Friday, November 24, 2017

Art Versus Commerce

Is art "above" the plebeian levels of commerce, or does it wallow right along with it?

At our local art gallery, some of the artists get a little offended when you talk about commerce in art.  We have a different gallery show every month, and I have done some videos of them.  Mark has been in a few shows and has another one coming up in February.

One of the gallery shows Mark was in a few years back

During the Christmas holidays, we have a big sale that allows local artists to sell items, and during the spring, the art festival is also another big sale time.   And during these sales, the place is jammed with art, and Mark helps out by merchandising the displays.  This is where it gets sticky.   Some of the little old ladies decry "commercialization" of art.  "This is art, not commerce!" one tersely informs me while we were setting up for one of the gallery shows.

"Oh, really?" I replied, "Then why do all the works have price tags on them?"

Now, our little art gallery is hardly the Met or the Guggenheim, but really those tony high-end places are no different, and in fact are a lot worse when it comes to commercialization.  You go to the Met and they have a Pizarro painting on the wall, and you say, "Nice painting, where did you get it?" and the docent will say, "Oh, we paid a record $6.8 Million for it at auction!"

Yup, there is a price tag on everything, particularly at the high-end places - even if they aren't selling the art.   And of course, all of those famous galleries have gift shops that you have to exit through, and of course you bought the print, the t-shirt, the tote bag, and the coffee mug.   Its how they stay in business.

Very few artists are altruistic about their works, and most would prefer not to be.  Most want to make sales.  The "starving artist" who makes no money from his works either sucks as an artist, or is before his time.  And sadly, many famous artists throughout history made little or no money from their art - but collectors and galleries have made millions from their art - long after the artist has died.

There is a staggering amount of money being tossed around in the art world, so to pretend that art is somehow divorced from commerce is, well, just idiotic.   Like I said to the little old lady in the gallery, if this ain't commerce, how come all the paintings have price tags on them?   The artists put on the shows hoping for sales.   And the sales help support the artists - and help disseminate the art to homes of people who will appreciate the works.

I suppose you could give away the art and be totally altruistic.  There are two problems with this model.  First, people would just grab every piece and take it, even if they didn't really appreciate the works.  Free isn't just a price of zero, it affects how people behave.   Second, those same people would turn around and sell your art for a lot more - and profit from your work.

The famous graffiti artist "Banksy" once sold some of his pieces by having some old homeless-looking man sell a few dozen pieces on the sidewalk.  Now, Banksy never or rarely sells any of his (or her) works, so this was a big deal.  And no one believed that the works being sold were genuine.  One person actually berated the man for selling phony Banksy paintings.   But the joke was on them - they were real, and the few people who snatched them up now own artwork worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Banksy scenario illustrates how commerce and art works - and that was the intention of the stunt - the sale itself was a piece of "performance art".  When sold for a ridiculously low price, no one believed them to be real.  When sold at a prestigious auction house or in a hushed gallery or at a reception, well, people get out their checkbooks.   Art is all about commerce - the two are inter-related.

The other irony of the Banksy stunt is that if he did sell his art at auctions and in galleries for hundreds of thousands of dollars per painting, he would not be the famous street artist that he is.  In other words, Catch-22.  His art would be worth nothing, if he commercialized it.   But since he can't commercialize it, it is worth nothing, so to speak - in a commercial sense.

Now of course, many if not most artists would wish this weren't so, for a number of reasons.  Commerce corrupts art, for starters.   My sister-in-law is a talented painter, sculptor and even makes stained glass pieces.  She showed some of her paintings to galleries along the Maine coast where she lives, and the gallery owners said, "these are nice paintings and you have a lot of talent, but what would really sell here is something with lobster boats and cottages on the craggy coast of Maine."

In other words, that's what the tourists want to buy - souvenirs of Maine.  And she didn't want to paint pictures of lobstermen with their traps and boats in picturesque bays.  And of course, that was her right - and she was right, too.   Art should be not just what people want to see, but also things that maybe they don't want to see but should.   Art should be challenging and provocative, not just pretty pictures that are sofa-sized and match your color scheme.

But even back in the day, art was always fighting with commerce.  The great Renaissance painters didn't have galleries or exhibits to hawk their wares, but rather sponsors called patronsWe still have "patrons of the arts" today, of course, but many of these wealthy people donating paintings to museums or whatever are often, like other philanthropists, looking for tax deductions and social recognition - as well as free advertising for the companies they own.   Hey, Joe Blow's company dumps toxic waste in the ocean, but he donated a $10 Million painting to the museum!  Joe Blow is a nice guy, right?  And what a great tax deduction, too!  Oh, and he gets his name on the wall, in the program, and is now considered part of "polite society" and not some money-grubbing tech dude or whatever.   That's how patronage works today - and even back then as well.

Money always ends up intervening.   You can pretend it doesn't, or that somehow you are above it all, or you can just accept it and work around it.   Because I think it is still possible to produce relevant and even provocative art and still find a commercial audience.  When you get right down to it, what is commercially popular today was what was avant-guard only a few years back.

So yea, the little-old-ladies are right, in that art should lead and not follow.   But that doesn't mean that art is divorced from commerce, only that it has an uneasy relationship with it.