Alexandra Peers has a wonderful review of Michael Findlay’s new book, The Value of Art, in the Wall Street Journal:
A decade into the 21st century, no clear movement or style has emerged to mark contemporary art. No Impressionism, Modernism, Minimalism—no single description to encapsulate what has been going on. Veteran art dealer Michael Findlay, in “The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty,” says that a name has been there all along: Commercialism.
In a book that dissects the past 40 years of the business, Mr. Findlay decries the rise of art as an asset class, the circus that auctions have become and the fact that, as the prices have climbed, we’ve stopped looking at the paintings themselves. “The greatest consequence of the commoditization of art is the loss of integrity of the object because it is with the integrity of the object that all lasting, true value lies,” Mr. Findlay says. And: “One of the signs of a decaying culture is a reverence for form over content.”
Peers notes that Findlay, himself a dealer, contributed more than a little to the commercialization of art, pithily noting that reading Findlay’s critique of the commercialization of art is like reading “an antiwar treatise by Napoleon: You grant the expertise but question the repentance.”
While Findlay defends the intrinsic, non-monetary value of art generally, he questions the value of much contemporary work and advises individuals investing in art to be wary: ”Collectors are frantically shopping for the artists today who will stand the test of time, he says, but what if virtually none of them do? Entire generations of artists have been filler between great movements in art history. Could we be in one of those dead zones now?”
James Panero has examined this same bending of the knee to money in our museums. The permanent collections of museums like the Metropolitain Museum of Art, Panero writes, were created for the public good. Established through the gifts of private donors, permanent collections shared the work of European and American masters that examined, among other things, what it meant to be a virtuous individual and society. Parts of these permanent collections, however, are now being sold in order to transform the museum into a place of entertainment:
A new bottom-line sensibility that aimed to maximize revenues and attendance numbers cut against the founding principles of American museums. “When art museums rush to be commercial or seek to titillate their visitors we see a lamentable failure of nerve,” says de Montebello, who went against the grain of this professionalized museum culture as director of the Metropolitan. “Our institutions—even though often founded by businessmen in league with civic officials—were not created to make money and vaunt civic identity.”
This failure of nerve is especially apparent in cases of deaccession, where institutions have justified turning their permanent collections into chattel that can be sold for profit. Among the earliest uses of the term “deaccession” was in 1972. The New York Times art critic John Canaday wrote that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then under the direction of Thomas Hoving, “recently deaccessioned (the polite term for ‘sold’) one of its only four Redons.”
The temptation here–and it’s an easy one–is to blame capitalism for this decline. Panero points out, however, that the problem is not the market, it’s us: “If we are here to put capitalism on trial, and capitalism loses, I wouldn’t question capitalism. I would question our judgment.”
By “judgment” I take James to mean the ability to recognize and value truth and beauty. This ability takes years of nourishment in our families, schools and churches, but, generally speaking, it’s no longer happening, to state the obvious. Truth has been replaced by relativism and egalitarianism (and, as R.R. Reno points out, a miniature moralism), and beauty by titillation. The difficult question is whether this judgment can be regained or whether, at this point, it can only be nourished in small pockets, here and there, for future generations.
But maybe this is a false distinction. Perhaps in doing the latter, one might, God willing, bring about the former.