Monday, August 29, 2011

Do You Believe Money Has Succeeded in Devaluing Art? (Excerpt from Good News 3)

Back in the spring, some members of Instant Coffee asked if I was interested in contributing to their pamphlet Good News 3. The contributions were to be themed around the following question: Do you believe money has succeeded in devaluing art?

I said yes, I would like to contribute, and I recently received a copy of the finished pamphlet, which was distributed at The Fair in Vancouver and I'm told is also available at MKG127 and Art Metropole in Toronto.

Here was my long-winded answer to that question:

“Do you believe money has succeeded in devaluing art?”

I find questions like this to be a bit funny.

First, maybe it’s my training as a copy editor, but it niggles me to see “money” characterized as an active subject—a kind of independent body that acts on art of its own accord, or even, alternately, as a dumb piece of matter like water, which acts according to certain immutable laws. (Try to ask, “Do you believe water has succeeded in wetting art?” and you might get a sense of the annoyance these kinds of all-encompassing questions raise for me. Granted, it’s far from an airtight—or watertight—comparison, as I admittedly never get antsy when I hear Cyndi Lauper crooning “Money changes everything,” a statement with even broader implications. I’m open to criticism on this point.)

Second, the question’s lack of specificity is another thing I find annoying. Whose money? What art? What values? In what context? There are so many ways to have and spend money, so many ways to have and make and obtain and appreciate art, so many ways to value life, art, thoughts and (yes) money in the world. Really? You want to reduce it to this? Well, okay.

Third, given my own context—that of an art school grad still paying off student loans, and likely to into the future, as I work freelance-contract-cheque to freelance-contract-cheque in this wonderful creative economy—I often find it amusing/alienating when people imply that the problem in the art world is too much money, or too much power accorded to money by virtue of there being so much of it thrown around. That money-flush situation is a reality very, very far from the place/subculture/ring of the art circus where I (now a writer and editor) and my close friends and colleagues happen to live. In my experience, artists and writers (even successful artists and writers) are people who by and large struggle to make ends meet, who juggle multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads, who must rent instead of buy (at least in Toronto). Not that that’s a tragedy of any kind; I don’t mean to wring out a tearful sob story here and imply that artists and other creative professionals are at the very bottom rung of the economy or are in dire need of help. Compared to domestic workers and service workers, artists often have some social capital and, if they chose to go to art school, often have the security of some middle-class (or yet loftier) family background to act as a safety net. All I’m trying to say is there are many different subcultures to this thing called “art” and in the one I live in, a surplus of money and the power it might wield isn’t typically something one has to worry about.

Fourth, as might be apparent from the above paragraphs, I really don’t have the expertise or experience needed to accurately answer this question. I feel embarrassed about that given that I’m a supposed expert on art, or at least a person who passes for same every once in a while. So I can see that one of the reasons I find this question “funny” or “niggling” or “annoying” or “amusing/alienating” is that I really have no good way of answering it. Put a piece of art in front of me and I can try to empathize and emote with it and/or its maker (and sure, throw in some judgment or snark as well) to the tune of 300 to 500 words; put a question like this in front of me—something that implies a knowledge of history, of markets, of current events, of recent and faraway auction results—and there’s not a whole lot I can productively say.

I do know this: that I continue to be concerned with the way that increasing admission fees at our public museums and art galleries, paired with disappearing free hours for permanent-collection access or weekly evening access, is contributing to a situation where a whole new generation of Canadians likely has little option but to devalue art, just as art institutions devalue them.

Such high admission prices, after all, demonstrate an institutional devaluation of public access to public art collections. In my view, this in turn reflects an institutional devaluation of (a) the idea that anybody and everybody can look at or learn to look at art in a way that is rewarding or helpful to their own enjoyment and well-being; (b) the notion that public collections, by virtue of being held in trust for the public, deserve to be seen freely by the public; and (c) the thought that public arts institutions have a duty (even if it’s a self-interested one) to be engaged in public arts education. Museums and galleries sometimes like to complain that they are being abandoned by an increasingly unpredictable, uneducated and uninterested public. I say, who first abandoned the public and showed a lack of interest in their rights or needs?

So… given this reality of diminished institutional interest in providing public access to art—a situation that contributes to a lack of public understanding of all the diverse ways art can be valued emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually—perhaps it is little surprise, ultimately, that questions like the one heading this missive are of increasing interest. After all, when people are given no other ways to value art, money is an easy (and sometimes the sole) metric left standing.

A concluding note: I file this reply with some fear that I will come to regret it, either because it lacks rigor, or reason, or reality, or some combination of all of the above. I do know that I would have spent more time on this reply if I was being paid to pen it. Maybe that’s another essay—either about art, or just about me—for another day. Or maybe it’s exactly the same thing. Feel free to let me know what you think at

To read interesting (and more concise) responses by Michael Turner, Caitlin Jones, Rosemary Heather and other respondents, you're gonna have to shell out 6 bucks, buster, at Art Metropole and other outlets.

(Image of Instant Coffee's Good News Issue 3 by yours truly)

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