All About the Money: Art & the Mainstream Part 4
The problem with money in art (and by extension the art world) is often portrayed as a matter of class by proxy of wealth. The real median annual income for a U.S. household according to the most recent census is $44,389; compared to the roughly $786 million Christies and Sotheby’s took in across their November Postwar and Contemporary sales, Art appears to be luxury commodity for the super rich that has little room for mainstream tastes and spending.
To be clear, this is certainly one aspect of Art, but mainstream culture has maintained a robust (if not necessarily “healthy”) interest in the rich and famous. Our supermarket checkout lanes are clogged with celebrity magazines and however many channels of TV you may have it’s certain that you can peek in on the lifestyles of the rich and (somewhat, kind of) famous; after all the same network that brought us Work of Art also brings us The Real Housewives of wherever. By the same token, turn on local sports radio and you are liable to discover debate and vitriol directed at how much a given player is worth in a new contract. Interest in economics becomes titillating and voyeuristic as the middle class can debate the values attached to sums they won’t earn in their lifetimes.
The comparison to sports strikes me as particularly apt; I enjoy the parallels of grown men being paid millions of dollars a year to play games and the cost, effort, and promotion that is advanced so that art, which can also seem so innocently childlike, becomes a multibillion dollar industry. Where the art world has Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch, sports has Scott Boras. Is the merry-go-round of blue chip artists changing representation all that different from players reaching free agency? Does knowledge of the economic interests involved impede enjoyment of the game or exhibition?
I feel it is an issue of resolution, a micro vs. macro. In limited exposure the chief economic concern of a sunny day at the ballpark is the high cost of a beer. But an examination of the entire financial structure of Major League Baseball can make a game between the Yankees and Kansas City Royals seem like a bit less competitive and more an exercise in the rich getting richer. Similarly, any given exhibition may be enjoyable, present new and challenging work that inspires aesthetic debate, but the underlying economic interests are not likely to be easily exposed (unless perhaps it is foregrounded by the work itself).
Sports fans these days have become more sophisticated about the economics of their favorite pastimes and have developed a keen understanding of the money that drives their team’s interests in the off-season(s), but the same does not seem to be as true of the arts. Money is less a barrier to entry (after all galleries are free and Museum admissions are still cheaper than even the worst tickets at most major sports venues) but is in turn much more opaque to revealing the political interests that lead to who is shown at the largest venues, and what connections (and whose money) got the work there. Instead the mainstream remains stuck on the monetary value assigned to a work of art (through auction record, insurance valuation, or what have you) as an imprimatur of aesthetic worth.
Viewing Art through such a distorted lens, divorced from an understanding of aesthetics and history, is ultimately what leaves the mainstream unable to understand and unwilling to approach Art. As the saying goes “money talks”; the mainstream understands that money is a vote, and they have little voice in such an unbalanced arena beyond cracking their wallets to cover the admission for the latest blockbuster. The question becomes what is the potential cost to artists and the art world for ignoring the mainstream, and what sort of gesture might need to be extended as an olive branch (my guess is that Work of Art is not it). While the top end of the art world will continue to hum along spending hundreds of billions of dollars, the largest danger for artists lies in Art becoming little more than haute couture. So long as artists claim that Art is more than fashion, it is incumbent on the art world to explain the difference.