The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

The Unvarnished Truth about Art and Money (1992)

USA Today, July, 1992. pp. 65-67.

Art and Money may make strange bedfellows, but not, as Shakespeare would have them, in misery. They are more like partners in the grandest scam in modern history. These days it seems that the main social function of art is the absorption of excess cash. Recently, someone paid $17,000,000 for a painting of dubious quality by a living artist. The $54,000,000 paid for a Van Gogh painting would buy a flourishing industry. There is willful disregard for the simple fact that these patches of paint and canvas have no intrinsic value. You can't eat, drive, or live in them. They do not earn interest or generate profits. Art is the most useless thing we have, yet, pound for pound, the most valuable. What is going on here?

Art has been with us since Paleolithic times. Four or five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, when our modern fine art traditions were taking shape, art was made for specific needs. The aristocrats wanted portraits and the church wanted icons. Its audience was small and culturally homogeneous. Subject matter and technical means were limited. Talent was the plain ability to paint or sculpt better than the next artist. Quality and contributions to the evolution of the craft were by-products of the efforts of talent to improve. Better and best easily were recognized, as they always are in a highly structured environment with a singular, clearly stated aim. Before the 19th century, for the most part, excellence had the clarity of authority. In his time, the kind of criticism Leonardo da Vinci got was comparison to Raphael.

Social changes during the Renaissance and later brought about a non-aristocratic mercantile class that was supplemented during the Industrial Revolution by a fast-growing, affluent middle class. Both had money to buy nonessentials. First among these nonessentials, then as now, is status. Art, which came to the 19th century full of high-status associations, moved naturally into that sphere of effort. The newly rich were impatient, as always, with the elevated serenity of good art, demanding grand themes dipped in sweet sentiment, sanctioned by the classics, puffed up with narrative, and, for the most part, very neatly painted.

Manet took issue with this stuffy, suffocating art, with all of the "stews and gravies," as he called them, and went back to Goya and Velasquez to bring freshness and light and color to his painting and, as it turned out, to the art of his time. This brought him derision and rejection. That rejection of the unfamiliar but better art made Manet the prototype modern artist. As time went on, a mythology grew up around the unappreciated genius that provided the rationale for a small, self-conscious avant-garde which sprouted at the end of the 19th century and took root and grew in all the arts.

Art boomed after World War II, and the avant-garde flourished as never before. In 1949, Jackson Pollock appeared in Life Magazine as "Jack the Dripper." It was a smear, of course, but another message came through loud and clear-this guy dribbles paint around and he gets in Life. By the late 1950s, novelty rocked into town with the Marcel Duchamp revival. Robert Rauschenberg did a show of grass and Jasper Johns one of monochrome targets. With their rise, craft took a nose dive.

Artists no longer are drawn from a pool of talent, as they were in the old craft days and still are in, say, musical performance and athletics. They now come from the huge population yearning for the glamor and glory and, lately, for the big bucks, of Ia Vie Boheme. Theirs is the generation that came in at the heels of Andy Warhol, who showed them that art didn't have to be crafted - it could be assembled. They also came up in the succeeding generation of neo-expressionists, who showed that bad painting is good painting as long as you make the effort to explain that it is supposed to be bad.

Assemblage and "bad," with a dash of social concern and a sprinkling of deep primitive and high apocalypse, make up most of today's art. Anyone can do it, and, it seems, everyone does. Everyone wants to be an artist, or, by Warholian self-declaration, is one.

Consider the numbers. There are more than 90,000 individuals who call themselves professional artists in New York City. If each of them produces just 10 works a year, that's about 1,000,000 pieces of art. Multiply that by all the work made by all the artists in all the rest of the world and we have, as Carl Sagan would say, "billlyuns" and "billlyuns" of works. This is not an art problem, this is a disposal problem.

How can this oversaturated market be supported? The art world, like any successful community, has a complex, unspecified, but well-understood ethos that owes its nature to and arises from the marketing of a commodity the value of which is determined entirely by opinion. The underlying support of art and the firmament of the art business is money, lots of it. Most, particularly at the high end of the market, comes from art collectors. Their money drives the market and determines its style and direction. It calls the tune for every other part of the art world, including artists, dealers, critics, academics, museums, and government agencies.

The motivating forces are glamour, fame, and status; these are the flames for the moths. So far, art culture has maintained its high status very well. After the houses, cars, and directorships, culture remains the final status hurdle. The major collector usually is a self-made man with a large disposable income and a fresh awareness of culture. His habits are those of the entrepreneur. He has spent his life building condos or buying companies and has neither the time nor the inclination to go through a painstaking acculturation that could take generations. He wants it now, and he wants to know how much.

The culture establishment puts up no resistance. Within culture, the visual arts - painting and sculpture in particular - have a precious edge on the other arts. Painting and sculpture offer acquirable, one-of-a-kind units that easily are installed in a house or office. The installation may be expensive, but it is short. There is no tedious enduring of long books, operas, or plays, and none of the anxious terror of remembering and discussing their content. Nothing else confers status as directly, permanently, visibly, and easily as a million-dollar painting. Who cares if there is too much art? Once the collector has the list of approved artists, the disproportion only reinforces the rarity of his choice.

There is no formula for success in the art market. Some successful artists have talent and some do not; the distribution seems random. Most have ambition and energy, a gift for self-promotion, and a sharp sense of popular taste. Some, on the other hand, are just lucky enough to hit the turn of a cycle.

Though the reasons of success may be obscure, it is clear that not only are there more artists than ever before, but more successful artists, and this presents a problem. Art history shows us that there never are more than a dozen first-rate artists in a generation. Modern art history tells us that more art does not mean more good art. Here's where the system goes to work. To keep growing and flourishing, the art business must rationalize lower standards and demonstrate convincingly that bad and mediocre art are worth being bought, sold, and written about. This is simple enough at the lower levels, at what might be called the "duck print" stage, because the buyer usually just likes what he is buying. At the higher levels, there must be more than simple liking or sentimental attachment (unless, of course, it is some kind of ironic "statement" about simple liking or sentimental attachment).

What is presented at the higher levels of unit cost must be so far removed from normal sense or taste that the wealthy neophyte collector is hit with a cultural short circuit. It is absolutely essential for him to get the idea that his own taste is irretrievably backwards, that the art is too new and too sophisticated for him to understand, and that he must abandon his own taste for a place in the "fast track" with the "world-class players" at the "cutting edge."

"Of course!," he might think. "I gave up my conscience to make my money, now I give up my taste to spend it!"

How many times have I heard a collector say, "I bought this painting because I found it 'disturbing.'" In other words, it was not because he liked it, but because he did not like it! Of course, it's disturbing - it's bad art and he gave up his soul and a half a million dollars to get it! In the words of Stevie Wonder, "If you believe what you don't understand, you got your head stuck in the sand."

Once the collector is diverted from personal aesthetic evaluation - indeed, from the very idea of aesthetic evaluation -and toward the acceptance of readily understood style and content that has been established as desirable, the system has him. All kinds of work becomes worthy for all sorts of reasons. Instead of judging a piece personally, he is led to match its parts against approved forms, thereby reducing the function of taste from evaluation to identification. When you are buying for status, you don't buy what you like, you buy what other people like or, more accurately, what other people like yourself freely will admit to liking. It is as old as art itself and as new as the latest trend in Artforum magazine. It is called fashion.

Fashion is not taste; it is communal opinion about matters that are unaccountable. The front line of the art fashion business is the dealer. Their place is clear-cut and fully rationalized because they are business people and have to do what they can to stay in business. They will sell bad art to keep going. However, every good dealer has a few artists he believes in and helps along. I think back to Sam Kootz forcing wonderful Hans Hofmann paintings on reluctant collectors, who years later proudly would display them as examples of their own daring taste; or of Tibor de Nagy, who gave first shows to many of the best artists of today. Of course, there also are bad dealers, and there are shysters and scatterbrained debutantes. On the whole, though, I think dealers are the smartest people in the business, perhaps the most praiseworthy, or at least interesting.

Critics usually are academics or displaced journalists. Their job is to provide the system with authenticity, which comes from the printed media, particularly the major trade magazines. The critic provides the seal of approval, the paper anchor, the opaque barrier that keeps the art world from seeing itself as the tiny, self-referential system it is.

The critics' problem is that there is so little to write about. There is plenty of art, of course, but because its value is apprehended intuitively, there is little else for the serious writer to do but report on experience and describe mechanics. This is just what the best critics do. The system critic, however, must participate in the rationalization of the bad art the system needs to sell. He must, in fact, not criticize, unless it is to attack the unfashionable. He must celebrate the celebrated. The critic, like the collector, must reject personal taste in favor of communal opinion, and must write not from intuitive perception of quality and mechanics, but use the work as a springboard for irrelevant, confusing, intellectual commentary. Many critics, particularly academic ones, have pioneered the use of assertive obfuscation as a tool of intimidation. That which is unintelligible is unassailable, after all, and intimidation sells art; the careerist art writer must know how to use it. Critical writing is a great scandal; like the weather, no one does anything about it.

Here is one of my favorite critical sentences: "It was exhilarating to see an artist confront the complexities of a difficult time head-on and to make one feel more aware of the totality of irresolvable contradictions in an epiphany of truth transcending taste and style that is the essence of art in any time."

Now, doesn't that clear things up?

It is my experience that the curators of contemporary art have abandoned their duty. Where they once were wary and skeptical, as they should be, they now serve at the mercy of boards and acquisition committees composed of collectors of contemporary art who demand that their "taste" - which is the taste of the system - be put forward in the museum. It has gotten so bad that I have come around to an opinion that I resisted when I first heard it from Expressionist-era art critic Harold Rosenberg: abolish museum contemporary art departments and sell the art in them and use the space for shows that are frankly trendy and nothing more. This is what the Whitney Museum has been doing for years, but just doesn't admit it. "Museums," Rosenberg said, "should not mess around with art history."

What might be called the "catastrophic interface" of the art world is the point at which it meets the real world, when art is bought with public money. Art and public money never have mixed comfortably. In the 1830s, Horatio Greenough was commissioned by Congress to make a sculpture of George Washington for the Capitol rotunda. In accordance with the classical high-art fashion of his time, he made a 12-foot-high semi-nude Zeus with a George Washington head on it. The public hated it. It was defaced by graffiti and eventually removed amid much controversy.

One hundred and fifty years later, the General Services Administration commissioned Richard Serra to make a sculpture for a Federal office plaza in downtown New York. In accordance with the modernist/minimalist fashion of our time, he erected a 12-foot-high, 112-foot-long steel wall right across the plaza. The public hated it. It also was defaced by graffiti and eventually removed amid much controversy.

In 1991, an enormous fuss arose after it was discovered that a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had been used for shows containing "obscene" photographs. The exhibit was scheduled to be shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Sen. Jesse Helms (R.,N.C.), the art world's central casting bad guy, was overjoyed to find such a juicy political issue in his own backyard, and he waged a vigorous, media-intensive campaign against blasphemy and pornography which led to new guidelines for the NEA and, presumably, to more votes for Jesse Helms. The exhibition was cancelled and subsequently installed elsewhere. The director of the Corcoran was not defaced by graffiti, but she also was removed amid much controversy.

Later on, Artists Space, an alternative gallery in New York, which had obtained Endowment money for a show on AIDS before the Corcoran fuss, saw the funding withdrawn by John Frohnmeyer, director of the NEA. The art world, usually intractably factionalized, arose in unanimous fury against what it took to be a First Amendment, freedom-of-expression issue. Frohnmeyer hemmed and hawed and then made his ultimate mistake - a qualified restoration of the grant, thus becoming the perfect all-around scapegoat. For awhile, it seemed as if he might be removed with neither graffiti nor controversy, but he seems to be doing all right now. Perhaps the best thing he could have done for the art world was to go off and start a National Endowment Against the Arts, so that they all could unite in a glorious chorus of outrage.

Percent-for-art programs, requiring that about one percent of the costs of any new public building be set aside for art, are blossoming everywhere. It is like a religious revival, as if a building with art is blessed. Art has gained a sanctified status that goes beyond reason or sense. Why not one percent for public first aid stations, or for public bathrooms like the ones in European cities? In Miami, where I come from, there has been a powerful ruckus about a so-called "art park," a project that may or may not get built. All anyone knows is that a tremendous amount of time and money has been spent and there is nothing to show for it but bad feelings. In the very special field of public art, everyone churns their own constituency for their own advantage and no one seems to realize that it is not a problem of art or esthetics or public good or freedom of expression. It is a problem of management.

Art has outgrown its natural precincts. There is too much art, too many artists, and too much made of it all. There is not enough seriousness and not enough fun. There is too much freedom and not enough devotion. Like the Romans, we multiply our temples as we stop believing in our gods. I suppose that, apart from the peculiarity of its product, the art world is rather like any other human institution. I'd like it to be smaller, less public, and more professional, but I certainly will go right on living with it and criticizing it whatever it does.