Art for Art’s Sake: Enjoying it

I’m resurrecting this draft in light of a Telegraph article that laments the commercial nature of the art market in 2008. In the article, Australian critic Robert Hughes claims that the price of a work of art is, unfortunately, more significant than its meaning. He’s speaking specifically of Damien Hirst, whose auction at Sotheby’s this week exceeded all expectations by garnering something like $222,000,000.00. That’s two-hundred twenty-two million clams.

    “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multimillion [dollar] realm is ludicrous,” Hughes says. “[The price] has to do with promotion and publicity and not with the quality of the works themselves.”

Amen to that. Hughes traces this Mona Lisa Curse, as he calls it, to the 1960s when da Vinci’s Mona Lisa visited the U.S. People came to see the painting not to see the painting, Hughes claims, but in order to say that they’d seen the painting. From then on collectors began to buy art as an investment, not because they necessarily liked the sculpture or canvas.

Collectors these days are driven by the almighty dollar, and way too much emphasis is placed on trendiness and novelty in art. Can I get another amen. I haven’t liked everything I’ve read from Hughes, but he’s pretty much spot on as portrayed in the Telegraph’s article. These same investor-collectors bid up new works by artists whose works they already own in order to drive up prices. A fine business tactic, I suppose, but one that rightly creates a foul odor among art critics. Further, such practices put the price of new art out of the reach of public museums.

It seems all too easy to fall into the mentality described above, even for those of us who are merely artists or connoisseurs.

    Art junky #1: “Sure, I’ve seen that Monet.”
    Art junky #2: “Yeah, well I’ve licked that monet.”
    Art junky #3: “Ha! My uncle’s cousin’s brother’s niece bought that Monet at Christie’s for more money than the GDP of your stupid little country.”

Apparently this super-riche portion of the art market is quite the juggernaut. Investors seem, Hughes suggests, to possess an eternally optimistic outlook on their purchases. They believe the art they buy will only increase in value. Golly-gee, sounds a little bit like how people thought of real estate two years ago, dunnit? The Australian critic doesn’t fail to point out one Guido Reni, an Italian renaissance painter. Reni was considered by the late 18th century to be near or equal in greatness to Michelangelo. By the 1950s, however, you could buy a ten-foot Reni canvas for a scant $600.

Guido Reni’s Archangel Michael from 1636

How can we get back into enjoying art? Can we? Or is art just another commodity in our capitalist cultures? Writer and philosopher Francis Schaeffer, in his powerful little treatise Art and the Bible, said plainly that art should be enjoyed.

This is, as I already eluded to, difficult for us. We move too fast. We don’t stop and smell the roses; in fact we mock such platitudes, despite the truth in them. We’re afraid the world is going to pass us by. We need more beer gardens in America, with sculpture in the midst of them.

While there’s certainly something to be said for the industriousness and work ethic of our culture, we lack balance. Regardless of the silly art market and it’s millions of dollars, those of us clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are equally as guilty as those at the top — those taking part in the Sotheby’s auctions and trading paintings like stock certificates of yore. We’re caught up in our digital technology, making money, advancing our careers or social status etc.

How do we manage to take back the skill of intentional observation? How do we get out of the technology zone in order to slow life down?

There are, of course, multiple answers to those questions. Simply, thus, I end here with a solemn and earnest plea to myself and anyone who ever happens to read this post: Stop and smell the roses. Stop in the park and run your fingers over the stone on the fountain or the bronze sculpture. Maybe you don’t even like the sculpture. Take a break and give it a once-over anyway. Take the time to look at the brushstrokes on the painting in your living room.

And if the painting in your living room doesn’t have tactile brushstrokes, go out and buy one that does.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

4 Responses to Art for Art’s Sake: Enjoying it

  1. Tim J. says:

    “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multimillion [dollar] realm is ludicrous,” Hughes says. “[The price] has to do with promotion and publicity and not with the quality of the works themselves.”

    That’s how I feel about Koons’ work. As I commented in a recent post on another site;

    “The props department of any movie studio makes and throws away more interesting stuff every day.”

    http://arscatholica.wordpress.com/2008/09/12/well-there-are-at-least-twelve-people/

  2. Tim J. says:

    I also appreciate your sentiment that art should be enjoyed, but I do think it should be (ideally) the kind of joy that remains and deepens over the passage of time, which I think so much of modern work lacks. Art should enrich our lives, even if only for a moment every day as we walk past it. If it only titillates or panders to popular whim, it won’t be of any real value, say, two centuries from now, which is the kind of time scale we should be considering.

    It’s appeal should be not just narrowly cultural, but broadly human, as well.

  3. pNielsen says:

    “It’s appeal should be not just narrowly cultural, but broadly human, as well.”

    Does EVERY work of art have to be like this? I’ll agree that there are things intrinsic values that will cause certain works to endure, right so, but does that mean that every artist must set to to only make that kind of work?

    And I’m not sure that the word “enjoy” implies anything different than what you’ve stated in your second comment. I guess I need to know more of what you’re thinking if I’m to believe we’re on a different page, per your “but.”

  4. Tim J. says:

    “Does EVERY work of art have to be like this?”

    Well, no, there are no “have tos” where art is concerned. All art will be culturally relative, to some extent.

    I’m not thinking of art “enduring” in terms of being recognized as great art (how many works really end up in that club? Very few), but enduring in such a way that our great-great grandkids generation can enjoy it and recognize its merits.

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