Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Leaner, Meaner, Angrier Art World

The painting to the left is Akt Elke 2 (Nude Elke 2) by the German artist Georg Baselitz, who is famous for painting figures upside-down. When Baselitz was asked by a reporter recently whether or not he felt any guilt about the "astronomical prices" his works were fetching at auctions, Baselitz took a long drag on his cigar, blew the smoke into the reporter's face, and remarked: "What is better than a painting? Nothing."

Well, that may have been true last year, but I suspect that these tough economic times are going to produce more than a few detractors to Baselitz's speculation. Waldemar Januszczak, New York Times art critic, thinks we're way overdue for a value "correction" in the art market, which he sees as terribly over-inflated and badly managed. In his article "Time for a cull in the art world," Januszczak claims that "the whole tottering art-world edifice has grown soft, blubbery, arrogant, self-congratulatory and decadent." Art prices have gone up in almost direct proportion to its decline in value. There are too many galleries and not enough of what Januszczak calls "fire-in-their-belly" artists. Aesthetic value is not recession-proof, Januszczak argues, and this recession has come just in time.

I don't really have the eye (or the income) to count myself among the owners of fine art, so I can't remark upon the accuracy of Januszczak's claims that the art world-- and espcially the Tate Modern-- has become bloated. But I am both intrigued by and sympathetic with his insistence that we be suspicious of any kind of Warhol-esque conflation of buisiness and art. It's not that art isn't a business, which of course it is, but when it becomes only a business, then I can understand his welcoming the sorts of market corrections that make good businesses good, and bad businesses fail. Januszczak thinks that this recession will produce what he calls a "leaner, meaner, angrier art world," which he acknowledges will undoubtedly be bad for artists, but only bad artists. That last part makes me a little nervous, since it is just as likely that plenty of good, "fire-in-the-belly" artists will also get lost in Januszczak's proposed "culling." Even still...

What is better than a painting, Baselitz? Food. Rent. Heat.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Although I'm all for taking down some of the excesses of the visual arts, esp. vis-a-vis other art forms, if you consider the art market as a "luxury" market, things get a little more difficult. Baselitz might be right there...

And, I hate to reveal myself as the frou-frou-y aesthete that I might be but I have to say that food, heat and rent are only better until you have them. Then art becomes better...

(I feel that an emoticon is necessary after that last paragraph to show that I am "kidding on the square," but I refuse to use emoticons).

e. said...

i agree that paintings are pretty good. now i've never been without food, heat or rent, so perhaps i am biased.

i think that the very best thing that can come of this is the absence of bad artists. man, are there a lot of those in the world. i've seen plenty of paintings i would eat, burn, or sit on. in that case, i'm down for a meaner art world, or at least one that has tastes which exceed the synthetic.

ps they need to come up with an "irony" emoticon. now that is one happy face i would use!