Saturday, July 24, 2010

Art and the Market Economy

I've been thinking more about my recent post on Mark Rothko and his conflicts with the art marketplace. Those were tough times, and Rothko was an extreme case, but even today every artist I know has an uneasy relationship to the art market. And artists still have mixed feelings about financially successful artists.  Its not just jealousy at work either - in subtle ways there’s a feeling that making money on art is suspect; that art isn't a commodity - or at least it's not just a commodity.

Lewis Hyde’s 1983 cult classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, provides some insight into the difference between market and gift economies - especially the last chapter of the 2007 revision which updates the book and is more nuanced and realistic.  According to Hyde, a traditional gift economy is based on the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.  He describes the spirit of a gift economy (in contrast to a market economy) as a gift culture where reciprocity is a broad community custom, rather than an explicit quid pro quo. (For our purposes, the word contribution might be a better, less confusing, term than gift - used in the sense of a contribution to a scholarly journal or conference, or a contribution to the advancement of something.)

Obviously the market economy has its good points: it’s efficient, it can deal with strangers (you can do business with people outside the tribe) and there’s no lingering sense of obligation - the only obligation is to pay the agreed-on price.

But unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, the market economy has overwhelmed the gift economy. Public functions have been privatized, universities have been selling the technology created there, there’s been an expansion of copyrights (thanks to Disney), and the rich think of themselves as self-made (Warren Buffet a prominent exception), forgetting the contribution society has made to their wealth: infrastructure, education, enforcement of contracts, etc.. (I wonder how well these “self-made” millionaires would do in Haiti?) Even worse for the art world is that quality has been confused with financial success. About the only exception to this trend, and it’s a major one, is the internet, with things like the open source movement (e.g., Linux, Wikipedia, etc.), and of course blogs - all of which have created large, vital and cooperative gift communities.

The market economy is not good at supporting education, hospitals, libraries, pure science and scholarship, public service, the humanities and the arts. Democratic communities that value these things tax themselves to support them.  And it’s not been very good at creating a cooperative community. (I don’t mean a buddy-buddy thing - although there is that too - but more a professional relationship.)

Artists (fine artists, not necessarily folk, commercial or outsider artists, although the fine art tradition often expands to include these), like scientists and scholars, are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years, and to contribute to this tradition it's necessary to build on the past. Artists need to exhibit, at least try to, in order to contribute to the tradition. That’s why successful artists who pre-sell work still want it exhibited; and that’s why there’s a long tradition of artist/teachers and apprenticeships.

I’m not saying that  artists should give away their art (that’s why I don’t like the term gift). But artists need to separate making a living from making their art. Artists need to reserve what Hyde calls “a protected gift-sphere” in which the work is created.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Melons or Moroccans?

I came back from a short vacation (Providence, RI -- it was great) and made a beeline to the Matisse exhibition at MoMA because it was the last day of member previews. I'll be writing more about the show later, but for now I want to focus on Matisse's 1912-16 masterpiece, Les Marocains (The Moroccans), owned by the Museum of Modern Art.

The MoMA website describes the painting the way it’s described in the catalog as well as in many other places: At the upper left is a balcony with a flowerpot and a mosque behind it [other descriptions say, more specifically, a marabout dome], at lower left a still life of vegetables [more often referred to as “golden melons and green leaves”], and to the right a Moroccan man [often described as an Imam], seen from behind, wearing a round turban.

The show confirmed what I always thought about the painting: that the "melons and leaves" in the lower left of the painting can also be read as Moroccan Muslims praying.

First of all there's a black-and-white grid that art historians describe as “gridded pavement” under the “melons and leaves.” It would be pretty difficult to grow melons on “gridded pavement.” But the clincher is several sketches Matisse made for the painting that I saw for the first time in this exhibition. They clearly show praying figures (see below).

Letter to Amelie Matisse of compositional sketch of the Moroccans, 1912

Letter to Charles Camoin of compositional sketch of the Moroccans, 1915

I think, at minimum, Matisse wanted it both ways.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks: My Day In Court

William Beckman, Self Portrait (Orange Shirt), 2003, 
oil on panel, 18.5 x 16.25 inches 

By Carl Belz
You likely remember a time when you were told you’d have your day in court, your chance to set the record straight, bask in the light of truth, see justice done. Well, I actually had my day in court, it must have been at least 15 years ago, down in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I appeared as an expert witness on behalf of my friend, painter William Beckman. An expert witness! Wow, just think how that one fed into my fantasies about my life as a Hollywood movie—coming to the rescue, making clear what nobody else had understood, swaying the jury toward our cause at the moment our cause had seemed lost.

We were in court because Bill had been involved in an accident back in 1978 when a tree-spraying device he was using malfunctioned and seriously injured his right hand—his painting hand—leaving him unable to grip firmly the brushes he customarily used for close, often exquisitely finished details in his figure compositions. He was working at the time on “Double Nude,” a frontal, slightly larger-than-life, three-quarter length portrait of himself and his then-wife Diana that referenced, while modernizing, Albrecht Durer’s iconic “Adam and Eve” from the first years of the 16th century. The painting was already six months in the making, which meant it was probably a couple of months from completion, but the accident extended its gestation to nearly a full year.

Which didn’t mean Bill went on the shelf until his hand healed enough for him to resume his practice, far from it. What he did instead of taking a sabbatical from the studio was to take up a new medium, which was pastel, and a new subject, which was the rural landscape around his home in upstate New York. Pastels were soft, yielding their rich color without requiring a pressure grip, and Bill was thereby able to expand his creative arsenal without missing a beat while his hand was at the same time allowed to heal. As a bonus, the subject of landscape was already familiar to him—from growing up on a working farm in Maynard, Minnesota, to the daily runs he made on the roads around his home and studio in preparation for the marathons he’d annually run in New York, Boston, and elsewhere in those days.

A lot happened between 1978 and the mid-1990s when a trial took place in a Poughkeepsie courtroom to determine how much income William Beckman had lost because of the malfunction of the aforementioned tree-sprayer, to wit:

Bill finished “Double Nude” by the close of 1978 and sent it to Allan Stone, his New York dealer, who sold it the following spring—I believe the price was $35K—to Herbert W. Plimpton, a private collector living in Boston, Massachusetts.

Herb Plimpton was a friend of mine who was in the process of forming a collection of contemporary realist-type painting that he envisioned would one day belong to a college or university museum where it would serve the institution’s educational mission. In the interim, all of the pictures he acquired, including “Double Nude,” were kept at the Rose Art Museum, where I was director, on what was known as an extended loan basis.

Bill called me in the spring of 1979 and asked if he could come to the Rose to see “Double Nude.” The picture had left his studio immediately after being completed and had quickly sold, which meant he’d had virtually no time to live with it, absorb it, and see how he felt about it. In any case, he came to the museum, we met, and a lasting friendship began.

In 1984 I mounted at the Rose Art Museum—and afterward sent to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art—an exhibition of paintings by William Beckman and Gregory Gillespie, a mid-career survey of two artists I had come to admire deeply who were themselves close friends and, as such, constantly pushed one another to their artistic limits.

I wrote the catalog essay for the Rose exhibition. A couple of years later, I wrote an essay about Bill’s new work for an exhibition he was having at the Frumkin-Adams Gallery in New York. And following that, I wrote an essay on Bill’s paintings of couples—there were four or five at the time, spanning a decade or so—that was published in Art in America. Thus was my expertise established.

Somewhere along the way, the manufacturer of the tree-sprayer did a recall of their faulty product, thereby acknowledging their liability, and they offered Bill $100K in compensation. Which he was advised to decline by the law firm that through the years had kept a suit open on Bill’s behalf, but without ever pursuing it aggressively, which Bill himself never did either. For his part, he was above all committed to going about his job of work in the studio, which he did successfully and, for all intents and purposes, as if the accident had never happened.

And so it was that we arrived in court where Bill’s lawyer sought to employ what I’ve always referred to as the Tommy John Argument. Tommy John was a Los Angeles Dodgers power pitcher who tore up his arm, had it surgically rebuilt, and returned to the mound as a finesse pitcher. According to his lawyer, Bill Beckman was an artist who could paint every hair on his sitter’s head, had an accident that injured his painting hand, and returned to his studio painting more broadly, meaning you could no longer count the hairs on his sitter’s head. The economics of the argument, presumably, were that power pitchers make higher salaries than finesse pitchers; likewise, tightly painted realist pictures are more valuable than loosely painted realist pictures. In any case, that seemed to be the lawyer’s argument when we rehearsed it the night before the trial.

Sad to say, Bill’s lawyer never got very far with the economics argument, not with me on the stand, because every question he asked about the art market got objected to, with the objection sustained, on the grounds that my expertise was limited to art, it didn’t include the art market. Not that that mattered when the defense lawyer took over, which was even sadder. I can still see him approaching me, he’s holding several magazines…Oh, one’s the Rose catalog of Beckman and Gillespie, and there’s the Frumkin-Adams brochure, and even a copy of Art in America, and he identifies each one and asks me if I wrote the words there, and I say Yes, and he notes the dates when they were published and asks if they came after the accident, and again I say Yes, and then—and here’s the crusher—he starts reading aloud excerpts from the essays, sentences with words like “masterpiece” and “compelling” in them and phrases like “one of the best artists of our time,” and he asks if I meant them and—starting now to lose it, as my pride is expanding just to cushion my humiliation—I once more say Yes, adding for emphasis, I meant them then and I mean them now!

So you’ve been told you’ll have your day in court, but you’ve also been told you live in an unjust world, which makes for an ironic combination, right? Not for Bill Beckman, whose high ambition for art, coupled with his disciplined talent for its practice, rendered moot the question of whether an accident with a tree-spraying apparatus negatively affected the success of his enterprise. He received not a cent from the Poughkeepsie jury, but justice was his before he even set foot in the courtroom—not because he made some entitled demand for it, but because he’d morally earned it where it really counted, which was in the studio.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Work of Art

Spotted at The Flag Foundation opening last night. I wonder what they were talking about.