In the course of a day I download quite a few articles, some short and some quite long. Then I stack them. Sometimes I refer to them. The theory is that I will file them. Recently I went through the most recent ones to separate out the articles about art. The stack is about five inches tall.
Recent economic events have turned attention to the “arts” in general (the first to go in small town high school budgets where sports must be preserved at all costs) and to specific uses of arts as capital. We’ve come a long way since Andy Greenshields, then president of the Browning Bank, got a good guffaw out of the idea of Bob Scriver borrowing money to buy a Rungius painting of a moose from Rex Rieke. That was 1960 or so. (Bob borrowed the money from his mother.) The painting was auctioned at the dispersal sale of Bob’s estate. Everyone will ask me “for how much” while few will say, “What was the painting like?” Because along with the commodification of everything else, we have radically commodified art.
Art is worth whatever it will sell for. That depends on how much it is wanted by people with capital. People with capital are used to taking the opinions and analysis of others who are supposed to be experts. They expect there to actually BE a dependable estimate of value. You can see where that got us by reading the newspaper. Dealing art is stick game, bone game.
So Annie Liebowitz, a top-ranked photographer, has had to pawn the copyright to all her life’s work in order to pay her mortgage debts. Institutions from universities to train stations have walked through their buildings to search out murals and old gifted paintings that might have some value and have discovered to their delight that some neglected, dark and dirty works are valued enough by “those who know” to finance the repair of those very same buildings. So they were sold. In fact, the Whitney Museum of Western Art in Cody, now part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, was originally founded with Remington paintings that Harold McCracken bought from Remington’s birthplace museum in New York so they could fix the roof, get a new furnace and such.
Some of these sales have caused huge outcries from people who were in love with the thing-itself, the paintings. Museums, who collect art the way a hospital collects sick people, became clever -- or maybe I should say have always been clever -- about accepting art in the front, winnowing it in some warehouse, and quietly selling some of it out the back door, which outrages the original donors if they find out. In fact, the organizations of museums have framed up “de-accessioning” policies and try to keep order by threatening museums that don’t comply with expulsion from the certifying organization. This happened to the National Academy of Design, of all entities, though it has managed to get back into good graces recently.
Different genres have fared differently. French Impressionists have always been a good investment and individual paintings are known and followed through acquisitions and sale. Picasso is good but it depends on the circumstances: which one, what media, where it has been (provenance), the circumstances of its creation because “story” is a big part of every art. Abstract expressionists were very much loved as being aligned with creative outbursts, untrammeled passion, human romantic aspirations. The story of the artist’s life is important. But no one knows quite what to do with huge Jackson Pollock paintings that have changed color because of the paint used, transforming the mood and balance of the pattern. Recently an English critic, Jonathan Jones, took on Andy Warhol as a master of the flimflam, the Emperor’s New Clothes, “toxic art,” so to speak, that was leveraged out of sight, derivatives.
The secondary circle of galleries, dealers, scholars, explainers, and critics have always known how to make money from other people’s art, either by explaining it (What DOES a soup can mean?) or by certifying authenticity. (Not easy with a Pollock even with computerized analysis.) Of course, there is the usual cloud of lawyers, pointing out that reproduction rights, copy rights, “intellectual property” rights and etc. should all be pinned down in law and litigated.
Then we come to American Western art, a loose and composite genre (not always respected) that can include photos of Yosemite, self-taught scenes of authentic cowboy action, abstract American Indian canvases, wildlife portraits, the carefully thought-out easel works of Connecticut slick-magazine illustrators and classically trained Chinese immigrants. Oh, and as long as we’re at it, the artifacts of the Old West from cowboy roping cuffs to Amerindian tipi skins, the books of the Great Dream of the West, the movie posters, and so on. The buyers seem to like prints as well as originals as long as the reproductions are by a process with a fancy name.
So how is a person supposed to figure all this out in terms of their own capital investments? I once took a class from an art professor in Cheney, Washington. He said there are two ways for an artist to “make it,” that is, sell enough art to consider it a living. The first was to hop on every trend, watch every auction, check stickers in every shop, walk the museums and galleries and engage the experts -- then provide what the market wants. This will mean some drastic changes over the years.
The other way was to follow your heart, enter the spell, go to the studio with focus and diligence to find the path that is yours alone. If you have the fortitude to do that long enough, he promised, you will be great. This is not bad advice for a buyer as well.
The real value of that original Rungius painting of a moose couldn’t be measured in money. It was in New Brunswick, one of those early dark green and gray paintings, with fallen logs making the canvas-crossing X that was always the structure of Rungius’ composition. The moose is stepping carefully through the deadfall, watching the horizon under a silver sky. It always hung over the little spinet piano against a grey wall, in a room with dark green drapes. We would sit looking at it every day. There is always in that kind of Rungius painting a spot of bright red, small but vital, like our hearts.