Art as Mirror

Art reflects the society in which it’s created.  The cold and austere stone carvings of ancient Egyptian pharaohs hint at the rulers’ detached, God-like status in a rigidly hierarchical society, while the expressive nudes from classical Greece offer insight into a humanistic civilization that celebrated the perfection of man.  What, then, does our art say about us?

If plans move ahead, a full-size, several-ton replica of a 1943 locomotive will soon be suspended vertically from a 161-foot crane above High Line Park in lower Manhattan.  Occasionally, the engine will spin its wheels and bellow steam from its stack.  “Train” is the brainchild of noted “artist” Jeff Koons, whose works include large replicas of brightly colored balloons twisted into the shape of toy dogs, cast aluminum models of poolside play things, and a ceramic representation of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, the singer’s monkey.  “I try to be a truthful artist and show a level of courage,” Koons explains smugly.  “I’m a messenger.”

What courageous message Koons’ work sends is unclear, though less mysterious is its considerable market value.  “Train” costs $25 million.  The piece’s hefty price tag is causing a delay in its installation while funds are raised for its purchase, but its backers like Tom Eccles are optimistic that it will eventually go up.  The former director of a non-profit that organizes public exhibitions in New York City characterizes Koons’ floating locomotive as “ingenious,” adding cryptically to the New York Times, “In some ways, it’s suspended between the past and the future.”

Eccles is wrong in at least one respect: contemporary art like that of Koons is very much of the here and now.  It’s big business given a thin veneer of culture.  According to ArtNet, which tracks these things, contemporary art sales in auction houses totaled $5.5 billion in 2011; additional untold sums were exchanged in private transactions.  The figures shouldn’t surprise, as in some ways art has always been a commodity to aggrandize the patron or an ideology, speculated on and traded like any other.  One savvy art critic, Willi Bongard, even developed a formula using data from museums and galleries that determines an artist’s investment potential.

Artists have also contributed to their own commoditization.  Art historian Svetlana Alpers writes: “[Rembrandt] invented the work of art most characteristic of our culture—a commodity distinguished among others by not being factory produced, but produced in limited numbers and creating its market, whose special claim to the aura of individuality and to high market value binds it to basic aspects of an entrepreneurial (capitalist) enterprise.”

The rise of capitalism itself, particularly its modern consumer variety, has accelerated art’s commoditization, as ever-increasing pools of capital are deployed in search of high returns, and the red-hot art market seems as good an investment as any other.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Other important factors have also contributed to the visual arts’ commercialization.

Painting, sculpture, and other art forms once served a function.  Churches decorated their interiors with magnificent frescos to impress the laity; kings and monarchs commissioned triumphal statues as visual testaments to their own glory; and vain aristocrats hired court painters to capture their likenesses in portraits.  But these onetime patrons of the arts who bequeathed the cultural riches that fill cathedrals and museums have vanished.  What’s more, the rise of other art forms like photography and cinema further marginalized the traditional visual arts, largely rendering them an anachronism without apparent purpose.  Into this void stepped clever entrepreneurs aware that art can have a very useful (and highly lucrative) role in a modern consumer society: to be what it’s always been, a commodity, only much more so.  After all, if markets exist for securitized sub-prime mortgages, pork bellies, and derivatives, why not for art too?

Why not indeed.  Art refashioned as a commodity needn’t have any aesthetic value; in fact, far better for it to be so abstract that it cannot be judged by any reasonable standard, which might reveal its lacking merit and therefore its lousy investment potential.  Shorn of this aesthetic constraint, anything can lay claim to being “art,” even, say, a 340-ton boulder, called  “Levitated Mass” by “sculptor” Michael Heizer, which was recently installed in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

What, then, do Heizer’s boulder, Koons’ locomotive, and much of contemporary art say about our society?  A lot.  It says we’re highly-skilled speculators adept at performing a certain alchemy, turning any and all objects into “gold,” or at least the perception thereof, in pursuit of high returns.  That’s who we are and that’s our art.

Koons puts it slightly differently.  “It’s a commercial world,” he observes, “and morality is based generally around economics.”  By that standard, Koons is a very “moral” man.  To know whether he’s an artist, best check his bank account.

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