The world of art -- and what makes it run

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The art world, as a whole, is not so much impressed by art as by money, power , and prestige. Paintings, sculptures, prints, fine photographs, etc., may serve as its common currency, but these other factors are what really count.

Now thaths a depressing fact for those who see art as one of man's noblest efforts. Yet it must be taken into account if the art we believe in is to survive the harsh realities of the commercial and professional art world.

Because of that, I can think of no more appropriate subject for this introductory column -- the first of a series on art which will appear here every other week -- than the art world itself: what it is, how it runs, and how to cope with it.

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"Art world" is defined here as the institutions and people responsible for what is exhibited, analyzed, taught, published, given status, and marketed in the various art centers of the United States, Canada, and Europe -- but most especially in New York.

New York has been the major art capital of the world for over 30 years -- and still maintains that supremacy. It is home for several of the great museums of the world -- most particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art -- and maintains a good dozen or so other extraordinary museums of a more national, regional, and ethnic identity.

It has hundreds of galleries scattered about the city -- most of them exhibiting a steady round of shows devoted to new, about-to-become established, or famous names. In Sotheby's and Christie's, New York boasts branches of two of the great auction houses of the world. New York's art schools, private collections, cultural and historical societies featuring art, and print and art-book publishers are generally first-rate. And its thousands of artists include a significant number of the world's best.

While the New York art would may be bursting with art, its major focus is on what art can do in the way of creating wealth, prestige, or power. My own strongest memories of the art world (and they go back 30 years) have less to do with the art I saw -- that is always a private experience -- than with the power and influence of certain dealers, museum directors and curators, critics, teachers, and writers on art. (Has American art, for instance, ever seen a more powerful critical influence than Clement Greenberg, or a more enthusiastic and inspiring teacher than Hans Hofmann?)

And then there were the recordmaking sales. Who can forget the Rembrandt painting bought at auction in 1961 for the Metropolitan Museum? Its $2.3 million price was a record at the time -- but not for long! Or the way Jackson Pollock paintings jumped in price from the low thousands to the low millions in not much more than a decade? The boom in art sales to the Japanese a few years ago? Or the recent purchase of a Jasper Johns painting of the American flag by the Whitney Museum for $1 million?

The main business of the art world, however, is success: how to achieve it, enjoy it, and hang on to it. Achieve success as a painter, and the museums of the world, as well as the lowliest art student, will beat a path to your door. Achieve success as a dealer or museum curator, and your ideas will be eagerly studied by ambitious youngsters seeking a clue to their own days of glory. Establish yourself as an art critic and everyone will know your name and smile at you.

Success in New York is measurable and palpable, can almost be smelled and tasted. An art person's identity and worth are defined by it: Succeed and you are in; fail, and you are out.

And yet in an odd sort of way success doesn't really exist except for a half-dozen individuals over a period of 20 years. For the rest who achieve recognition, success is like a roller-coaster ride that can leave one in despair five years after having tasted fame or put one at the peak after decades of mere survival.

True success can actually be confered only through a few proper channels. No matter how popular or wealthy an artist becomes, he will remain a nonperson unless the "right" dealers, critics, and curators approve of him. It has been this way as long as I can remember. The only recent change -- and it's an important one -- is that an artist today can succeed regardless of style.

Even so, there are grades of success and artistic "purity." Andrew Wyeth, one of our great American success stories, barely rates a B-plus as far as New York is concerned.

Wyeth's odd relationship with the "official" art world pinpoints the fact that there are actually several art worlds within the same geographic space. LeRoy Neiman is king in one such world, but is reviled as nothing but a slick hack in the one that gives pride of place to Agnes Martin and Joseph Beuys. And there are highly successful (and excellent) Romantic realists and Western-American painters whose names are totally unknown to our major museums, "important" galleries, and prestigious art journals.

There are art worlds within art worlds, each one serving a different taste or level of sophistication, each with its revered masters, dedicated practitioners, and enthusiastic public.

There is one professional element, however, which has the influence to confer prestige of the sort taken seriously by our museums, learning institutions, etc. It consists of dedicated men and women in all the art fields who take the largest possible view of what art is, and who see even the most revolutionary works in a historical and social context. Art, for them, is a dynamic process of cultural realization, and is totally consistent with human striving and growth.

These are the individuals most responsible for what is exhibited, analyzed, taught, published, and given status by our most respected art institutions -- and who, as a result, serve effectively but unofficially as the tastemakers of today's art.

They constitute the heart and soul of the art world, and are its spokesmen. They, at least, are more impressed by art than by money, power, and prestige. And because they are, and because they include men and women of intelligence, courage, and conviction, the art world cannot be defined purely as the marketplace for art.

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