Monday, March 14, 2005

The Price of Art
Also for the In Pittsburgh weekly, I did several features which, in the process of reporting, tried to get at the experience of various art forms. I knew that my audience came from more or less the same background as I did, so I went at the subject partly from a personal point of view. This one is from 1987. I've omitted some material that I'd recycled from my research on New York arts, included elsewhere in this bloggical archive.
by William Severini Kowinski

"Here we are now, living in a world of painting which is unutterably paralytic and miserable. The exhibitions, the picture stores, everything, everything, is in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money. And do not suppose for a moment this is only my imagination. People give a lot of money for the work after the painter himself is dead."Vincent van Gogh

I don't remember really looking at a painting until I went away to college. Even then it was intimidating. Although the campus artists felt free to invade our literary circles, we weren't made welcome in their precincts of paint and print-making. I didn't know that just as we were diligently copying Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in our stories, their awesomely original paintings were in fact earnest imitations of de Kooning and Pollock.

After college I got interested in Dada and surrealism and the painters as well as the writers who occupied Paris in the first decades of this century. There I found not only kindred spirits but actual kin: Gino Severini, painter and theoretician, who was the living link between the Italian Futurists and the Cubists in Paris, was a blood relative. My maternal grandfather's family didn't talk about him, though: the black sheep of the family who wouldn't learn a trade and fled to France. That he became an intimate of Braque and Apollinaire, that he was saved from starvation one winter by no less than Picasso himself---wouldn't have cut any gelato with them anyway.

So after that, every time I went to Manhattan I made a point of visiting the Museum of Modern Art, where a large Severini was exhibited. I still didn't know all that much about paintings, but I was immensely attracted and deeply involved by their physicality---the bold Picassos with gaps of canvas and lines painted out, the softly swirled and twined colors of Renoir, the muted moodiness of Manet, even the photo-like objects mysteriously juxtaposed by Magritte (who once said, "There is a mystery to life, but what is it?") They were all different, all intensely beautiful, and most moving to me, seeing them as actual objects a few inches from my eyes---they were perfect and imperfect at once, all suddenly revealing that they were in fact painted by real fellow human beings.

Seeing a real painting is a tactile as well as visual experience---there are dimensions totally missed by flat, dulled reproductions in a book or poster. It was true for me again when I went to see "The Plain of Auvers," an oil canvas by Vincent van Gogh, in the Scaife Gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Art.

It's not only that the brilliance of its colors and its textures are barely suggested by postcard reproductions. Up close, this Van Gogh no longer looks like a textbook illustration but something a man did with his hands---he painted, he painted over, he used brush and palette knife, he patiently worked on this corner (the Japanese-like daubs of detail); over here he slashed bold, perfect, passionate strokes. Suddenly a few squiggles of paint become a stand of trees on the horizon. The colors become tones---these luminous blue-greens in several shades, these sudden swirls of white, the strange corrupted reds, the famous yellows. The patterns play and repeat. You can almost see the actual time its composition took, incorporated in it. You can see the action still taking place...and it became a picture, and it became a painting. This is the process before you, and the result.

The experience of seeing it is somehow strengthening: you see what an odd sort of perfect a work of art is. Once it's done, it seems inevitable: yet the day before it was created, it was at best an unorganized potential of ideas, feelings accidents waiting to happen and choices yet to be made, and tomorrow's light.)

But you also see that it doesn't arrive fully perfected from some alien life-form or machine: no conglomerate or textbook company manufactured it from a pre-set, committee-derived design. It was pulled into existence from the talent and experience and (dare we say this today?) the soul, and the sweat and passion of a given person on a given day. So now a relationship: one person who painted it on that day or days, and one person who is looking at it now, today.

And here it is: the one, the only. The very one that a man named Vincent van Gogh made with his own hands in some silent field in another country, almost a hundred years ago...

But how long will it be here?

It's a good question, even in 1987, especially after the latest sale of a van Gogh for a shade under $54 million. With the proceeds from just two previous sales, van Gogh's take this year is over $114 million. Not bad for a painter whose health was ruined by worry over money and not getting enough to eat, who never made more than a few cents---let alone a living---from his prodigious artistry, who died in despair with a bullet in his brain at the age of 38.

This latest record-breaking price for a single painting raises questions that concern art exhibitors, the arts audience and artists themselves. For with rising insurance and security costs---and the temptations to sell major paintings to private bidders---the sight of a real van Gogh could become an experience of the past for all but a few.
a detail from Van Gogh's "Irises"

Consider the story behind the sale of van Gogh's "Irises," the $54 million canvas. Back in 1947, an American named Joan Whitney Payson bought it as a gift for her seven year old son, John. She paid about $80,000. John eventually built a gallery in his mother's memory at tiny Westbrook College in Portland, Maine, and the painting was exhibited there. Portland was proud to have it, and the college told everyone it would eventually be theirs by bequest. Most people thought it was part of the gallery's "permanent collection."

But then early in 1986, van Gogh's "Sunflowers" sold to a Japanese insurance company for $39.9 million, then the world's record for a single painting. This, ironically or not, sent insurance costs sky high as other van Goghs of similar prominence were immediately revalued, including "Irises." John Payson, who still owned the painting, decided he couldn't afford to keep it.

He promised to donate part of the proceeds to the college and another chunk to the gallery, plus an even dozen paintings: a Renoir, a Chagall, a Degas. Although many Portlanders were shocked to learn he (and not the gallery) owned "Irises," his plans for the money won general but not unanimous approval. Portland takes its art seriously (their new museum is one of the best designed for viewing that I've experienced in this country.) One strong dissenting voice was that of Edgar Allen Beem, art critic for the weekly alternative paper, Maine Times. "This is one of the few works of genius in our midst," he said. "The local press has portrayed Payson's plan to spread the money around as 'a great act of philanthropy,' when in fact to me it looked like nothing but greed...The rich are the custodians of culture, and we get what they give us. I'm not sure how to change that, but they are not to be applauded."

Pittsburgh has two van Goghs, the aforementioned "Plains of Auvers" (1890) and "Le Moulin de la Galette" (1886-88), both in the permanent collection of The Carnegie. I talked to Vicky Clark, curator of education, shortly after the "Irises" sale in November. "We're absolutely amazed at the prices," she said. "Not just for van Gogh---it's everybody." The sale will probably make a "tricky" insurance situation even trickier, she admitted. "It could affect us in the future. But we have no problems yet. We're certainly not going to sell our van Goghs." One reason is that "even if you can sell it, you can't replace it with anything comparable, because prices are so high." As it is, art museums can't afford to buy a van Gogh or anything like one. Anonymous corporations and private collections buying art for investment and perhaps prestige are, in Clark's words, "pricing museums out of the market."

Could major paintings disappear from view, only to be seen as color plates in art books, never to be experienced as paintings? Some have, but many works of art have always been in private collections. One reason the prices for van Goghs are so high, one theory goes, is that so many of them are already in museums, and few come on the market.

Should we be afraid that museums won't be able to acquire or exhibit art (especially if the insurance gets so high and restrictive that security becomes prohibitively expensive?) Maybe, but according to John Russell, eminent art critic for the New York Times, not quite yet, as long as we still have collectors who "have their community in mind, and an awareness of the enormous pleasure that can be had from works of art than even now do not involve a lot of super-numerary noughts."

So, you notice, we are still dependent on the rich.

But what effect does all this monumental money-changing have on living artists? The market for old and modern masters is only part of a high-priced international art casino variously described as "hot" and "inflated." All that money is bound to affect artists and the art they make.

"The prices paid for contemporary art are so high," says Sande Deitch, director and curator of exhibitions of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, "that artists feel they have to cash in." In order to get known immediately---which is particularly important in today's Young Flavor of the Month art market---even the first sale has to be for a high price.

"For emerging artists as well as artists in mid-career, psychologically, money is the bottom line today," Deitch said. "Instead of developing their own skills as art makers, the art market is a great part of what they think about. Art has become a commodity."

Part of the reason is the money it takes to survive, especially in the high-rent New York scene, but it's also middle class expectations and increasingly, upper middle class entitlement, since surviving takes some hefty patronage and helpful connections. The bottom line for today's artist is is someone who isn't a big success finds it difficult to even survive as an artist.

Which brings us back to Vincent van Gogh, perhaps the prototype of the popular "starving artist" and "need to suffer" images. As is usual with clichés, there are kernels of truth however distorted. Van Gogh certainly starved, but he was far from naïve about money or the art market. In fact, before he became a painter he was an art dealer, and his brother, who supported him all his life, remained one. It wasn't that van Gogh didn't understand the role of money. He just felt it necessary to reject it as a force that would determine what kind of pictures he would make. Although his letters almost all begin with financial matters, they go on to talk about the really serious substance of his life: colors.

"Van Gogh was one of the comparatively few artists whose anguish really was inextricable from his talent," writes art critic Robert Hughes. But that is not the same as saying that van Gogh needed to be poor, to be constantly begging for small sums of money, or even to be tortured by abrupt rejection by the woman he loved, or by his attraction to the simple family life he was unable to sustain. He had enough demons in his head, enough passions pulling and pushing and driving him, enough doubts and obsessions and emotional turmoil. The anguish that informed his paintings would not have disappeared if he'd had a decent income, although it might have been mitigated by better nutrition, and he might have lived longer and painted wonders we still can't dream of.

As for demons, the devil's chief function (according to novelist Robertson Davies) is to put a price on things.

I wonder sometimes if there aren't relatively unexplored aspects, dark and hidden, to the attitudes of non-artists towards artists. Isn't it possible that the role of the artist is given in society (generally to be poorer than anybody except the most wretchedly poor) and the paradigmatic arc of an artist's career (isolation, rejection and apologetic praise after they're dead) is an acting out of resentment, envy and jealousy? Businesspeople think of artists as impractical, as children---and like children, they seem to get away with murder. They don't have to sweat getting to work on time, or worry about what their suits say about them, or play any of the hypocritical games that go into a regular career. They drink and sleep too much, and they get to sleep around. They can be indulged for awhile, like cute children with their fingerpaints, but sooner or later, they have to be punished.

Sure, the social and economic facts tell us that art involves business, but saying that art is business is something else. and isn't turning art work into a commodity a kind of revenge? Listen for example to a manager's praise for a theatrical group's marketing style (which incidentally brings national touring shows to Heinz Hall.) "They know how to market a Broadway touring show the way it needs to be marketed---like a bar of soap. They don't look at it as art for art's sake, but hard-sell it like a consumer product." Remember, this is praise.

So if the Pittsburgh Symphony, as another example, markets itself as a kind of aural Magic Fingers for the huddled masses in the office buildings of the Golden Triangle, fine, maybe, but...what are composers supposed to compose? Lullabies for yuppies? Is it still possible to understand and accept the simple formulation made by James Rosenquist, a financially successful artist? "Business is business," he said. "And art is art."

Some artists can perhaps deal with all this, and most must try, though it is increasingly difficult. It's also harder for the public, which could be more confused than pleased by being pandered to. The kind of artist who survives may be the less senitive, the better businessman. the audience may feel misled by marketing into believing that art is solely a form of recreation (as harmless and empty as a sitcom) or conversely, just a civic duty...or a good investment.

The socioeconomic context is always a problem for art in our culture. It invites phony piety or self-righteous ignorance from the audience, and pretentiousness and dishonesty from artists. And some problems are the result of the sheer quantity of art. But when art and artists are bought and sold, things get complicated, and there is plenty of paradox and irony to go around---and, I suspect, a fair amount of suppressed conflict, rage and violence.

Why do we find the suffering and tragic lives of artists romantic? Is it the triumph of art we love, or the tragedy? A twisted enjoyment of whatever forces prevent artists from doing their best work and also living decent lives, because, why should they get away with it, when we can't?

The blindness of those who didn't buy van Gogh's paintings when he was alive is at least matched by the obscenities committed today by those who bid them up and lock them behind steel doors. The beginning of antidotes to any of this may be quite simple: go and experience a work of art as nothing but itself in a room with you. A real one. While you still can.