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July 31, 2007

Summer rerun: Placing a value on art

Jennifer A. Smith

This week, for my regular Tuesday spot, I decided to crib from the networks and do that time-honored summer maneuver: a rerun. As some readers of this blog may have noticed, we've only been on ArtsJournal since mid-June but our archive has over 140 entries. This blog had a short-lived, alternate incarnation before getting a new name and new home on AJ. Before our blog moved here, we had few readers and even fewer comments. Since one of the pleasures of doing this group blog has been engaging with fellow journalists and arts folks, I wanted to throw out something I wrote previously (in April) and see what people think.

Here it is:

The NEA Institute has had me thinking a lot about the critic's role in his or her community, and how the theater we see relates to our communities. I live in Madison, Wis., a town of about 225,000 that is home to both the state capital and a Big Ten campus. There is no shortage of the arts here--but a really vibrant critical discussion of the arts is lacking. Sure, there are some good reviewers/critics (use whatever term you like), but the sense of a real conversation is what I'm missing. How much do critics, readers, artists and audience members engage in a real give-and-take of ideas?

Tied to this is a concern about how we value art (in the broadest terms, not just locally). A few things have struck me in recent weeks, one of which is a marketing e-mail I received from the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). The e-mail urged me to go see the major Francis Bacon exhibition before it closed this past weekend. It read in part, under a section headed "What It's Worth": "Your $14 ticket provides you with the opportunity to see paintings that are being sold for $30 million at auction. Learn more about the value of your ticket here." That last bit linked to a news item on the BBC Web site about how Bacon's "Study from Innocent X" is expected to sell for upwards of $30 million at auction in May.

There are a couple reasons for MAM's pointing out on the monetary value of Bacon's paintings: it signals to an audience largely unfamiliar with Bacon that this is an "important" artist; it makes people feel OK about spending $14 on their ticket; but the third, and most potentially troubling, reason is that most of us get a kick out of seeing something that we know is worth a lot of money. (To be fair, the e-mail also links to a podcast of curators discussing Bacon, so the effort to provide real context is also there.)

I'm not suggesting that anyone who gets a charge out of something they know is incredibly valuable is a philistine - it's a pretty natural reaction. But for critics, our job (at least as I see it) is to pull at the two threads of meaning and aesthetics, preferably in plain English, and tease out something worthwhile. (What is this play/film/painting/book trying to say, and is it doing it in an interesting way?) That's why, for many of us who care about the arts, the "money question" means little. Whether Bacon is fetching great prices at auction or consigned to obscurity 15 years after his death is irrelevant. His paintings are what they are--no more, no less--and must stand on their own (now how's that for a touch of two-bit philosophy?).

In other news, a disturbed man kicked and stomped on a Baroque painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum April 4. I'm sure many will be aghast at the monetary damage that was done, but the destruction of art is most dispiriting in terms of losing something that can never be replaced. (The most interesting analysis of this incident so far comes from a Milwaukee-area online art magazine called "Susceptible to Images," in a piece called "No One Would Kick a Renaissance Painting." The writer, Debra Brehmer, argues that the passionate--if severely disturbed--response to the painting is in keeping with Baroque painters' desire to provoke. It goes without saying that she is not defending what happened, but she's clearly thinking about the aesthetic aspect of it.)

A few other random bits have been feeding into my thoughts on art's value and how we make our judgments: this piece in the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast," talks about an experiment the Post did with acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell busking with his Stradivarius outside a Metro station in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, few people stopped to listen. What's great about this essay is its refusal to judge people for not stopping or not realizing the musical greatness in their midst. The writer, Gene Weingarten, knows that people have many reasons to keep on moving. But he conjures up a wide-ranging, astute and occasionally funny meditation on how much of artistic quality is something we recognize because we're applying our aesthetic/emotional/intellectual/you-name-it faculties, and how much we appreciate something because we think "hey, that's Joshua Bell" or "that Stradivarius he's playing is worth $3.5 million" or "wow, I'm looking at a Francis Bacon painting worth $30 million."

It's all food for thought: how much do we make our own judgments, and how much do we let the marketplace make our judgments for us? And can critics (without turning into preachy schoolmarms) help?

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at July 31, 2007 6:00 AM

COMMENTS

I commented earlier on this entry weeks ago.

Can you come up with three or four specific questions you would hope readers/arts presenters/critics might discuss?

Would you want the discussion to take place on line? How would you attract people to the site who didn't know about it already?

Has anyone out there in Flyover country tried this and with what results?

Posted by: gary panetta at July 31, 2007 9:36 AM

Hi Gary, If you left a comment about this specific entry when it ran on our previous blog (or when our entries were shifted over to Flyover), it appears we never received it. I just checked our old blog and the Flyover archives from April and I can't find your comment.

This was my first post for the previous group blog we had, and my goal was simply to muse on a few things that had been preoccupying me lately (which I believe is a big part of what blogging is for -- I don't intend for everything to be as finished or polished as it would be if it appeared in print). In terms of explicit questions, I do close with two, and I'd certainly love for some of the discussion to take place online.

Regarding letting people know about Flyover, that's something my co-bloggers and I are discussing. Certainly being on ArtsJournal has helped us find readers, but we're still very new and reaching out (as are many blogs).

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at July 31, 2007 10:36 AM

There will always be those who pay most attention to price or other mark of prestige, but I think most people use it as an indicator rather than a final judgment. If something has high market value, it's probably worth while to try to figure out why; you'll likely learn something either about art or about the art world. But people often take pleasure in having preferences that differ from those of the market or critic X. They might go home and be glad they have Aunt Dofe's tulips on the wall, rather than a Green Car Crash.

Critics can help by explaining what is valued and why, for aesthetic reasons or others. An example is Jane Kallir's article "The problem with a collector-driven market", followed up by discussions in many places, including Ed Winkleman's The Reality of the Collector-Driven Art World.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at July 31, 2007 3:50 PM

Hello Jennifer,

I find your idea about encouraging discussion about arts-related issues important. I wonder whether newspaper in their print or online form could prime the pump a little bit, and take action that would inspire more people to comment.

For example, I would like to know what use newspapers have made of the one-city, one-book initiative sponsored by the NEA. Has any one tried to guide some of the discussion of these books onto newspaper websites? And with what success?

Perhaps the one-city, one-book program might be extended to other art forms. Perhaps a symphony orchestra and a newspaper might pair up to sponsor a visiting composer, and organizing virtual or real life chat sessions about this composer's music. Has any one out there tried this, I wonder, and with what success?

We were lucky enough to have Andre Serrano visit Peoria a few years ago. I wonder now how I should have used online resources to engender a chat about him. Maybe encourage local arts people to join in and widen the discussion beyond offensive art.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 31, 2007 4:45 PM

It's hard enough to have a conversation about anything these days with everyone way too busy and with the art of dialogue having been overtaken by the art of the rant, but a dialogue about art is particularly hard since it requires a common base of knowledge which I am not sure any longer exists. . As I have said elsewhere many artists no longer create work from within any sort of tradition or as a response to other art as they might have in the past. There is often no idea of transmitting any kind of meaning.
A discussion of aesthetics presumes the artist might have considered aesthetics while creating his work when it is equally likely that was furthest from his mind.
We have never been particularly comfortable with art in this country-art and aesthetics have never been an integral part of our vocabulary so people tend to be left unsure how to judge it. As it happens we use money as something of a lowest common denominator,
something we can use as some sort of measure rather than being able to judge the work on its own merits. The situation with Joshua Bell is instructive and I have long thought you should ask yourself questions like "if you were in a bar in Arles in the mid 19th century, and this inebriated dutchman was trying to sell you one of his paintings of sunflowers would you buy it. Well, would you? Would you give him 50 million for it. Probably not, I often look at various works of art in museums and ask myself if I ran into the artist at the time he painted this and if he offered it to me would I have enough good judgement to buy it. I would like to be able to say of course I would recognize the power of this work, but the truth is probably different.
One of the functions of the critic should be to give the average viewer additional tools by which to judge a work on its own merits, but I'm afraid too many of us are actually wandering as lost as many of the viewers precisely because we have very little idea of what standards to apply in judging contemporary work. We often resort to making generalized descriptions which leaves the viewer looking at the work, the description and ultimately the price tag.

Posted by: david sokolec at July 31, 2007 5:27 PM