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Daniel Grant

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The Shifting Focus of Publicity in the Art World

Posted: 11/30/11 01:52 PM ET

In 1949, Life magazine published an article whose title asked the question, "Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" Although the article's tone seemed to ask readers to answer in the negative -- which, based on the letters to the editor that were published, they did -- it heralded a new attitude by the media toward art. Despite a portrayal of Pollock as an oddity whose work and mode of artmaking defied comprehension, the art was described in terms of his success in selling his works. If he sells, it is assumed, the rest is OK.

Money talks, and in the art world it publicizes. Exhibitions of the work of van Gogh in Paris, Chicago and New York City have not done as much for the widespread acknowledgement of the artist's greatness as the sales within the past 10 years of several of his paintings for $20 million, $40 million, $53 million and $82 million.

Publicity has become a staple of the art world, affecting how artists see themselves and how dealers work. On its good side, this publicity has attracted increasing numbers of people to museums and galleries to see what all the hullaballoo is about and, consequently, expanded the market for works of art. More artists are able to live off their work and be socially accepted for what they are and do.

On the other hand, it has made the appreciation of art a bit shallower by seeming to equate financial success with artistic importance. At times, publicity becomes the art itself, with the public knowing that it should appreciate some work because "it's famous" rather than because it's good, distorting the entire experience of art. Seeing the touted works of art may be anti-climatic, especially when -- as in the case of Georgia O'Keeffe -- the poster images of an artist's paintings are occasionally larger than the actual pieces themselves.

The focus of publicity in the art world has changed in the years since the Life magazine article. Back then, the radical look of the artwork was highlighted; later, in the 1960s, the spotlight shifted to the artist's lifestyle and, after that, the buyers of art. Clearly, money has made itself known with art taken along as a passenger.

The artists who were most affected by the media interest in the arts were the abstract expressionists in the 1950s. Although their works and goals were almost too diverse to truly label them as a group, these artists who had grown up during the same period and shared many similar experiences were united by a mood that all shared -- alienation. That shared isolation was broken up by the new attention their work began to receive, as some artists who were less successful felt bitter about others who were more so. They all felt a degree of anger at the loss of their seclusion and how their lives had suddenly gone public as well as guilty that they had become commercial -- they were all committed leftists, after all, whose decision to abandon politically conscious art for total abstraction had been difficult.

Feuds, alcoholism and bitterness poisoned these artists' lives. Franz Kline, William Baziotes, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Ad Reinhardt all died relatively young. Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko committed suicide -- Jackson Pollock's car crash (the last of many) can be called an "accident" only with quotations -- and the male survivors (Willem de Kooning, Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Pavia and Jack Tworkov) complained of feeling passed over by the media for the next generation of artists.
"The art world, by which I mean critics, dealers, everyone except the artist, is interested in the new and forgets everything else," Jack Tworkov noted not long before he died. "Some artists got put on the back burner after a while. It is inevitable."

Whereas in the 1950s the art attracted the most attention -- treated with curiosity, disdain and bewilderment by a public that was unused to such stuff -- the focus shifted in the 1960s to the artist's life. To many, it represented an alternative lifestyle for those disenchanted with middle-class society; to others, it became chic for the socially ambitious to rub elbows with artists and become a museum trustee. Within relatively few years, in fact, the boards of trustees at the nation's major art institutions changed from old money and old families to new wealthy businesspeople who brought a whole new set of values to the operation of museums.
Openings at museums and galleries also became major social events during this time, and artists were courted by politicians and tycoons.

Pop artist Andy Warhol was probably the most notable figure, for whom creating a public or media image was as important as creating art, but many others -- some of whom flitted in and out of notoriety -- found that their lives had become a matter of public concern, limiting their freedom.
Many aspects of the artist's lifestyle -- with the exception, of course, of the general poverty of most artists -- were appropriated by members of the middle class, the most obvious example being loft-living. Artists found themselves priced out of the abandoned warehouse buildings into which they had settled as the glamor of living in a spacious loft (as opposed to the suburbs) gained popularity in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

The spotlight in the 1970s shifted from the art and the artist to the buyers of art, largely because of the record-setting prices paid for works, and the focus of publicity has remained there since. To a degree, the reason for this is the lack of any consensus about aesthetics or standards of taste. Without a clear conception of inherent quality, the only certainty about art becomes the amount of money paid for it. A new definition of art is the result: Art is whatever someone puts down money for and says, "This is art." The corollary of this is that quality is identifiable only in terms of the sums spent. A $200 piece is not worth talking about; a $2,000 piece is OK, a $20,000 work is significant; a $200,000 piece is excellent; and, at $2 million, the artwork starts to be called "priceless." There had traditionally been in the art world a distinction between commercial success and what is called success d'estime, the prestige and influence of a work. More and more, the distinction has been blurred as critical and monetary values have become intertwined.

This may not necessarily be bad; rather, it is a recognition that the history of art and the history of art patronage are the same history -- it is a 20th century concept that art should belong to artists. In a market sense, it is the purchase of works, or a recognition of their saleability, that is the primary factor in raising nonfunctional, possibly decorative objects into the realm of art. An artist's say-so is no guarantee of value and, because of this, collectors of art are not mere dispensers of money but proponents of entirely new concepts of art.

Whether art was purchased as a hedge against inflation, as a tax shelter, as a form of self-flattery or for more personal reasons, the buyers of art found themselves the celebrities over the past 40 years. The artist's success became their success in being wise or wealthy enough to acquire a work. Armand Hammer, Walter Annenberg, J. Paul Getty, Robert Lehman, Norton Simon, David Rockefeller, Alfred Sackler, Joseph Hirshhorn, Victor Kiam, Robert and Ethel Scull, Count Panza di Biumo, Daniel Terra -- these were among the most notable buyers of art, and they received considerable attention for the prices they paid for works, the collections they amassed and what they did with those collections. Various art magazines now annually devote whole sections or issues to who the top buyers are in any given year, and a number of home and architecture magazines regularly feature the houses and collections of wealthy art buyers. We are seeing more of that now, with the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas (founded by collector Alice Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton) and the incipient Eli Broad museum in Los Angeles. And why not? Shouldn't all that money get a place of its own?