Summer rerun: Placing a value on art
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
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
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
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?
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