Friday, March 07, 2008

Philistines

If I'd needed a reminder of how out of date I am, I found it in this morning's newspaper. This article frankly shocked me. It's about how the fashion in home decor has swung away from original artworks and over to cheap, mass-produced art.
Consumers' attitudes to artwork and wall hangings have changed big time.

That shift is driving an explosion in retail sales of inexpensive artwork and wall hangings, at least among retailers who give these things wall space.

And it's underscoring a generalized move away from buying goods that last to buying things that are inexpensive, disposable and vulnerable to the latest whims of fashion.
The article goes on to say that more retailers are carrying this sort of mass-produced art, which brings it to a wider public. In other words, it's no longer just the rich who can afford art, everyone can have it. On the face of it, this is a good thing. But it's not strictly true that hitherto the only place you could get art was at an art gallery. We've had prints and posters for generations now - people of modest means have been able to decorate their homes with this sort of popular art since the 19th century.

What's different in this article is the whole attitude to art. The people buying this stuff are no longer even vaguely conscious of it as having any inner significance. It's just something to create an effect, like curtains, and when you're tired of one effect, you switch to another.
Now, she said, spend money on home décor, and buy the art to blend in.

"That's the really big change," she said.

And because people now like to change their décor often, they don't want to be stuck with a high-priced piece of artwork in last year's colours. So they buy inexpensive stuff.

"With us being so fashion-forward, you don't want to invest a lot in art," she said. "If you decide you don't like the piece, you haven't invested a lot of money, so it's easy to change."
I've bought art in all kinds of places - galleries, auction houses, thrift stores, antique malls. One or two are genuinely worth some money - most are just amateur works that'll never be valuable. But I never buy anything unless it stops me in my tracks, and I can't stop looking at it. I'm not trained in art history or appreciation at all, but when I look at all the pictures I've chosen myself, I can see some sort of common atmosphere in them. They often have stormy skies, for example. And water, and moving trees. Certain colours come up again and again, and there are other colours that turn me off a painting, no matter what the subject. I'll bet someone who really understands art and psychology could gain insight into someone's personality, just by looking at the art that attracts them.

But the kind of art-buying described in the article could give no insight into a person's real nature. How could it? It's there for a year, then discarded. The ironic thing is that this is being touted as a way for people without lots of money to have good art. But as I said, people without much money had art before now - they couldn't buy a real Matisse, but they'd go to the art gallery to see the real thing, and then put up an exhibition poster to remind them of it afterwards, because they wanted to look at that particular piece of art. The posters were often framed and hung in the same place for years; if they'd had the money THAT is what they'd have bought, because the sense of beauty it conveyed never changed. Now, the art changes because the fashion changes; it's completely separated from anything innate to the owner.

Just a few days ago I read an interesting article by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) where he touches on this new philistinism. The buyers of Chinese inkjet-on-canvas paintings aren't as vicious as the destructive philistines he describes at the beginning, but they do sound like the portrait drawn by Joseé Ortega y Gasset of what he calls "mass man":
The picture Ortega draws of the mass man is not an attractive or flattering one, but Ortega is not a snob who simply excoriates the appalling habits and tastes of those below him in the social scale. For him, mass man is the man who has no transcendent purpose in life, who lives in an eternal present moment which he wants to make pleasurable in a gross and sensual way, who thinks that ever-increasing consumption is the end of life, who goes from distraction to distraction, who is prey to absurd fashions, who never thinks deeply and who, above all, has a venomous dislike of any other way of living but his own, which he instinctively feels as a reproach. He will not recognize his betters; he is perfectly satisfied to be as he is.

Mass man accepts no fundamental limits on his own life. Any limits that he may encounter are purely technical, to be removed by future advance. He believes that life is and ought to be a kind of existential supermarket, that an infinitude of choices is always before him, in which no choice restricts or ought ever to restrict what is possible in the future. Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.
Daniels uses as an example from his own experience the story of a colleague at Cambridge, who teaches medical students - obviously well-educated, affluent people, or they wouldn't be there. In twenty years of teaching, only two of his students have ever heard of Chekhov.

What's ironic is that this trend toward cheap McPaintings comes now, in a society that by most standards is very wealthy. People with multiple cars and up-to-date bigscreen TVs are not so poor that they NEED to resort to generic mass-produced "art". Sure, they can't buy Old Masters, but original art is not the preserve of only millionaires. Unless, of course, these people really don't know what sort of art appeals to them, because they haven't cultivated any inner personality.

The last thing about this article that really bugs me is that it ignores another reason for buying original art: to support the artists who produce it. We all know the stories about the Renaissance, how rich noblemen and clerics were the patrons who enables the great artists to create their works. We no longer have aristocratic patrons like that, but in exchange, we have a large population that's pretty well-to-do. Now it's up to US to be the patrons.

My mother and aunts, although they weren't well-off in the 70s (they were house-poor - everything went into buying their houses) adopted this ethos, within their means. They sort of "adopted" a Vancouver/Victoria painter named Ernest Marza, partly because he was a Slav, like themselves, and his painting style really resonated with them. Between them, they must have bought about a dozen of his paintings over the years - I inherited my mother's collection. It didn't cost millions - a few hundred dollars per picture, though at a time when that was more serious money than it is now. But everyone benefitted - they had and still own art that reminded them of their Yugoslav roots, and he kept on painting (and still does today, I believe).

Obviously, if no one buys original art, fewer artists will produce it. And no one will make art if it comes to be regarded as something you put on the wall, then throw away when a prettier pattern comes along.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously, if no one buys original art, fewer artists will produce it. And no one will make art if it comes to be regarded as something you put on the wall, then throw away when a prettier pattern comes along.

Overly pessimistic: Jer 20:9 "Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay."

Maybe this philistinism will weed out the tares?

1:32 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

True, artists will still produce art, if only for themselves. But people have to live - if one can't make a living selling art, one will have to do something else, and that can just crowd out art. Instead of weed out the tares, there could be a worse result: if the public won't support art, the cry will go up that the government has to! And we'll end up with artists producing art to get government handouts. In Canada, especially, there's a tendency for things to go that way.

2:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point, Dr. M. I forgot about the NEA and P*** Christ. Although good did come of it. Serrano probably inspired iowahawk's sculptor in the Canterbury parody.

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not art? It's already happened to books and film. The multiplex is packed with sex comedies and splattery gorefests thanks to "market demand". And bookstore shelves groan under the weight of Oprah's Picks-of-the-Month (after all, most people who can't be bothered to choose their own reading material).

Why even try to express yourself on film, paper or canvas anymore? Just "give the public what it wants". No matter what that is.

Ellie M.

3:16 pm  

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