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Friday, January 5, 2018

The Eliteness of Art

I've been stewing on some of these things for a few months, perhaps years. Mike C made some remarks recently, and there's been a little tempest in a teapot the last day or two over a new policy at The Met, so now I am inspired to actually write something down.

The history of Art is as much a history of who was sleeping with whom as it is about anything else. Art, in the sense of Famous Artists and Expensive Art, is based entirely on a system of artificial scarcity engineered by a relatively small group of people. This small collection of influential curators, gallerists, critics, and so on, select from the vast array of Good Art being made and anoint a piece here, an artist there, and tell us what's good and important. They often make an excellent living at this.

It should surprise no one that they frequently choose their friends, friends of friends, and so on. The social elements of who gets selected and who does not cannot be denied. Every so often some rando gets picked, but even there some influencer notices the rando someplace and strikes up a conversation or whatever. If the influencer does not like the rando (or want to have sex with the rando, or whatever) the rando ain't goin' noplace. They will remain at the street fair, selling their paintings to tourists.

I don't particularly object to this system. There has to be some sort of winnowing process, and at the end of it all, there is bound to be a strong element of arbitrariness. Such is life. The wealthy demand Expensive Art, and someone's going to provide it to them, for a fee. This in turn demands scarcity, and when the scarcity is not real you have to create it artificially. See also diamonds.

Still, there's always an unsavory scent around the whole business, isn't there?

It also leads to some truly bizarre effects.

In recent days we have seen Art Critics from the NY Times railing against The Met for changing its admissions policy. Formerly, admission was whatever you wanted to pay, with a suggested $25 fee for adults. Very few people paid $25. Soon, out of state visitors will be required to pay the $25 (New Yorkers will still be admitted free, because The Met takes a hell of a lot of money from the State of New York). So the Art Critics are howling that Art Should Be Free and The Met is terrible.

But let us step back a little. These Art Critics are neck deep in a system of elites creating an artificial scarcity of a common resource (Art). These are people who absolutely support a system which enriches a few, which literally exists to pander to obnoxious oligarchs. And now they are complaining that the oligarchs who pay their salaries, the oligarchs with whom the work hand-in-hand every single day, they complain that these oligarchs gotta oligarch.

Say what?

At the same time, and more generally, we see this weird conflict playing out daily if you keep an eye on lower-tier members of that community. It is actually a done thing to simultaneously rail against how money is ruining Art and to kiss the asses of those people higher up on the chain. Those higher up on the chain are of course doing the same thing.

Everyone agrees, at all levels, that Money Is Ruining Art and the Oligarchs Are Terrible, and everyone, at all levels, wants nothing more than to be higher up on the chain which is literally built around the money that the oligarches rain down so obligingly on their critics.

It is extremely weird, amusing, and appalling, all at once.

Art doesn't need to be selected by thin snobs and then entombed in gigantic museums which are then free, even for scum. Art needs to be everywhere, all the time. Art needs to be local, to be small, to be ubiquitous. Screw the museums and the thin snobs, one and all. Make your own choices, buy the paintings from the kid at the street fair. He probably turned down some thin snob's advances last week, and screwed his chances of ever making it big. So, buy a picture off him.


  1. That Mike C. is always worth reading, I find. If only he'd chosen his friends and partners more wisely, I'm sure he'd be even *more* worth reading...

    Closely related to this is the "Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome", which I experience all too often when I visit a gallery or exhibition, for example the recent Jasper Johns show at the Royal Academy in London. So often, you (I) come away thinking, "Really? This is it? What am I missing here?"

    As you say, good art is everywhere. One of the best things about photography is that it helps us see that good "art" is randomly and freely distributed all around us, should we choose to see it. We're swimming in the stuff -- on every wall in every street there's a free and far better "Jasper Johns" show. Why anyone is able to make a fortune pointing this out is beyond me.


  2. I think much of what you say here about art also applies to politics, I am just sorry it took me so long to figure all that out!

  3. Yeah, I think these are profoundly *human* patterns that play out again and again.