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Art as Commodity or Art as Experience?

Posted by Devin Cole  April 10, 2012 05:17 PM

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This week, everyone in the art world is talking about Morley Safer’s recent report on 60 Minutes about art: the hot commodity. In the wake of his search for art seems valuable enough to spend thousands and millions of dollars on, we learn of the early passing of Thomas Kinkade. Often compared to Disney or Norman Rockwell, Mr. Kinkade sold more canvases in his lifetime that any other, and he redefined high art as a mass produced object for everyone.

Along the Lighted Path - Kinkade.jpg

Along a Lighted Path, Thomas Kinkade

Art fairs, auctions and galleries have produced a veritable marketplace for hot commodities and much of the art world has become the playground of the rich, status seeking new millionaires and billionaires.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe art is neither a product to be sold nor a commodity to be gambled on. The artists, arts administrators and activists who define art as an experience by which one is transformed for the benefit of a community believe the only product of this type of engagement is human capital and spirit.

Thomas Kinkade produced an estimated 1000 canvases. Through the production and distribution of editioned prints and merchandise, he has placed his art work in the homes of nearly 10 million people to the tune of an estimated $100 million worth of art sales annually. The price range of editioned prints and mass produced items is from $25 to $250,000, which buys you the privilege to own machine made and sometimes hand touched work.

If he were competing with Walt Disney or Norman Rockwell, he might have been wise to realize he was competing against not one but many generations of creative output and accumulated wealth or, in other words, trying to attain something that is simply unattainable in one life.

In spite of his best intentions, he is probably more of a case study for the business world than the art world, which could not see or appreciate any new aesthetic territory, or cutting edge techniques in his work. The art world also dismissed his taste in art and his output as 'art that people could understand.’

In 1993, Mr. Safer produced a report on the contemporary art world called ‘But is it art?’ wherein he interviewed Jeff Koons and other artists about their work, trying to decipher its meaning and value. In a follow up, last week, he reported from Art Basel Miami Beach in 2011, where he hunted high and low looking for an aesthetic experience only to find high priced products of the art world for sale to the most eager collector.

He was shocked that the gate keepers at Art Basel let in so many artists that he had no use for but he did not offer any opinions on contemporary art that he liked or valued. Perhaps Mr. Safer simply could not understand how the value and meaning of art could have been traded for the cost.

Todd Levin, Director of Levin Art Group, told me, "Art fairs are not places where aesthetic or intellectual fields of value are created. Art fairs are competitive fields where the destruction of aesthetic and intellectual values takes place for the benefit of consumptive value. As Olav Vethuis observed, 'Art fairs constitute their own mini-economy, and are now tournaments of value, or status contests. At stake is not only a simple economic transaction, but the establishment of the perceived rank of artists’ importance, as well as the status and fame of the collectors who can afford, and claim access to, the art work that is for sale.'”

He might have been better served had he gone to an art gallery or museum retrospective to appreciate art presented in its best light. Often these venues showcase artists whose primary goal is to impact their communities in a tangible way, either by providing a platform for others to engage with their art or by exposing people to new ways of thinking.

Walter Wright, an artist and co-founder of 119 Gallery in Lowell works to support music and especially the art of improv by providing a space for performance. ‘The lesson of improv is to listen to what the other players are playing and respond to it whereas the purpose of a concert or recording session is to listen to yourself to perfect your performance. ‘As an artist whose grandfather is nothing less than a national treasure in Canada, he believes in the civic duty of government to support the arts. Walter and his partner Mary Ann Kearns are dedicated to the arts as a lifestyle, supporting a true open door policy by canny use of volunteers, grant writing, and fundraising. The gallery is a community resource where anyone can see art, hear experimental music and witness their creative efforts to create alternative models of survival.

Encounter, L'Espalier.jpg

Amy Ragus

Encounter, Espalier

Some artists prefer to see themselves as pilgrims rather than as stock commodities. Regarding the art market, Amy Ragus states: "If possible, make your money elsewhere, so your art isn't compromised to forces that often seek to exploit and codify your message." The "artist as pilgrim" is a stated theme that Ms. Ragus explores in a show of new work entitled "Inconclusive Miracles" on view this month at the French Cultural Center from April 2 - April 26.

In 2010 Amy was an artist in residence in Auvillar France which is situated along the "Way of St. James," the ancient pilgrimage route to western Spain. An artist residency is a chance to encounter another environment, absorb it, understand it and respond to it through one’s art work. Amy believes in having a clean slate, so to speak- to clear her mind of clutter so that transformation can come into her work. She often travels to a new place, to experience a new culture, and is integrated into the community and valued as a seeker. The interaction with a different culture and community helps one define oneself as an artist and provides a space to take creative leaps. Often times supported by the local government at home and abroad, artistic residencies bring value to the artists and to the communities they serve.

Kathleen Bitetti, a Boston artist and activist engages legislative efforts to improve economic opportunities and the financial climate for artists. As part of her residency at Mass College of Art and Design this spring, she is co-hosting a panel discussion called How to Engage! on April 17th. She is the co-founder of the Massachusetts Artist Leader Coalition which serves as an advisory group to the state’s Creative Economy Council. She is also the co-founder of the annual Artists Under the Dome event that helps artists connect with their elected officials at the State House.

Ms. Bitetti firmly believes that an ‘Inclusive participatory democracy, is the only kind that works.’ ‘Her art work has involved the creation of conceptually based sociopolitical objects installations and community based projects.’ As chief curator at Medicine Wheel Productions (MWP) and its Spoke Gallery, she strives to produce art shows that are community-relevant, promote dialogue, and celebrate craft. MWP promises to be a marketplace of ideas that provides a space for networking and conversations.

Massachusetts is often a lab of ideas that become federal law whereas Boston and its roots of history have global ripple effects. These artists are finding new ways to deploy art to create community value. Some day, perhaps their methods will provide a clearer notion of value than the price of a Kinkade or a Koons.

Donna Dodson graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. Since 2000, Dodson has been honored with solo shows nationwide for her wood sculptures. Dodson enjoys public speaking, and has been a guest speaker in conferences, panels and forums at museums and universities in North America.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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