New status for today's artist: up -- by a little
''Protect An Endangered Species! Hire An Artist Today!''Skip to next paragraph
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That was the boldly lettered message confronting me on the local supermarket bulletin board. It went on to proclaim the virtues of a group of young artists who had banded together to do odd jobs in the neighborhood, such as cleaning and painting apartments, moving furniture, walking dogs, shopping for shut-ins, and baby-sitting.
It ended with the declaration that anyone hiring these young artists would not only get good service for their money, but would also know that they had made a small but significant contribution to the future of American art.
Two things in particular struck me about that notice: It stressed that these were artists who were offering their services for hire, and there was the assumption that the public would hire them because they were artists, and thus worthy of preferential treatment.
This assumption is increasingly being proved correct. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the young artist (or even the older one struggling for creative or professional identity) is beginning to be seen as a potentially valuable cultural commodity by the public at large -- and not merely as a nuisance, an alien creature, or a failure at occupations that really matter.
Not that this perception of the artist is universal by any means. Nor that every community is as aware as others of the artists in their midst or of their contributions. (The bulletin board mentioned above happens to be in the very art-conscious Upper West Side of Manhattan -- hardly a typical American community!) Even so, it does represent a general improvement in how the as-yet-not-successful artist is perceived in this country today.
At the same time, I wonder if the artist is any better understood today than he was 25 or 50 years ago. Or if this greater acceptance hasn't resulted from much greater media coverage (leading to greater curiosity about art) - and from the stories circulating about the money a successful or even nearly successful artist can make. It is fairly common knowledge, after all, that there are a dozen or so recent American painters and sculptors who became millionaires through their art, and that there are at least a dozen more whose annual income runs into the mid-to-high six figures.
When we consider that, even taking inflation into account, no American painter or sculptor before 1960 came anywhere near making that much money from art (the possible exceptions being Sargent and Chase at the turn of the century) , we must come to the conclusion that a significant change has recently taken place in the American art world.
To a considerable extent, this is due to this country's remarkable dominance in world art from roughly 1950 to the present. Although there is evidence that this dominance has peaked and is now on the decline, some elements of American art during that period proved totally irresistible to a succession of foreign museums, collectors, and investors. They bought consistently, and they bought a great deal.
American collectors and investors followed suit, and by the late-1960s a painting by Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, or Hans Hofmann was seen, in some quarters, much less as art than as a blue-chip investment.
What followed would be ludicrous if it weren't so sad. The prices for works of the fashionably famous contemporary painters and sculptors skyrocketed, to the point where even some mediocre examples now equal -- and in some instances exceed -- the prices for acknowledged masterpieces of the distant and recent past. And if that weren't insane enough, attempts are now being made to grade, in print, contemporary artists according to their investment potential, by how likely one or another is to jump dramatically in ''value'' from one year to the next.
I cannot think of anything more ridiculous and beside the point of art. If this goes on, we'll soon be visiting galleries with a handicap sheet in one hand and the latest ''art market'' quotations in the other -- and will buy art over the phone from an ''art broker'' much as we now buy stocks and bonds.