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Money & Art
The Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibits a painting titled, “The Holy Virgin Mary” – an image of a black woman with applied elephant dung. The National Gallery of Art unveils a photograph showing a crucifix – submersed in a vial of the artist’s urine. And the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills California displays an authentic human skull covered in diamonds – it has a $100 million dollar price tag. In recent years, these are some of the works that have redefined the face of contemporary art, a face perpetually re-imagining itself with a maniacal need to invent whatever can be first to break a taboo, whatever can shock or whatever can bring attention, good or bad, allowing the work to rise to instant stardom – are these works exploration or are they exploitation?
What is art anyway? Why do some people love or hate a particular painting? What justifies the prices?
Questions like these are frequently asked in art business. They provoke a perceptual shift that has become a multidimensional pursuit of where public and private, artistic and commercial motives intertwine. But these strategies are self-indulgent – and independent of any real experience. They serve only as social driving forces – much like the recent dramatic rises and falls of the stock market.
Historically, shifts in social mores set the stage for conflict, spark controversy, and promote change. Over the years, the focus on these shifts has advocated a pattern of prioritizing exploration over exploitation; a pattern that has led to spectacular innovations as well as wild fluctuations in artistic quality. There are many examples in which aesthetic tension between making art and the ability to reach the public has been the starting point for radical subversion. What is clear is that no change has ever come without exploitation – we cannot explore without exploiting the vary thing we are investigating – to explore is to expose the subject’s underbelly to dissection.
As a result of pushing the boundaries, art is often confused with questions about value and ethics. Sometimes I even have to ask myself - what are these people thinking? Yet judgments such as whether a work of art is good or bad – are irrelevant. Dialog on depth – superfluous. After all, how do we discern what exact characteristics of a work of art constitute aesthetic merit – who decides the what, where and when of this value and in what terms – in what context is the comparison being made? Aren’t works of different kinds of art valuable in different ways?
And what about pricing? The first and most basic principle of art marketing is that an artwork is worthless until someone buys it…. Marketing contemporary art does not speak to aesthetic issues or values of social redemption. After all, artists only need to appeal to a relatively small number of discerning followers. Most don't need nor can they benefit from, a vast audience which would only serve to dilute their developing markets. The varied tasks of the art business have little or nothing to do with mass marketing or discount shopping.
Artists don’t care how their work is perceived yet they endlessly seek viewers. Those who attempt to employ mass acceptance have on more than one occasion succeeded as a burst on the scene, only to fade quickly from public view. As a result, we might acknowledge there are no useful rules or criteria that can be given to establish aesthetic value, and the whole enterprise of assessing this value is subjective and therefore pointless.
‘Aesthetic experience’ on the other hand is pertinent. But today this important occurrence has been replaced with a focus on interpretation, and conceived as an active search for the meaning of a work of art. To strive after knowledge or a hidden meaning of things is to establish consistency with what we do and what we think… it is an attempt to find truth. Yet a work of art has an historical context, and so the artist’s original intentions can never be fully realized. There are always ‘gaps’ which need to be filled in by the interpreter. Analysis is not a process of recovering the artists’ intentions as much as a matter of focusing on the work of art itself and - just experiencing it.
All in all, progress as growth whether in land development, scientific breakthrough or any other form of social organization is generally viewed as exploration. Our society has always admired this spirit of modernism and invention while at the same time ignoring the exploitation that brought us down that road. Images artists use to make art arise out of questions the artist has about the society, its identity, its conscience and struggle for power that uncovers uncertainties about that society’s ideals. Artistic questioning forces new perspectives, exposes our weaknesses, and offers a potential for powerfully changing our relationship to our actions. We can’t separate the pursuit of our investigations from our manipulations in questioning their validity but answers must still be left up to the viewer for interpretation.
Although the imagery and historical context of all three of these artworks vary, they share the conceptual underpinnings that exploration is exploitation, and therefore is also a distinction without a difference.