Art Letter


2/06/05
I should not have been surprised.  I might even be guilty.

Until last May I'd been selling art for over 30 years straight.  You'd have thought I would have gotten used to it.  A collector and friend had referred me to a kindly young lady who had "three etchings of significant value" in need of an appraisal.  I went to look. Argh.  They were reproductions. I told her their worth was in the low two digits.


That didn't take long, but good manners dictated that we conduct small talk for a few minutes before my departure.  She was taken aback by the news of Ed Paschke's recent death, but recovered quickly enough to blurt "Oh good. Michael's collection will certainly be going up in value now, right?"


The answer is not really, probably not, maybe, could be, you never know. But that is not the point. That is not the point at all.  There is a loss in the art world and there is a loss in Chicago.  Ed Paschke was a giant who lived and loved art for all the right reasons. Art took care of Ed and he gave back.  He was arguably Chicago's greatest artist and he was easily one of the planet's greatest people.


That's how it is supposed to be with art.  It's not about the commodification of art, the commercialization, the selling of hype over substance. Or is it?


Almost daily we are overwhelmed with reports of odd or glorious works of art selling for obtuse sums of money.  Artists become rock stars largely because they want to, and because some can. The same idolatry that ensnarls musicians, entertainers, and professional athletes today includes artists, even as society at large disdains them.  How can you not encourage artists to ride the wave when they get lucky? But the art, the poor art. It gets overlooked as an object of beauty, or of truth, or of inspiration, and becomes a symbol, a symbol of value.  Today in New York City there's at least one gallery quoting prices in Euros.


The unfortunate thing is that art, or at least the acquisition of art, has been pretentious for a very long time.  Art has rarely been aimed at, or appreciated by, the masses.  That is a rather new notion.  Art for art's sake is even newer.


Historically, art has been for the aggrandizement of power, the glorification or appeasement of gods and scorekeeping.  Who has the biggest?  Who has the best?  Who has the most? Too often it is not about connoisseurship, not about pursuit of quality, not about inspiration, and not about meaning.


Today, globalization plays a role in the changes in the art world. Globalization is everywhere, and I don't hear much about how it affects the art world.  The role-model of the art gallery as an instrumental purveyor of aesthetics has diminished while the role of the art fair has elevated.  Galleries (smaller physically and quicker afoot) exhibit several times a year at these fairs, pushing a commercial consciousness and obscuring the notion of a "local artist." Soon there will even be an "art fair" year round on a boat that works the waters along our Eastern seaboard.


Art fairs are not about education and only occasionally about building relationships.  Instead, they are about making the sale. But let us not blame art fairs; though they contribute to globalization in art they are just symptomatic. Regardless, the playing field for the local artist has changed, and will continue to do so.


Art is getting more distinctly broken into two categories: above or below $100,000.   Below that threshold, and especially below $10,000, art is about content, meaning, stimulation, motivation - all the good things. Over $100,000, art transcends these issues and becomes about value, and its meaning is influenced by value. Thus a Curran is more "important" than a Tuttle.


But at what point does the work of art become irrelevant?  Though they still say Jasper Johns is making great paintings, I haven't seen one in at least a dozen years. Yet the prices still climb, even for his newest work.


I recently had a conversation with a dealer friend from London who called  Robert Rauschenberg the greatest living artist.  Conversely, Marcel Duchamp is not in his top 25,000.  Rauschenberg was "in" because he's influenced more artists than anyone else. And Duchamp was out because he initiated "art as anything," which leads to the folly that exists today.


Over $100,000 artwork becomes a chit, a commodity. At some point it gets anointed by museum acquisition and stuck with the accidental irony of a corresponding wall label explaining that "this artist's work is about commercialism in our society and the commodification of values."


So where does that leave the local artist? (I define "local" as an artist who hasn't yet made it big, isn't worried about trying to be humble, and wonders if making art will ever be worth it.) The local artist is judged on a different scale with a different set of criteria. The local artist seeks to appeal to a much broader audience with a broader array of issues.  Value is intrinsic instead of external. Quality is relevant, supply likely more abundant, and in all probability the art more genuine because the sentiment is more authentic.


I host a website that has a discussion forum (www.artletter.com - click on "letters in"). It is predominantly frequented by artists, though all are invited. I don't think any of the artists who post sell art for above $100,000. The discussions are solid. The artists talk about meaning, technique, how to learn from one another, philosophy, a lot about Duchamp, music, and the local art scene. They're discussing the things that matter to them, not money, not art as product, just the things that brought them to art in the first place.  It's nice.


I think the foregoing is true of local artists everywhere. Their art is an embodiment of significant issues and is not adulterated by thoughts of price-tag permeating the creative process.  Commercialism just doesn't enter into it.


This is a mixed blessing.  For though local artists definitely create art with more purity of purpose, these artists could assuredly live better if they applied some money smarts to their work, or if we supported our own better.  Think about who benefits from the sale (or more likely resale) of pricey works of art.  It probably isn't someone in your community, who might otherwise be spending money on something of benefit to you.  Now think about a piece by a local artist. The difference is huge - especially the amount of good you do and the pleasure you get.


The purposes of art are many.  Its power is remarkable and subtle. We're seeing new strategies for employing art and making the "art experience" more genuine for more people.  We are opening the eyes of young people who had never thought art was an option.  By extension, we learn about cultures that don't reflect ours.  There is a direct reward for nurturing your community, supporting the arts, and shopping locally.


Paul Klein closed his gallery less than a year ago. He has recently been selected as the art consultant for the McCormick Place West Expansion. He plans to spend the entire budget on Chicago artists. He is continuing discussions about the creation of two new museums in Chicago.