I have a run a contemporary art gallery in Denver, Colorado, in the United States for 4 years. I am so deeply troubled by the systemic structures we assign to this economic model, I don’t know how to begin to describe my experience. I hope to contribute some useful possibilities for innovation to the field, and so I will begin simply with what I think of as getting back to basics.
I will begin with my thinking during this time of why society values art.
The first step is to set aside the temporary financial values we assign through art market transactions like auctions and art fair sales.
Society values art because it is the tangible expression of an idea. My son asked me when he was 8 years old and reading a book on Roman civilization: “Mommy, how have things changed so much from Roman times until now?” “One idea at a time, honey”, I answered him.
And so, to evolve, we must protect the notion of ideas; that’s how we change. However it’s the sharing of ideas that has value and so we try to reward that. In comes art.
Art often deals with ideas surrounding the human experience. When I see a xxxx sell for $100million, I don’t take offense at perceived art market vagaries, rather I think “wow that’s cool that humans value the reflection on our own experience that much!”
Really powerful expressions of ideas, the ones that effect change, often produce somewhat of a state of “shock.” It’s such a fundamental shift in how we think about something that we feel surprise.
Often people will confuse that sense of “shock” or “surprise” emanating from true change with the desire to simply produce “shock” and “surprise” as if that in itself could produce change. And so you see lots of work that sets out to shock.
We see this run rampant in the contemporary art world, often leading to disdainful reviews of art. Fundamentally, truly, while we want to respect everyone’s expression, some expressions simply don’t effect as big a change of state as others. And that’s OK; we need to fundamentally embrace the notion of failure as part of the process of creation. Perhaps down the road, when seen with a different set of circumstances, that very same work can take on more power. Or not. And so it is our job to encourage the expression of ideas and not to dismiss/destroy them too quickly until they are more fully understood, and to share them.
If you were to think of evolution as an example, you could see this dynamic almost as a measure of our ability to advance. I see the system wanting to operate collectively almost as a subconscious measure of the amount of energy it takes us to go from one psychological state to another.
We value the work as “good” based on criteria that keep changing because we are in fact judging it against a changing human condition. This fact often leads to a sense of injustice on the part of artists. In a legal sense, for example, “justice” involves knowing your accuser and knowing of what charge you are accused. In the art world you are judged, but not sure by whom and for what. No one will give you formal criteria: “your technique is bad” for example because those have been dismissed as notions that miss the whole point of art.
And so if you look at why society values art, it is mostly because of the inherent power of the expression of an idea to induce a change of state.
This begs the question, “do our social and systemic structures support or thwart this process?” It’s clearly an important process in human advancement, just as important as any scientific advancement.
I will use that lens to analyze one of the most prevalent means artist’s have of receiving some economic support to carry on this activity: the contemporary economic model of an art gallery. Next I’ll describe “the art world’s math problem.”