Friday, August 14, 2009

Art, Taste, Money

Turquoise Marilyn (1964) by Andy Warhol

Your taste determines what kind of art you like to look at. Taste is intuitive, and also learned. You just know what you like. But when you are asked to explain why you like, say, a Salvador Dali over a Stephen Prina, you are hard pressed. Its more beautiful to me, you reply. The key phrase here is to me.

As some of you know, Im the editor of Escape into Life, arts and culture webzine. We publish art reviews, feature articles, and interviews. Most of the writers have a background in art history, and are familiar with many different schools of art.

Most of our readers, however, do not have art history backgrounds. As a result, they tend to respond more viscerally. There is less intellect involved and this is not always a bad thing. For example, when Aurelio Madrid published a review on Stephen Prina entitled, Difficult Art, one reader replied:
I must be stupid, unaware, not intelligent and extremely uncultured because I don't get this thing you're critiquing. When I'm looking at it ... I want to see the intelligence behind it but I only see the naked-reality that there is an unattractive, un-engaging, un-organized collection of dots simply dirtying up someone's perfectly good white wall.
Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet, 208 of 556 (2004)
by Stephen Prina; [Partie de Croquet (The Croquet Game), 1873]

Maybe the reader overlooked or had simply forgotten Aurelios description of the work's origin at the beginning of his review:
The general idea for the project is that Prina will recreate each of the 556 Édouard Manet paintings, as recorded by a (now obsolete) 1960s catalogue raisonné. Prina does not recreate the works as direct copies; rather he uses only the actual size & title of the original Manet. Each work in the series is a diptych. One of the diptych contains a legend of the whole of Manets output, represented by thumbnail outlines of each painting (with a number). This is a monochrome (ivory colored) lithograph printed on white paper (in a black frame, under glass). The legend is coupled with Prinas re-painting. Prinas re-paintings are painted using an ivory colored ink wash on white paper (black frame, under glass), with no visual reference to the original (the size & title are the only similarity). And so the project continues until Prina paints the 556th Manet.
Most likely, the anonymous commenter drifted off at about the third or fourth sentence (as I nearly did myself the first time I read it!). Thats not to say Aurelio should have excluded it; rather its essential to understanding the context of the work. Without this context we merely see dots on a canvas, some lighter some darker.

Where Aurelio sees a tradition of minimalism, conceptualism, and institutional critique, the anonymous commenter sees, in his words, fartwork. He goes on to say, When I see this Fartwork I get sick from the fumes of it's own arrogance.

Another word commonly associated with taste and art: arrogance. Art critics are arrogant buffoons, declares the anonymous commenter, because they deem that a work of art has value when in truth it has none. Art critics resort to making up ridiculous stories about the meaning of the art; art critics fall back on jargon and intellectual babble to justify their impressions. For if the work had value, then at least it would be aesthetically pleasing.

And here we find ourselves in a delicious paradox. Value in the art world does not seem to correlate at all with value in the people world. Lets take a look at the most expensive Post-War painting sold at an auction . . .

White Center (1950) by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothkos White Center, which was created in 1950, sold at Sothebys New York auction in 2007 for $72.8 million.

Who can explain this price tag?

Don Thompson can. Thompsons book called, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, explores the concept of branding in art and skillfully reveals the complex relationship between marketing, mystique, and influence.

Art professionals talk about Impressionist art in terms of boldness, depth, use of light, transparency, and color, he writes, (and) they talk about contemporary artists in terms of innovation, investment value, and the artist being hot.

Okay, so our value code changes with contemporary art, and the new value code makes critical judgment slippery at best. At least with Picasso we have some ground to stand on when we declare a Cubist painting as beautiful, appealing, or interesting. But what happens when were given Andy Warhols Green Car Crash (Burning Car 1), which was created in 1964, and sold for $72.7 million at Christies New York auction in 2007.

Green Car Crash; Burning Car 1 (1964) by Andy Warhol

I took one art history class in college, and if I remember correctly, it was Early East Asian Art. While my mother was an oil painter, and I have been exposed to art my entire life, I respond to art mainly from the gut. Im the same way with literature. While all of my friends were reading Thomas Pynchon and John Barth in college, I was reading Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. Intellectual games do not interest me. I want to see a picture.

And sonot unlike the anonymous commenterI rely on my aesthetic sensibilities. And my aesthetic sensibilities tell me that this work by Andy Warhol is not beautiful. My gut tells me, Its too green.

Does my opinion of the work change when I discover that:
Between the years 1962 and 1964, Andy Warhol created a fantastically morbid series known as Death and Disaster. These serigraphs were all based on grainy, black and white tabloid images of race riots, suicide, fatal accident scenes and instruments of death including electric chairs, guns and atomic bomb blasts. The arguably best-known and most gruesome component of this macabre lot is Warhol's set of Car Crashes, of which the five "Burning Cars" are extremely highly prized.

Here we see Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), created by Warhol and his newly-hired assistant Gerard Malanga (b. 1943) in 1963 from an image taken by photographer John Whitehead and published in the June 3 issue of Newsweek. Whitehead's shot captured the aftermath of the fiery conclusion of a police chase in Seattle. The car that had been pursued overturned at 60 m.p.h., ejecting its driver at a speed sufficient to impale his body on a climbing spike in a utility pole.

Green Car Crash was the only Warhol "Burning Car" painting of five (all based on Whitehead's photograph) to utilize a color other than black and white. It had been privately held for 30 years and generated a tremendous amount of interest in potential buyers. (
I must say that with this knowledge I have a slightly greater appreciation of the work. Like with Aurelio Madrids elucidation of Stephen Prinas methodology, at least now I understand the context. But on the whole, Green Car Crash does not provoke me to tears and I surely wouldnt hang it on my living room wall unless Andy Warhol did it and it happened to be worth $72.7 million.

Which brings us to money. Or maybe weve been circling around money all along, like a hungry shark in search of prey. Thompsons masterful thesis gives a perfectly rational explanation for why contemporary art is priced the way it is. There are two major reasons.

1.) Non-contemporary work is becoming an endangered species.

The recent surge in art prices is driven by a shortage in non-contemporary work. While new museums are being built, existing museums expanding, and private collections growing, the availability of masterpieces becomes scarce. Thompson sees a direct correlation between this shortage and the price explosion of contemporary art. He writes, Contemporary art has achieved its current importance in resale markets in part because the best examples of other schools of art are disappearing from the market, and are never again likely to appear for sale.

2.) Branding rules the art world.

You are nobody in contemporary art until you are branded. (Thompson)

Branding in contemporary art works in much the same way that it does in consumer products, or for that matter, luxury goods. People tend to buy branded products over generic ones because they offer a sense of security. I trust Colgate. I do not trust the toothpaste at the Dollar General, especially after I discovered that a Chinese-made toothpaste contained trace amounts of a poison used in some antifreeze.

Luxury goods offer a different kind of security; they give the reassurance of "prestige" or elegant fashion.

Contemporary art seems to need a lot of branding because even art schools and critics cant agree on the merit of a work (Thompson). Furthermore, branding adds personality and distinctiveness.

When Thompson talks about the 25 major contemporary artists, he is mainly talking about artists whose work is represented by branded dealers such as Larry Gagosian, bought by branded collectors such as Charles Saatchi, and sold in the auctions of Christies and Sothebys, which are brands themselves, and by extension, brands of paintings.

In the end, he writes, the question what is judged to be valuable contemporary art is determined first by major dealers, later by branded auction houses, a bit by museum curators who stage special shows, very little by art critics, and hardly at all by buyers.

I mentioned that Im the editor of Escape into Life, arts and culture webzine. What I didnt tell you is that Im introducing a new dimension into the site in less than two weeks.

I have asked a select group of artists to auction their work on my site for the first time. I hired a designer and artist in his own right, named Christopher Cox, who designed the popular site ChangeTheThought. He was commissioned to redesign Escape into Life with an auction/virtual arts gallery. The purpose of the auction is to draw attention to the art.

To bid on a work, viewers on the auction page will click on a bid link that will take them to eBay. Bidding on eBay gives us a larger pool of bidders, combined with the readership of Escape.

Those works that dont sell in the first round will be moved to the online store. The store will give us more flexibility than the auctionwe can set fixed prices for artwork and hold a larger inventory--but I suspect the auction will be more of an attraction.

What are my criteria for choosing the select group of artists?

Let me quote an article from the New York Times, Maybe we can once and for all stop defaulting to easy categorical boundaries between high and low, and discriminate instead between the well made and the shoddy.

Well-made art is my sole criterion. I'm looking for visually appealing art and essential quality. Let the frenzied mind, fixated on inventing something new and different, rest for awhile.

More essays by the author can be found at Escape into Life

Image Credits:
Turquoise Marilyn (1964)by Andy Warhol
Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet, 208 of 556 (2004) by Stephen Prina;Partie de Croquet (The Croquet Game), 1873
White Center (1950) by Mark Rothko
Green Car Crash; Burning Car 1 (1964) by Andy Warhol


gingatao said...

I dont think the fact that the rise of minimalism synchs up to the increasing entwining of art and money. As for Warhol, what is his message? Copying, money and some very boring films. Even in writing there is this constant drive to talk to as many people as possible. In my experience, whereever art and money meet is a place to tread very carefully. As an artist learning who to trust is the most valuable skill you will ever learn. Once you have mastered the fundamental technique you can say whatever they want you to say and they will give you some money. I love Goya.

kira_arg said...

A lot of issues are explored in this essay. Heres my take on "Taste" in Art (and the anonymous critic):- There seem to be 3 types of players in the field of art:
1. the artist,
2. the initial admirers/buyers/critics,
3. the general public

Every type of art in its initial phase might possibly baffle the masses. Let us take the example of David, the sculpture by Michaelangelo. Suppose Id never studied Art History, suppose Id never heard about the background of Michaelangelos works; What do you think I would feel about David? Id think, "Hmm, very life like replica of a handsome young man". Or maybe something else. But what happens when someone tells me, "David is a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture" or when I read that, "it is also an example of the contrapposto style of posing the human form"? Id give more credence, look more respectfully at that sculpture/artist.

What Im trying to say is, as a society we are all programmed to learn by example. Very few of us take pains to understand on their own (intellect) what a particular piece of art stands for. This minority of people are most often players (#2 as mentioned above) who influence the general masses (#3). I came to appreciate Picasso, Van Gogh and even pointillist paintings more after reading many books on Modern Art in school, even though I do believe I have a gut feeling for art.

I also prefer Andy Warhol, Dali, Malevich (& El Lissitzky), Van Gogh, Rothko, etc. to David (i.e. Michaelangelo) and company.

Lethe said...

I wasnt implying that minimalism is entwined with money; I use Stephen Prinas Exquisite Corpse diptychs to illustrate our different tastes in art. As for Warhol, art professionals refer to his work as "social commentary". BTW, I love Goya too!

Lethe said...

My first comment was addressed @gingatoa.

@kira_arg: I like that breakdown of artist, admirers/buyer/critic, and the general public. Youre absolutely right; taste is learned. And your breakdown helps to show how art is perceived by different audiences.

Thank you,

Showeda said...

Excellent, lucid and to the point...Yes Taste is absolutely learned...Pierre Bourdieu et al, have discussed this at great length in Distinction and other works...Laughed out loud at Fartwork...Now, did commenter really exist or was that another altered ego...Blag of Innocence maybe?!...Either way, hilarious...Your writing is really quite exceptional in this essay format...Im in awe as always...All hail the return of the gut feeling...Looking forward to webzine changes.

Showeda said...

Oh and Im a Dali girl myself

Lethe said...

@showeda I dont know what you are talking about; I have no alter egos. Lethe is my birth name . . .

DARIAN ZAM said...

Art, Taste, Money indeed. Unfortunately those that can afford to buy art have spent the majority of a lifetime creating wealth rather than becoming cultured. That is why some of the richest people on earth are so style-free and in fact, completely clueless when it comes to matters of taste and style - therefore being incompetent to judge whether artwork is quality or not. Leave those decisions to those who have really studied style and are objective enough to appreciate high as well as low and really know what they are talking about. It may seem a rather elitist opinion, unfortunately it happens to be true.

Mark Kerstetter said...

My gut tells me thats a gorgeous Rothko. And what I might call a pleasure center in my mind tells me thats an intellectually valuable Warhol. Warhol is like a springboard for my thoughts: I think he anticipated just about everything in culture today; so much so that I would call this the Age of Warhol. Merely thinking about the disaster series makes me smile. But interestingly, there is currently a show of Warhols work at the museum in my town right now. I had forgotten all about it - tomorrow is the last day. In other words: I love to think about Warhol, but looking at him - not so much. Just an example of what is so weird and fascinating about him: he silk screened his mother exactly the same way he did Marilyn, Mao and a cow - he turned his mothers image into a product just like the soup can. What does that mean?

So far we all have this in common: Viva Goya!

david said...

Flow tranquil blue duel . Hold fuel envelope article.Kinetic, kopasthetic. Rewind. Repeat. Sequel.I saw a tree once. It was okay. Put into a context of plastic spacial relativity, this is only another dime store novel. Follow the yellow brick road. The empty carpark. Space / fractal trigonometry / blank canvas. Place the line in the sequence according to the numbers on the dots.

david said...

Gingatao, does Goya love you back ?

N said...

I sadly agree with Mark Kerstetter above: It sure is the Age of Warhal. That said, its also the only level on which I can appreciate Warhols art... But, like your interesting article seems to suggest - and on which I agree completely -, the essential and critical problem of art today is between: 1. Art as a Gut Feeling and 2. Art as Learned.

What I mean by the above distinction is maybe not directly apparent to some, especially to those quoting the Bourdieu School, but means the following: Theres a conflict between those who say a spontaneous appreciation of art on a human level (or gut feeling) is possible, and those who argue instead that everything is an institution, artificial and basically about money.

First of, Im not quite as hostile to money and the rich, nor to their taste or lack of it. Theyre no better or worse than the masses. Secondly, I dont think these two camps (1 & 2) are mutually exclusive and can and should work in tandem. So I agree with you, art should be a healthy mix of: 1. The artistic sensorium or power of differentiation (Adorno) on the one hand, and 2. Cerebral conceptualism or reflective criticism on the other (but which should always starts at 1!). This last group of reflective criticism does the school forming, and creates highly valuable art traditions and institutions.

The problem with today is that we seem to have lost our gut feeling and in fact have been subjected to a very artificial - because highly theoretical - and tyrannical art philosophy. Important institutions seem to have lost their power to differentiate between great art and fartart, due to a crippling Theory (similar in its ilk and trajectory to Social Realism in the past). In fact, art-institutions have transformed into anti-institution institutions, taking pathological pleasure in self-mutulation.

Everything in our so-called postmodern age is aimed at denying the possibility of anything remotely resembling great or true art, especially on the basis of a gut feeling! Because they claim everything is learned and, secondly, everything learned is fake - because arbitrary - and thus no better than the next thing to come along. Or put differently: Weve glided from Kants "This IS Great Art!", down to postmodernisms flimsy psychological "To me this art appears likable"...

The only good thing postmodernism has done, is to inadvertently open up the artscene, by successfully demolishing the high-vs-low art distinction. So it created a democratic influx - or breath of fresh artistic air - into institutions that died a silent conceptual death... Of course democratization always opens up the door to bad taste and kitsch, but also to exciting new ideas and creativity (*think youtube).

What we need between the wild growth of Deleuzian rhizomes, is to sow some hierachical trees that would liven up the garden! Anywayz, thats my theory ;-) To make a long story short: Love your work on The Blog of Innocence and your article! Check also this relevant link:

Goodluck with the


nickdiamondjr (@twitter)

N said...

I meant to say:

Good luck with the Auction :-)

PS: I love Goya too, hes truly great!

Mariana Soffer said...

I can not avoid doing at least a short comment, it is funny I am reading a book with the cover of a painting of rothko, very similar to the one you have there, and my closet colegue at work is reading one with the cover of the marili picture you have posted here. What a coincidence, i think it is slightly weird.
Regarding what you say about art I found a webpage
where it does the following:
"It is based on that attention (fame) in the cultural world is an economy that works along the same lines as capitalism.

Economic behaviour is based on property, lending money and charging interest. For Franck, the curator (also the museum director or the gallery owner) acts as a financial investor. The curator/investor lends their property (their exhibition space and their fame) to an artist from whom they expect a return on their investment in the form of more attention (reputation, fame etc).

Therefore, the relationship between gallery owner and artist relates to that between investor and entrepreneur. The investor puts his money into companies from which he expects to gain rewards. This is always a mixed bag, where a few succeed and pay for the investment in others not so achieving.
The Artist Ranking Tool cannot judge the work of a specific artist, it works by ordering artists according to the professional attention that is invested in them. It provides the wider audience with a feeling for the standing of a particular artist in the eyes of the professionals but is not reflective of the artists actual economic success. Artfacts.Net acknowledges that there might be a correlation between fame and money but this is not the method of calculation behind the Artist Ranking tool."
And also related to what you said I wrote:
"Art belongs in the subjective world. Yet subjective differences in the creation and appreciation of art must be superimposed on a common neural organization that allows us to communicate about art and through art without the use of the spoken or written word. In his requiem in marble, Michelangelo invested the lifeless body of Christ with infinite feeling - of pathos, tenderness, and resignation. the feelings aroused by his Pietã are no doubt experienced in different ways, and in varying intensity, by different brains. But the inestimable value of variable subjective experiences should not distract from the fact that, in executing his work, Michelangelo instinctively understood the common visual and emotional organization and workings of the brain. That understanding allowed him to exploit our common visual organization and arouse shared experiences beyond he reach of words. This commonality identification is probably done by the same mechanism that is capable of producing and understanding abstractions which also guided by intuition."
here is the rest:

Great post, congrats

Ben Gage said...

I like what you say about branding and art, the brand separates the artist from the herd, but it is only an arbitrary act. The reality of value is too often understood by pricing. Quality: Art is a different issue.

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