Publicity in art -- or, artists who are are famous for being famous
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 seemed to ask readers to answer in the negative, it heralded a new attitude of the news media to the arts. Despite a portrayal of Pollock as a madman whose work and mode of working defied comprehension, the artist was described in terms of his success in selling his works. If he sells, it is assumed, the rest is OK.Skip to next paragraph
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Publicity has become a staple in the art world, affecting how artists see themselves and how dealers work. On its good side, it has attracted increasing numbers of people to museums and galleries to see what all the hullabaloo 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.
On the other hand, it has made the appreciation of art 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," distorting the entire experience of art.
The artists who were first 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 label them truly 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 -- morbid and alienated.
The shared isolation and camaraderie were broken up by the new attention they began receiving -- bitterness by some artists who were less successful toward others who were more so, anger at how their seclusion had been destroyed and how their lives had suddenly gone public, and guilty over the feeling that they had become commercial. Feuds and bitterness poisoned their lives. Many -- like Willem de Kooning, Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Pavia, and Jack Tworkov -- felt themselves 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," noted Tworkov, who has continued painting. "Some artists got put on the back burner after a while. It is inevitable."
He pointed out that the art world is immeasurably bigger now than when he first started out, organized and run completely by nonartists.
"Most of the art shows in the '30s, '40s, and even into the 1950s were run by artists," he said. "There were artist juries who picked the work and ran the exhibits. Now, these kinds of shows have the least prestige. Curators pick the shows today by going around to galleries and selecting the biggest names. It's oriented toward the box office."
Whereas the art in the 1950s attracted the most attention -- treated with curiosity, disdain, and bewilderment by a public that was unused to such stuff -- the spotlight shifted in the 1960s to the artist's life. To many, it represented an alternative life for those disenchanted with middle-class society. To others, it became chic for the socially ambitious to rub elbows with artists and become trustees at museums. Openings became major social events, and artists were courted by politicians and tycoons.