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October 30, 2003

TT: Not ideas about the thing

I've been reading Virginia Postrel's much-discussed The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, and finding it stimulating, though I'm struck by the failure of most reviewers to see how fundamentally political it is. Postrel, after all, is an ideologue. Specifically, she's a libertarian, one who believes that individual liberty is an absolute value, a universal trump card that tops all other values. This conviction is indissolubly commingled with her belief, stated at the beginning of The Substance of Style, that "aesthetic value is subjective and can be discovered only through experience, not deduced in advance." Me, I'm not a libertarian, and so am able to recognize that the first half of that sentence is untrue, even though I agree completely with the second half.

I'm also struck by the fact that Postrel, for all the delight she takes in the aesthetic appeal of our hyper-designed, choice-driven world, seems oddly, even weirdly indifferent to certain fundamental values of art. Consider the following passage from her book:

A new art market has developed: upscale wall décor. Artists and art collectors have long mocked the idea that someone might purchase a work to go with a couch--an insult to serious art. Perhaps as a result, the wall décor industry has been the home of generic, clichéd prints. But not all visually sophisticated consumers want art to impress their friends, hobnob with the gallery crowd, or make money as an investment. Some just want a more attractive living room. In response, an unsnobbish middle market is offering prints and photographs to go with stylish furniture.

Many of the featured artists are well-known modern or contemporary names. Eyestorm, which started as a specialized Web site and branched out into stores, offers limited-edition prints by Damien Hirst at $3,000 each and a photo of Andy Warhol by Dennis Hopper for $500. Serving the same need, Crate and Barrel sells framed reproductions of Mark Rothko paintings for $499. Sales are growing at double-digit rates. Customers are "buying for aesthetics, not collecting," says an Eyestorm executive. They're treating art not as an investment or a status symbol but simply as a way to create a beautiful home environment.

Excuse me for being cruel, but that passage could only have been written by someone who quite literally doesn't know the first thing about the meaning and function of art. Put aside for a moment Postrel's implicit suggestion that buying "a photo of Andy Warhol by Dennis Hopper" could possibly "serve" any "need" other than the need to be vulgar. Notice instead the planted axiom in the first paragraph, echoed in the last sentence of the second--the assumption that the only reason why anybody would buy "real" art is to make money or impress his friends. Why bother searching, scrimping, and saving for the real thing when you can buy a framed "reproduction" of a Rothko for five hundred bucks? It'll make your living room look just as beautiful, right?

I hardly know where to begin disentangling all the fallacies embedded in those assertions, but perhaps I should start by addressing a half-truth, which is that the point of a Rothko, or any other work of art, is the way it looks, not who made it. Art connoisseurs have a phrase for people who get those two things confused: such benighted folk "buy signatures," which is one baby step up from collecting autographs. And it's quite true that the "visually sophisticated consumer" who likes Rothko's palette and wants to have it in his home can also do so by purchasing a reproduction of a Rothko painting. If the reproduction is well printed, the colors will be similar.

I hasten to point out, though, that Crate and Barrel didn't create that latter possibility out of thin air. All they did was put a dishonest spin on it by marketing "framed reproductions" that purport to look Just Like the Real Thing. As anyone who's ever hung a museum exhibition poster knows, there's a huge difference between a well-printed poster of a painting, which doesn't purport to be anything other than what it is (in fact, it invariably contains text, thus identifying itself for all to see as a non-painting), and a "framed reproduction," which is by definition pretentious, meaning that it pretends to be a real work of art.

I like looking at beautiful colors, which I suppose makes me visually sophisticated, so I used to hang museum-exhibition posters on my walls. In time, though, I found myself longing for something more "real," and I started to buy etchings and limited-edition prints. I didn't buy them for the signatures (though I freely admit to enjoying the frisson of having Helen Frankenthaler's signature hanging on my living-room wall), but because they were more beautiful than posters. The difference between a reproduction of an etching and an actual etching is quite real, and not all that subtle, either. I bought my copy of Milton Avery's March at a Table from a dealer in San Francisco, not having seen anything other than a catalogue photograph, and when I took it out of the package I was stunned (I actually gasped) by how much more intense a visual punch it packed. Even if it hadn't been signed by Avery--and yes, I do own some unsigned prints, which proves my purity of heart--it would have been worth owning for that reason alone. In fact, that's the only good reason to own it.

I wonder if Virginia Postrel understands any of this. I doubt it. She's so excited by the regime of unlimited, mass-produced aesthetic choice that she's lost sight of the value of the handmade object--assuming she ever knew the difference in the first place. Lest we forget, a "framed reproduction" of a Rothko is different from a Rothko. It looks different. And that's the point, at least for people who really love art. We don't buy art to impress our friends--we buy it so that we can see it every day, as often as we want.

All of which leads us to a far more complicated and interesting question: if you could create a Rothko reproduction that was all but indistinguishable from the real thing, would it be a work of art in its own right? And would it be worth having, and hanging? But of course the answers to such complicated questions are only to be found in the realm of true aesthetics, not the watery simulacrum about which Virginia Postrel has written in The Substance of Style.

Posted October 30, 2003 10:11 AM

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