Friday, July 13, 2012

What is the value of second-tier art?

We've been travelling around the Southwest on vacation this week. We passed through Taos, NM a few days ago. Taos is a beautiful little arts town, centered around its adobe-built plaza and pueblo revival buildings. There are dozens of little galleries. The roads throughout the surrounding area have signs for "pottery this way" or "working artist." There are hundreds of artists resident in the area.

How do people make a living at it? Commercial art galleries always seem so deserted, with one staff member always at a corner desk hidden behind a computer and trying to look busy. I'd be surprised if they make more than two or three sales on a good day. The average for a painting or sculpted mirror in the area is around $750 up. Of that, probably less than half goes to the artist, and they no doubt have to pay tax on that. Better known artists in the main galleries sell for $5000 or more. Even the, only a few make a very good living. There is a limited market.

In economic terms, it's a tournament, like a sports league that starts with a hundred teams and ends up with one winner. Thousands start in the arts, only a few rise to the pinnacle and capture most of the fame and financial rewards. Success is inherently scarce. The rest hope for an occasional sale in a small gallery, but are mostly frustrated and obscure.

Most of the arts are like this. Only a tiny proportion of actors, musicians, rock bands, painters, ceramicists, opera singers "make it." Some of it is a matter of talent rising to the top, of course. But often it is sheer chance - which is why I suspect so many Hollywood artists trend liberal, as they have a sense that their wealth was chance rather than earned or justified. And very often success is a matter of skill at manipulating connections and contacts.

Art and money mix in strange ways. Selling art wraps together many different issues and flash points. It is tangled with wealth. In many cases, art IS wealth, the clearest expression of wealth that exists. The loot of the robber barons, like Frick and Carnegie and Getty and Morgan, ended up as treasure houses of art. Miners and steelworkers and wildcatters toiled for decades to produce the wealth that funded the great American museums, where their sweat has been transmuted into Picassos and Serras.

People naturally incline to spend more money in aesthetic pursuits as they grow wealthier. The first generation often makes a fortune in meat processing or engineering or finance. The children and grandchildren spend it on art. The Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos is one example. The Allerton Gardens in Kaui is another. Trust fund babes hang out in Williamsburg and write novels.

Art is tangled up with status, of course, all the more so as people increasingly have access to the same mainstream goods. You can't buy a better iPad even if you are a billionaire. They sell Prado and Armani in midwestern department stores. But you can put unique and expensive art on your walls.

Taste is the real class marker more than money.

And art is always tangled up with expression of particular values. Art is often the secular religion of the modern world, MoMA or LACMA its cathedrals. It is an expression of identity and state power and patronage.

So thinking about art, in both its aesthetic and commercial senses, tells us a lot about what people want and value when they are not materially constrained. It tells us a lot about how society may evolve in the future, as it grows wealthier. We may (hopefully) spend more wealth on beauty and aesthetic pleasure. But the art world also carries other less attractive features. It is hierarchical. It is bitchy. It is faddish and political. People can express themselves. And they can also be ignored and disdained and excluded.

There are many tiers in the art world, and despite an illustrious past Taos is not up there with New York galleries or Art Basel or the Venice Biennale.(Seven Days in the Art World is a fascinating insight into that sphere.)

The bottom tier is the souvenir and craft shops around the plaza in Taos ("schlocky", says the local guidebook). People buy turquoise necklaces and fridge magnets and made-in-china navajo rugs. Why? The human aesthetic instinct and a desire for decoration. Memories, something to give Aunt Mabel. Buying something a little more exotic than is readily available at home. It's not expensive, and it's not "art", of course. But it is aesthetic pleasure, and even average joe can buy a necklace chain for his wife with joy.

A step up from that is the second-tier galleries, which in Taos are located a block or two off the plaza. There must be so many people who paint or pot primarily as a means of self-expression, even if it means a fairly threadbare existence.

This is a fascinating thing. I've been talking throughout this blog about focusing the economy more on the ends of flourishing, developing the good life, because the sheer efficiency of the market economy is saturating lower levels of basic survival needs. For a lot of people, producing mediocre art is the thing they would love most of all to do. Is this a bad thing?

Getting into even a second-tier commercial gallery in a small remote town is an achievement in itself, something that most aspiring daubers never do. But walking around many of the smaller galleries it is difficult to avoid the thought that much of it is not very good. Real aesthetic talent stands out when you see it.

How can we tell? After all, perhaps it needs a very discriminating eye to evaluate it - although clearly the galleries here are appealing to well-healed tourists who might suddenly fall in love with a painting at random. Yet the art in the better, more expensive galleries immediately seems so much better. (We liked this one).

Finally, there is the top tier art, the realm of Sotheby's and museum curators and the jet set. There are the collectors and the dealers and the PR people. It is the art market. It is art for display and investment and scholarship, rather than love.

Yet the market tends to yield to public goods after a while. Private owners donate to public museums, and the greatest art becomes the common heritage, the common-wealth of people. Over time, the stock of those public goods, those assets, steadily grows. Maybe that tells us something too. The nature of posession changes as we go up the hierarchy of needs.

A thought experiment

Let's imagine we have an economy which before long lets people do just what they want - perhaps not at a lavish standard of living, but free to spend time as they choose. (We imagined a desert island back here). Maybe some people will just sit at the bar all day. But a lot of people will dearly love to paint, or write bad novels, or poetry, or ceramics. They will want to sit around in espresso bars and debate the latest trends. There's inherent motivation to do so.

Let's say ordinary people have more chance to indulge their aesthetic inclinations, as only rich heiresses could do in the past. What kind of society does that produce?

There is surely an independent value in having many more people able to paint and write and play in a band, even if society ends up with more unread novels and unplayed music tracks. It isn't something that many people will pay much for, of course. The exchange value is low. But there is value in letting people flourish and develop their talents - and some of it wil turn out to be astonishingly good. Perhaps more of the work will circulate by gift and exchange and donation than it ever would if people have to sell it to make a living. Perhaps everyone can have mediocre original art on their walls.

This is one of the fundamental issues we will have to confront as the economy evolves. A lot of the things people want to do have little or no market or exchange value. But people want to do them anyway. And the wealtheir or less constrained they get, the more they want do to them.

Will real aesthetic value drown in a sea of medocrity? Publishers and editors and gallery owners used to sift out the gems from the dross. But there is scope for lots of little worlds, little scenes, small groups. You may never be recognized as a major international artist. But you may be recognized as significant in Taos circles, or even in your church or reading group or extended family.

In any case, it is getting harder to define quality, at least beyond a minimum qualifying threshold. The gatekeeper role is breaking down in so many areas. You don't have to have a contract with a major publisher or know the right literary circles to get published as a novelist any more. You can upload to the world on Kindle, and it's increasingly not clear that Simon & Schuster or Penguin can market your book any better than you can. Choosing the next big hit has always involved some luck, as the rejction slips for plenty of famous novels and screenplays show.

Making it big in the art world is potentially corrupt, as well. The Poetry world, for example, seems to revolve around people giving those they know prizes and vice versa. Committees and art seem to repel each other.

Maybe we will get more mediocrity. But maybe we will also get more plurality and differetiation and local presence.

Maybe we will get less modernist originality, at least in aggregate. But we may get more beauty. A little extra aesthetic beauty can be transformative, and not even that expensive in monetary terms. A little extra design talent could alter the living conditions of all the people who live in deeply ugly tower blocks and cookie-cutter mansions.

Talent still matters. But perhaps even bad art is better than no art.

Maybe the second-tier art sometimes needs more of a purpose or an idea. It isn't always clear if the fault is in what the artist thinks will sell to uneducated consumers - demand rather than supply. And perhaps the artist's perspective often is just not that interesting. Self-expression as such just isn't that interesting to other people if it does not resonate with more universal themes. The great art of the past was mostly linked to much larger themes or subjects - religious expression in quattrocento Florence, status markers of elite taste (everywhere and at all times), particular commercial imperatives or market demand, like portraitture in golden age Dutch art. Maybe it is a matter of more education, so that the art says something.

All art is quite useless, Oscar Wilde famously said. But the little latte towns and tourist-trap galleries and craft stalls tell us something about what people want if they are given the chance. It tells us something about the good life. The value of second-tier art is letting people flourish and develop their talents. And maybe occasionally other people might like it.


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