Sunday, May 3, 2009

(No.25) Expensive Rubbish

Pat and I consider ourselves fortunate to have had many hours of enjoyment in art galleries. The D'Orsay in Paris and the Belvedere in Vienna (from which we just returned) are among our favourites.  One of Vienna's great attractions for us -- it's a city with at least 250 museums and galleries of many types and sizes. 

The fact of the matter is that Pat has an appreciation for a wider range of art than I do. This is especially true of contemporary art. There have been any number of special exhibitions of one sort or another I have viewed in a fraction of the time she spends in them. 

For me the problem isn't that I don't get some enjoyment from certain types or schools of painting that are not among my favourites (I do) but rather that there is too much puerile rubbish presented to the public as worthwhile art by gallery curators and applauded by critics almost as a dare to the public to criticize. The Turner Modern in the old power plant by the Thames in London seems to work particularly hard at finding (and often awarding prizes to) stuff so risible that a long crack created in the floor of the gallery counts as a creative work (I kid you not). 

There is no real mystery why some art critics and gallery curators can become orgasmic about 'paintings' that look like something from a primary school art class: if the great unwashed, unschooled and unsophisticated public ( those referred to once upon a time as the bootless and horseless) are likely to dismiss it out of hand then perforce it must have great intrinsic worth as art. After all, one's avant garde spurs can be earned by embracing it and one's imprimatur secured as an expert and a sophisticate within one's artistic community.

Of course the very worst thing one could do to one's standing as a sophisticated art connoisseur would be, for example, to point out that any one of Rudolf Von Alt's (1812-1905) more than 100 paintings of Stephandom cathedral in Vienna requires more skill and artistry than the slapdash pieces Picasso (who did possess genuine talent, q.v. his early work) churned out like donuts in his later years, pieces which now sell for ridiculously high amounts.

Put another way: the mystery involves how the work of an artist like the Englishman Francis Bacon who died in 1992 can today attract purchasers willing to pay millions for it. How, for example, can a painting by Bacon in Vienna's Albertina Gallery titled "Seated Figure" be distinguished as superior in any meaningful sense to the similar work of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele whose own paint drippings were ended by the Spanish Flu in 1918? 

A possible answer: higher current prices at sale. This occurs not so much because of buyers with far more money than taste but because of the wealthy approaching art as an investment and being advised by promoters in the art world about which art and artist is hot and likely to appreciate in value. Lest one forget, the highly publicized big prices paid for certain paintings at auction at Sotheby's and Christie's are not necessarily a reflection of artistic value (although they may be) but rather of the operation of the art market place. 

Like Wall Street before the meltdown, the art world has too much of the art world's equivalent of credit default swaps and derivatives. 

Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca