Sounds a bit over-the-top, but the richest have an enormous effect on what is considered worthwhile art, and thus who gets to make it. People have come to value art based on how much it sells for, and that’s decided by the buyer. In selecting which pieces to lavish unimaginable sums on, the rich have become the new art critics defining art for the rest of us. A big problem with this is that the super rich, ensconced in the protective force field of their extraordinary wealth, are detached from the reality that most of the rest of us live in. Naturally, they like the art that reflects and reaffirms their own lifestyle, which is a limited and distorted vision of entitlement. For someone like me, a glimpse into the art of the rich and famous offers little to nothing of value. Like a philosopher or scientist, I want to excavate and explore the real, and not just sniff at the upholstery of someone else’s Lamborghini.
The problem of the rich deciding which art is valuable was most acutely summed up in a classic interview between now-deceased art critic Robert Hughes (author of the wonderful “Shock of the New“), and art collector Alberto Mugrabi. Admittedly, Hughes appeared a lot like a pretentious and curmudgeonly toad in his later years, and was always more than a little smug, but he’s a cultural hero of mine for calling Andy Warhol “stupid”. That’s so exciting that you’ll have to forgive me for the minor digression.
Mugrabi and his father collected hundreds of Warhols, and Hughes launched into him about Warhol being shit. I quote in full:
Hughes: What’s your opinion of Warhol?
Mugrabi: I think Warhol is probably one of the most visionary artists of our time. He’s an artist that has opened every door for every artist today.
H: Did you know him?
M: No, I never met Andy Warhol.
H: I used to. I thought he was one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life.
M: Why is that?
H: Because he had nothing to say.
M: Well, he didn’t have anything to say probably verbally, but he said it all with his work.
H: Even the work seems to me to be rather dry and repetitious.
Whether or not one agrees with Hughes – and Warhol certainly presented himself as somewhere between cutely helpless and hopelessly vacuous – I nearly stood up and applauded when I heard an art critic have the courage to say Warhol was stupid. Back on track, it is the following exchange that pinpoints the threat of the rich choosing what art matters.
H: Do you think your activity has an effect on the prices of works of art?
M: Well, yeah, we influence other people into liking the artist in one way or another, so yeah.
H: Why do you want to do that?
M: I do have an interest in giving Warhol the recognition that I think he deserves.
H: You think he’s been denied this recognition?
M: Absolutely not.
H: But, I mean, would you like to see your impulses as a proud collector translated into museum practice somewhere?
M: I think that would be an amazing thing to happen, and absolutely I think that’s a great thing in collecting.
H: Well, it buys you immortality you mean.
H: Ha, ha, haaa, haaa, ha, ha.
It does seem a lot like Hughes was baiting and badgering Mugrabi, but that just adds a certain flair to his capturing that the rich collectors want to immortalize themselves by using their money to direct museum practice. It’s not hard to see how beneficial it is financially for the art collector to also be instrumental in defining for the public and history which art is the most precious. If you collect Warhol and can promote him into more gallery and museum shows, your collection goes up in value. This is obvious enough that one would think the rich couldn’t get away with it, and real critics would eviscerate this kind of thinking. Sure, they might be able to do that, but what influence do critics have? It’s like saying that Kung Fu is a better fighting technique than bitch slapping, but if the slapper is 20 feet tall he can just swat his opponent without contest. When buyers can spend over a hundred million on a painting, they have the kind of influence and power that critics can’t go up against.
Art critic Jed Perl also recently wrote an article about how the influence of the rich is destroying art. Reading it was a bit reaffirming because I’ve been saying much of the same thing, and with the same examples. There’s a certain satisfaction in someone who has recognition and credibility echoing one’s own theorizing, even if one was projecting a dismal forecast – kind of like going to the doctor and then returning to tell family, “See, I told you it was terminal!” [Note though that I rabidly disagree with Perl’s assessment of Richter, Kiefer, Close and Bacon, and some of the artists he admires, such as Chardin, bore me to tears.]
Perl believes the fabulously wealthy have corrupted art. He argues that the rich can’t see value in anything unless it has a price tag.
Among the most revolting sports favored by the super-rich is the devaluation of any reasonable sense of value. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s some of the wealthiest members of society, the people who can’t believe in anything until it’s been monetized, are trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence.
Wow! That’s a heavy indictment. This shit’s not just personal, it’s spiritual. Further on he makes an interesting claim about something I hadn’t heard articulated so explicitly before.
Since the democratization of culture began in the nineteenth century, a rising middle class has seen in the arts a dazzling enrichment and complication of its own ideas and ideals—of its belief in fairness, seriousness, standards, transcendence.
How really interesting this is, the connection between the middle class and modern art, and then the implicit parallel between the current erosion of the middle class (melting into the working poor) and the ascendancy of contemporary art practices targeting a narrow elite. I hadn’t thought of this as such a class issue, in terms of what the art itself communicated. Does the middle class prefer art that is fair, serious, has standards, and reaches for transcendence? [Hallelujah I’ve found my audience!] And is the work glorified by the ultra rich, such as the fashion baubles of Jeff Koons, loved by them because it sidesteps issues of fairness, can hardly be taken seriously, isn’t susceptible to evaluation by established artistic standards, and it is only about the surface? This is also something I’ve argued about Koons, that his art is the art of the 1% and for the 1%.
Perl sums up his cynicism (code word for wholly appropriate realism) by saying, “Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done. In place of art as an ideal we have art as an idol.”
Again, these are powerful words. If our children aren’t going to do better than us (for the first time in generations) it’s because the economy is crumbling and most young people, whatever their education, are looking at jobs in the service industry as we all become indentured servants to the entitled few. Where can we find solace? Apparently not in fine art. It is the playground of the rich kids, and the rest of us are like children with chickenpox that need to be quarantined and kept away.
Perl denounces Christopher Wool’s stencil paintings as “vacuous Dadaist signage” and declares the person who purchased Wool’s Apocalypse Now for $24.6 million to be a fool.
Perl’s article was published on December 4th, but I hadn’t seen it when I started making my breezy parodies of Wool’s art a week later.
I’m running out of steam and about to get kicked out of my room at the guest house for the weekly cleaning, so I’ll conclude saying that my art and my blog stand in stark opposition to the corruption of art by the super rich. Not only do I sell prints cheaply for a nominal fee above production costs (starting at a few dollars for prints), it follows standards most people can recognize (subject matter, color, composition, handling of medium), is sometimes deadly serious, and always tries to transcend the mundane (if it didn’t I wouldn’t bother).
Tomorrow I plan to write a part 2 to this, in which I will try to tackle WHY the middle class found hope in art that championed fairness, standards, seriousness, and transcendence. Jed Perl mentioned the phenomenon, but not the underlying reasons, or the opposite, why the ruling elite want art without those things. I have some ideas about this I’d like to flesh out, and anyone else is welcome to contribute theirs. It’s quite an intriguing idea to me, the relationship between class and fine art styles. I also want to examine why some of the art of and for the super rich is socially suspect, and in league with the amoral excesses of capitalism. Stay tuned.
You can make a small donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).