Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trendspotting in the Art World

I’m not sure what we should make of it, but it bears mention: the center of gravity of the world art market seems to have set down in China.

Roger Denson is correct to point it out. Link here.

Why would it be historically significant? Perhaps because it offers a snapshot of one moment in the competition between civilizations. (Note, I did not say clash of civilizations.)

Civilizations compete. So do nations and empires. They compete to see who can provide the best life for their citizens and subjects.

A good life does not merely mean a life filled with riches. A good life involves providing psychological capital, pride and confidence to each and all. True happiness comes from the pride we take in our achievements, but that is not merely individual achievements. The nation’s or the civilization’s achievements contribute mightily to forming and maintaining a positive identity.

Civilizations also compete to establish dominance and influence in world politics and world markets. They compete at war and they compete in business. The latter was famously called by William James: the moral equivalent of war.

Military victory grants the winners a boost of pride and confidence, to say nothing of the other advantages that accrue.

Influence is easy to understand. Every American citizen gets one vote in the presidential election. Every citizen of Bolivia, to take a random example, gets one vote in the election for the president of Bolivia.

One might argue, with no prejudice to the people of Bolivia, that an American citizen’s vote counts for more, in terms of influencing the course of history and the direction of events in the world, than does the vote of a citizen of Bolivia.

Not all votes are created equal.

Of course, the art market does not create massive wealth and does not contribute to military or economic victory. Yet, if we limit ourselves to the market for fine art, it is certainly a very small market-- miniscule when compared to the bond market or the Forex-- but its higher echelons are inhabited by some very savvy players.

People who bid and collect fine art tend to be very, very smart. They tend to be very sophisticated investors. No one spends $20,000,000 on a colored piece of canvas if he does not see it as an investment.

A great work of art is more than a pretty picture.

The people who determine the direction of the art market are not aesthetes. They are patrons of he arts, modern day Medici, who pay very high prices for objects that they believe, correctly, contain intrinsic value.

Great art is a store of value, of value that transcends the guarantees offered by central banks.

For some time now people have noticed that great art is not produced haphazardly and at random. Great artists come in groups. At a moment in time a group of great artists seemed to emerge together in Italy during the High Gothic period or in France during the Impressionist period.

Hegel examined the phenomenon and concluded that the movement of the art world’s center of gravity corresponded to the movement of the World Spirit.

From pharaonic Egypt to the Golden Age of Athens to the Roman Empire to the High Gothic period in medieval Europe, to the Renaissance, up to and including the abstract expressionist and pop and conceptual art in New York City after World War II... the World Spirit has been on the move.

There are other ways to see this. A nation wins a war, forms an Empire, collects wealth and power... and people look up to it. They want to emulate its example. They adopt its cultural habits, among which is its aesthetic.

Empires seem especially apt to produce great art. Perhaps only an Empire can afford to support great artists, or perhaps it takes an Emperor to believe that his claim to authority rests in some part on his ability to make his world the center of art historical gravity. Or perhaps an artist needs to be at the center of economic and political action to be inspired to his true greatness.

High art is not the province of the masses. We no longer have princes and princesses, but we have hedge fund tycoons, people who have built financial empires and who want to influence the culture's value system by placing value on art.

But, what value system is at work when you see a tiger shark in a vat of formaldehyde, or a colorful collection of encased vacuum cleaners, or a picture that looks exactly like the design of a soup can?

And what is the value system when art denounces the collector as a mindless cog in the capitalist machine.

If as James Goodwin and Roger Denson suggest, great art gives people a feeling of pride in their culture and their nation, what are we to make of these modern works that make a mockery of our civilization?

These artists do not expand the great tradition of Western art, because they do not respect it. They do not respect collectors, because the collectors are buying the stuff as though it had some kind of transcendent aesthetic value.

After all, anyone who stares in awe at a household object because it has been exhibited in a museum is more concerned with looking like a member of the in-crowd than  in gaining any aesthetic satisfaction from the viewing.

I am sure that this will make me sound like the last of the Philistines, but there is a significant aesthetic difference between a picture of a soup can and a Vermeer.

And yet, I do understand that these great modern art works are not supposed to be about the object anyway. They want to elicit a cultural critique, a subversive gesture that would undermine, not build on, national pride.

And that is the strange part. If Goodwin and Denson are correct to say that the current Renaissance of Chinese art, coupled with the ascendance of the Chinese art market, have been produced by people who are taking increasing pride in their country, their culture, and their civilization, what does it say about America when we see that artists who are lauded beyond reason are telling us that we should not take pride in American culture or civilization?

What does it say when the wealthiest and most successful among us are feeding this valueless system.

One finds it difficult to imagine how our nation is going to compete effectively against China or any other civilization if we repudiate our past and only find things to criticize in our present.

Here is Denson’s analysis of the potential fallout that might be about to hit the American art world: “In China's case, at least if we consider the top earning Chinese artists named here, the artists signify that the Western predilection for the new and trangressive art that has dominated the art market and art history for the last two centuries might face their eclipse by a culture still favoring artistic traditions. Could the shift in markets translate to more traditional contemporary Chinese artists--and possibly even more traditional Western artists, growing in esteem? That is, receiving more representation in museums, feature articles in trade publications, and internationally distributed monographs-in-translation--at the expense of the artists who represent what's left of an increasingly threadbare avant-garde? The challenge that Western curators face is how to assimilate artists who appear traditional in relationship to the Western post-postmodern-garde without falling back on eurocentric values that once marginalized non-Western art as ’ethnic,’ ‘regional‘ and ‘traditonal.’"

I have my own doubts about whether the past two centuries of Western art have been as transgressive as Denson believes. Still, it is worth noting that American and British art has become less and less representational, and that it no longer has anything that resembles an aesthetic.

Perhaps,  Manet was avant-garde at his time, but he certainly had an aesthetic, as did the other great artists of his period.

It may have been a different aesthetic, but it was intended to give the viewer an aesthetic experience.

Denson is right to see that the newer Chinese artists are going to become increasingly influential and that this is going to cause us to see art in a very different way.

Keep in mind, somewhere around the year 1900 someone did a survey of educated Parisian opinion. He asked which contemporary artists would be most admired a century hence. It wasn't Manet or Monet or Cezanne or Renoir.

The winner was: William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


David Foster said...

Art, discomfort, and dehumanization

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, for linking a great article on this topic.

Andrew said...

I was just reading something about Bourgereau. Wasn't he supposed to have been one for the ages back in the Belle Epoche?

Stuart Schneiderman said...


jonathangenkin said...

First of all I believe that contemporary American art's valuation of American culture belies ambivalence and not necessarily critique or lack of pride. The adoption of consumer culture both critiques & annunciates the artist's merging in his/er milieu. I personally abhor this but don't think it is proof of China's impending dominance.
China's growth is economic and with it the sprit of it's pride in that and all things Chinese as we too once confused economic dominance with aesthetic/cultural dominance. It might be more that the 'market' is following the money and the growth of a new consumer class (remember the 80's?).
We all do our 'trend' computations mine is often myopic. What remains is sometimes Hegelian domination in the Stele of the powerful or sometimes too the discovery of a lost manuscript wrapping fish which someone discovers.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I do find it interesting and compelling that the movement toward China also introduces a radically different aesthetic. That was the point that the article made, and I think it was well made.

I think that the criticism that artists have directed against America goes beyond ambivalence. I get the sense that many of them feel that America is guilty for much of what is bad in the world, and thus, that they are trying to provoke self-criticism.

I am still intrigued about the fact that at different times and places there seems to be something of a convergence of great artists producing great art.

I have some thoughts about it, but it's not so easy explaining why.

Therapy Culture said...

"But, what value system is at work when you see a tiger shark in a vat of formaldehyde, or a colorful collection of encased vacuum cleaners, or a picture that looks exactly like the design of a soup can?"

Andy Warhol is back?

"And what is the value system when art denounces the collector as a mindless cog in the capitalist machine."

Collectors deserve to be insulted as such if they are actually patronizing and purchasing such "art".