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It’s time we use our eyes and learn to see.

I am both in love with and disgusted by the contemporary art scene. A lot of my friends who study art’s history have little contact with the contemporary art world as it currently exists: artists, galleries, dealers, competitive art shows—these are all aspects of a world far removed from the historian’s universe of archives, museums, and disappeared empires.

Exhibit 1: Art Basel Miami Beach http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/arts/design/art-and-commerce-meet-in-miami-beach.html?hp&_r=0

I’m not alone when I decry the art-cum-fashion model that has all the attention of newspaper and magazine critics and the deep pockets of collectors who want to throw money at culture and make a good investment for themselves.

Patricia Cohen in the New York Times points out that money has always been an essential part of the art world. Artists need money to live and to make art. The  art market with highly volatile prices and fickle dealers and collectors is one model of putting money in the mix.  Another model is to get more government funding into the mix which would neutralize some of the effect of celebrity. I’m not sure that many of the people involved in the art market would be able to imagine living without the promise of mega-millions and the attention of celebrities.  A visit from Martha Stewart virtually endows an artist’s exhibition with both popular attention and even some staying power that may not be in the art itself.

I miss the loud voice of Robert Hughes who bombastically excoriated viewers, dealers, and even artists themselves for letting themselves be duped into believing that money, celebrity, and tricks of visual effects held any significance.

Sure, money has always been important. What is different now? Is it the sameness that clients all want similarly obtuse, abstract paintings to “make a statement” in their homes or businesses? Is it the willingness “to not get it” on the part of clients or collectors who are willing to spend big bucks on something that may be strong in terms of design but has little staying power? Is it the Darwinian fight between artists who are all trying to out-do each other in annual competitions for prizes and prices? As if we only need the work of the absolute best artist?  No–we need the work of many artists, their visions, imaginations, everything!

Exhibit 2: Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping http://www.revbilly.com/about-us

Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping protest loudly interrupting the routines of our capitalist markets by showing how our consumerist attitudes are only a false image of perfection (to steal a phrase from my advent-rant post). What’s missing in the capitalist-consumerist system is our human-ness. Our subjective experiences of seeing, feeling, sensing the world around us and our relationships. We should not subject ourselves and our relationships to market forces, although we do! How many time have I seen headlines about the relative assets of married vs. single people? Or about measuring the worth of a university education against the money earned by university graduates?

I’d argue that the same goes for the art market. By allowing big money from rich clients to distort the kinds of art that are made and displayed in our ever dwindling public spaces for art we are reducing ourselves as less than human.  We are making smaller the human dimension of the makers and viewers of our rich visual culture. Rev. Billy would argue we need to remind people that things like art come from somewhere, that the materials have a past as resources (natural or human-mde) and in terms of labor. This message guards us against a disposable culture.  That things made to make our lives more convenient also make us less human.

The problem is not just that the loud voice of money and collectors can cause artists of no particular quality achieve notice while great ones miss the attention of collectors; it is that the money makes us less human, less inclined to see, to study something with our eyes, to let our imaginations and feelings engage with the visual world around us. 

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