hey Ed,

Your Roberta Smith link is broke. But here is a link to the mainpage. I post the main page because if you scroll down to the City Critic's "When Wheels Pile Up..." you might find a solution to the insular art world's problems.

9/06/2011 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the tip on the link Bernard. It's been fixed.

Oh, and congrats on the article.

9/06/2011 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Thank you

9/06/2011 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

I guess that not being trophy material might be a good thing then.

I think about the way people view art all of the time because I straddle many art worlds, having most of my successes in the non-cammercial, or public sphere. I like it when the viewer doesn't even know that they are looking at art at all but rather something interesting in their environment that is "not normal" and therefore making them think about it. But having said that I'm in my very first painting show opening in Toronto on Saturday and I know that this is a completely different kind of audience.

You're absolutely right about the difference between the gallery or fair experience as apposed to the museum. You do see cameras at a fair, but they're not working from some kind of check list. I think it's genuinely collecting images to think about later. Maybe it's how a collector makes a wish list.

I say to my students the only reasons to make art is because you feel you have to and that it does represent the best that we can be. Where else can we speak with passion about something so amazing as when two colors touch. This is a special thing. And where else can we truly challenge ourselves to find out who we are. As I continue to learn about myself and my world, even after 25 years, I'm constantly amazed and frightened at the same time.

I'll be looking forward to your upcoming shows. On that note I'm going to try and visit the opening Friday, but it will mean driving all night to get to my opening in Toronto the next day. But I just might do that.

Good luck with the upcoming season!

9/06/2011 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger bethofagirl said...

Kudos! This was the most insightful, thoughtful read I have had in quite some time. Thank you.

9/06/2011 08:42:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I've been investing in art for years, mine! wanna some shares? Good luck this season Ed.

9/07/2011 08:58:00 AM  
Blogger helen said...

Thank you for this, Ed.

9/08/2011 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger helen said...

Thank you for this, Ed.

9/08/2011 05:39:00 PM  

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