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December 03, 2007

Art, class and value

Art has been perceived by some as belonging to some social classes and often excluding others. In this context, art is seen as an upper-class activity associated with wealth, the ability to purchase art, and the leisure required to pursue or enjoy it. For example, the palaces of Versailles or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with their vast collections of art, amassed by the fabulously wealthy royalty of Europe exemplify this view. Collecting such art is the preserve of the rich, or of governments and institutions.

Fine and expensive goods have been popular markers of status in many cultures, and continue to be so today. There has been a cultural push in the other direction since at least 1793, when the Louvre, which had been a private palace of the Kings of France, was opened to the public as an art museum during the French Revolution. Most modern public museums and art education programs for children in schools can be traced back to this impulse to have art available to everyone. Museums in the United States tend to be gifts from the very rich to the masses (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, was created by John Taylor Johnston, a railroad executive whose personal art collection seeded the museum.) But despite all this, at least one of the important functions of art in the 21st century remains as a marker of wealth and social status.

Performance by Joseph Beuys, 1978 : Everyone an artist — On the way to the libertarian form of the social organism
Performance by Joseph Beuys, 1978 : Everyone an artist — On the way to the libertarian form of the social organism

There have been attempts by artists to create art that can not be bought by the wealthy as a status object. One of the prime original motivators of much of the art of the late 1960s and 1970s was to create art that could not be bought and sold. It is "necessary to present something more than mere objects"[17] said the major post war German artist Joseph Beuys. This time period saw the rise of such things as performance art, video art, and conceptual art. The idea was that if the artwork was a performance that would leave nothing behind, or was simply an idea, it could not be bought and sold. "Democratic precepts revolving around the idea that a work of art is a commodity impelled the aesthetic innovation which germinated in the mid-1960s and was reaped throughout the 1970s. Artists broadly identified under the heading of Conceptual art... substituting performance and publishing activities for engagement with both the material and materialistic concerns of painted or sculptural form... [have] endeavored to undermine the art object qua object."[18]

In the decades since, these ideas have been somewhat lost as the art market has learned to sell limited edition DVDs of video works,[19] invitations to exclusive performance art pieces, and the objects left over from conceptual pieces. Many of these performances create works that are only understood by the elite who have been educated as to why an idea or video or piece of apparent garbage may be considered art. The marker of status becomes understanding the work instead of necessarily owning it, and the artwork remains an upper-class activity. "With the widespread use of DVD recording technology in the early 2000s, artists, and the gallery system that derives its profits from the sale of artworks, gained an important means of controlling the sale of video and computer artworks in limited editions to collectors."[20] Another example of this shift is the art of Chris Burden. Chris Burden is most famous for his 1971 performance art piece Shoot in which he had a friend shoot him in the arm with a 22 rifle (and in which nothing was sold). By the late 1980s in exhibitions and a museum retrospective he was exhibiting "relics" of early performance art pieces in plexiglass boxes, including two nails that he used to nail himself to the back of a Volkswagen Beetle in the 1974 artwork Trans-Fixed.[21] By 2003 he was selling the artwork Gold Bullets, 22-karat gold bullets that called to mind his most famous work, in plexiglass boxes set on a high pedestal at the Gagosian Gallery.[22] This allowed collectors to buy bullets that allude to this important work, that are by this artist, that seem to have other added value in that they are made of gold, and that will be understood as important by others that know the history of conceptual art.

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