It’s All About the Money…Or Is It?

It’s That Time of Year when there is much public discussion of materialism. Interestingly, this year the discussion takes place during the same time frame as a show in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi called “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” which “explores the links between that unique interweave of high finance, economy and art, and the religious and political upheavals of the time.” The opening of this show about the connection between banking and Renaissance art was followed by a “a private conference on the future of art and finance” and numerous articles on the show and both the historical and contemporary interconnections between art and money.

Although the connections between art and money may not be fully understood, almost everyone in the arts is aware of some link. The patronage system that was developed during the Renaissance is still alive and well, if not in the form of direct sponsorship, in the form of scholarships and grants to both individual artists and arts organizations. Basically, money keeps the art world going, and big money keeps big art going.

This is true even of individual sales to collectors and is seen in both the primary and secondary art market. Daniel Grant says that art and money are now so intertwined that price has come to substitute for quality.  He goes on to say that the emphasis on sales coupled with a “lack of any consensus about aesthetics or standards of taste” has resulted in a new definition of art: “Art is whatever someone puts down money for and says ‘This is art.’ The corollary of this is that quality is identifiable only in terms of the sums spent.” Jed Perl goes further to say that “culture is now in retreat before the brute force of money.”

For those interested in the topic, the tangle of art-as-commodity and money is fully explored in Robert Hughes’ International Emmy-winning The Mona Lisa Curse. This documentary, which is very difficult to find, is summarized on “Art for a Change.”

Because the current measure of artistic quality is money and because of the enormous sums currently being paid for the most-in-demand art, a number of artists have begun to network and hustle and promote themselves. The result is group of artists who have developed larger-than-life personas in order to generate larger-than-life incomes. They have become celebrities. It is quite common to read about these “art stars,” almost as if they were performers. Perhaps they are.

The attitude of this new breed of artist is much that of a salesman or marketer rather than that of the traditional artist. This approach is summed up by one of the most notorious of the current “art stars,” Damien Hirst: “You also have to ask yourself as an artist, ‘What would be more appealing … to have made the Mona Lisa painting itself or have made the merchandising possibilities — putting a postcard on everyone’s walls all over the world? Both are brilliant, but in a way I would probably prefer the postcards — just to get my art out there.’” Somehow, in Hirst’s case, it doesn’t seem to be about just getting his work out there, but about being paid very well for it—about, as he says, “merchandising possibilities.”

One would hope that art is about more than merchandising possibilities. We will never disentangle money and art. I’m not sure that we should even try. But we can resolve to use standards other than price to evaluate art. And maybe, at this time of year, we might remind ourselves that, at least for some of us, it’s not just about the money.

And, if you happen to be in Florence before January 22, 2012, you might drop in and see two curators’ take on how it all started.

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Date: Monday, 19. December 2011 0:23
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Criticism, Marketing

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