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Week 10+11: What is art? Who buys it? What determines its value?

This week we have been discussing consumption of art and spaces that are designated for this very purpose, spaces that identify what art is.

What is art? According to Google’s dictionary art is:

‚the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.‘

But there is no agreed definition of what constitutes art. Art is subjective because people’s taste differs. And the subjectivity of our taste is based on our background, culture, experience, knowledge, etc. What one considers a beautiful piece of art that evokes high emotions, somebody else might find merely average and feel untouched by it, because he cannot relate to it on any level. (If you were raised by a strictly Christian family it is highly unlikely that you will grow up with a taste for erotic art. Or quite the opposite, you might love it! But in both cases it is your background that determined your taste.)

So how do we know what is good art? I will try answering this question later, but now I would like to discuss art in the history, precisely the European oil painting.

According to John Berger art was a celebration of a private property – you are what you have.

‚Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life. It is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and beautiful. But a work of art also suggest a cultural authority, a form of dignity and wisdom. An oil painting is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European.‘

(Berger, 1972, p. 135)

He goes on saying:

‚Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.‘

(Berger, 1972, p. 83)

Fig. 1: Jan Davidsz. De Heem, Still Life With Lobster, 1643

Fig. 2: Johann Zoffany, Mr Townley and Friends, 1781-1783

In other words, art is about power and privilege. To own an artful piece that represents your status is a confirmation of who you are. However, in order for an artist to be powerful and privileged, their art has to be claimed ‚worthy‘. There are institutions designated for this very function – galleries, museums, etc. In order to get on their radar there are a lot of criteria one has to meet.

In Paris, from the 17th century onward, painters who wanted to be recognized would strive to get their work exhibited in Salon (Royal Art Academy). However, Salon was very strict with accepting people’s art work. They ranked the importance of paintings by the subject they portrayed. At the top of the hierarchy there were subjects taken from classical history, mythology or the Bible. This is because these subject required mastery of human anatomy and the artist's intellectual capacity to improve upon nature by idealizing their subject.

Back in those days nudity in art was considered indecent by the modest aristocratic public and painters who revolved their work around nudity had tough times succeeding to get their work to Salon(which was a privileged institution – governed by academies and visited by nobles). Unless they played the Salon’s rules. In order to be appraised for female nudes, the subject in the painting had to be otherwordly, exotic and idealised. They had to resemble real (Western) women as little as possible. In other words, to paint female nudes, the painters created Venuses, Nymphs and Odalisques whose nudity was acceptable, because they were simply made-up fantasies, not real women.

In her presentation Nicole R. Myers points out the Academia’s hypocrisy of what was an appropriate nude. She talks about Baudry's The Pearl and the Wave, Persian Fable which was an artwork exhibited in Salon. The painting’s erotic tone was neutralised through its idealized form as well as its classical and supposedly literary motifs.

‘Baudry would admit in a letter to a friend that there was in fact no literary source for his subject. This was no Persian fable.’

(Myers, 2020)

Fig. 3: Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, The Wave and the Pearl, 1862

There were some artists that went the opposite direction and depicted their subjects as real modern women. These paintings did not make it to Salon. I have discussed some of the paintings in one of my previous articles.

It is not very different in today times in terms of succeeding to get your work out there on the white walls of art spaces. Galleries, museums and other institutions are run by groups of experts who select art work based on their knowledge, experience but also their opinion of what is appropriate and worthy.

But who really has the authority to decide that? A couple of years ago I browsed through winning images of a few photo contests. There was a photographer who uploaded the same photograph in a couple of contests and scored in both of them. In one, she won the first place and in the other one she was recognised as one of twenty editor’s picks. Both awards are great success, however, there is a big difference between the top prize and an editor pick. Of course, in both contests it depends on what other photographs there were available for the jury to make the comparison with her image. But I also believe that it is important to acknowledge who makes the comparison.

Noticing the bias we are surrounded by in the art world I would like to ask further; When an artwork gets through the strict filter of a gallery or a museum, does it mean it actually is art? Or even better; Does it mean it is good art?

The main protagonist in The Square is a curator of a Swedish gallery. At the beginning of the film he discusses his new exhibition/non-exhibition. He explains to his interviewer:

‘If you place an object in a museum, does it make the object a piece of art? For instance if we took your bag and placed it here would that make it art?’

(The Square, 2017)

Later in the film one of the installations (mound of carefully arranged rubble) is accidentally swept up by cleaners (perhaps mistaken for mess).

This film is a satire on the art-world, precisely modern art. Some moments of the film remind us the experience we all sometimes have when leaving a museum or a gallery and feeling like ‘A trained monkey could do that.’

The Square is only a film, however similar situation really happened. In 2016 a teenager pranked people in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco by leaving a pair of glasses on the floor. It led some people to think they were part of the exhibition.

Fig. 4:Glasses placed on the floor, SFMONA, 2016

The question of skills in an association with art is often raised when people experiment with new techniques and methods of creating. Precisely, I am talking about those artists who pour splashes of paint on canvas while it is rotating and wait for the result. Or artists, who place a mop on canvas, pour paint over the mop threads and then slowly remove the mop, leaving paint strokes behind.

Fig. 5: Paint Pouring Palooza Fig. 6: Paint Mop Art These experiments (and many more of similar kind) are usually received with laughter on social media as people who contribute to the discussion believe that their five-year olds could do the same job. And I am sure they actually could. However, my question is: Does it matter? Does art always have to require a skill or is it more about the idea? It is good to bear in mind that for a long time photographers were thought to be inferior to other artists because ‘they only press a button’. I believe if people never experimented nothing new would ever be created or discovered. However, do these art works have a value? Robin Schmidt in his Guide to Digital Art and NFTs points out: ‘Art is really only worth what someone is prepared to pay for it. Or it is only worth what it is worth to you.’ (Schmidt, 2020)

Richard Prince would be a good example of this statement. Prince is rather a controversial appropriation artist who in my opinion does not add any additional creative flair to the works he appropriates. Yet, he is a renowned artist and his work is selling for more than a hundred thousand dollars.

Fig. 7: Installation view of Richard Prince: Portraits at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit One could say he is cheeky for what he is doing, but galleries recognised his work ‚worthy‘ which clearly is a big mile stone in an artist’s life. Does it make galleries responsible for helping Prince shape his position of a prominent figure in an art world? It surely makes me ask whether a group of people should have the authority to decide who is going to be influential and recognised by millions. Now going back to the value of art. A new trend is rising in an art world and a lot of people are going mad about NFTs which stands for Non-fungible Tokens. Even though the first NFT was created in 2014 the NFT market has seen a rapid growth in 2020 and now a lot of artists are trying to sell their work as NFTs. So what is it? In a nutshell, it is a tokenised digital asset stored on blockchain which certifies it to be unique and interchangeable. NFTs represent photographs, digital art, music, etc. What mainly is great about NFTs is that they give the creators an opportunity to make their digital work scarce. The artists can sell as many copies of their work as they wish and each piece is original. The person who purchases the art work gains a proof of ownership guaranteed by blockchain. In the digital world where copying, sharing and downloading of digital art is so common, I consider NFTs revolutionary because they allow digital art to be treated as real valuable objects. Yes, of course you can screenshot the art work too, but then you will not own it. The ownership of an authentic digital work is very new and exciting. NFTs are a technology that a lot of artists converted to and sold their work for an incredible amount of money (more than they were able to do with physical prints). For example Beeple’s The First 5000 Days sold for $69 million in March this year.

Fig. 8: Mike Winkelmann (Beeple), The First 5000 Days, 2007-2020

However, there are many more people who were not so successful. Some platforms where artists can sell their work (especially the non-curated ones) are more and less like a flea market; there is a lot of treasure but also a lot of garbage. It again gets down to the same question ‚How to separate the wheat from the chaff and should there be someone with the authority to do so?‘. (In my opinion it is down to the art collectors and how much effort they want to put in finding a ‚worthy‘ art work. They can either go to a curated NFT platform and be spoiled for choice, or they can go to a more decentralised one and enjoy digging in a digital sea of random stuff.)

It took a long time for digital art to be accepted as art. Now some people believe that NFTs are superior to physical art. I personally believe it does not make sense to compare them because they both are very different. Trevor Jones was asked in an interview about how the NFT movement fits in the broader context of art history. He pointed out:

‚NFTs are like a new character being introduced to the reader in the middle of a huge book. This creative revolution will ultimately become an integral part of art history, it will just take some time.‘

(Jones, 2020)

I consider it interesting to mention that Trevor Jonese’s Picasso‘s Bull sold more as an NFT animation (based on the physical work) than the physical work itself.

Fig. 9: Trevor Jones, a still image of Picasso‘s Bull

The world has transformed and so did the artists and buyers. Digital (art) world is the future. You already are able to buy digital frames and visit a virtual gallery (to view and purchase NFTs), etc.

Fig. 10: Digital Wi-Fi Frame

White Space Virtual Gallery – Interactive Exhibition Space for Artists

However, the same questions remains; Why people buy art? Who are these art collectors? The motivations of art collectors vary. Perhaps the art work resonates with them, and they are interested in the emotional value of the creation. Some collectors might realise the art work’s future value and see the purchase as a profitable investment and later sell it for more money. Another motivation would be a status and pride gained by owning a unique piece of art that nobody else owns. Etc.

The nagging question is about to be raised again. Where does the value of an art work come from? Though, I believe I have answered it already. In my opinion the value comes from the context, uniqueness and scarcity (air drops and other perks with NFTs), etc.

Art is pleasure, entertainment and business and just like in any other business there is corruption involved. In order to ride the wave of success the artist has to be more than just creative because art is not simply about prettiness.



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Berger, J. Ways Of Seeing, 1972, p. 135

Berger, J. Ways Of Seeing, 1972, p. 83

Jones, T. An Interview with Trevor Jones, 2020

Myers, N. R. Naked vs. Nude: Bodies and Bathers in Nineteenth-Century France, 2020

Schmidt, R. The Defiant Guide to Digital Art and NFTs, 2020

The Square, 2017

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