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Peeks and Piques! Cost, Value & Taste Redux

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Fall 2015

I HAVE WRITTEN in the past about value vs. cost (and, more recently about taste) and have found little since to have swayed my opinion that the present ‘artworld’ — especially insofar as the public takes notice of it — continues to be confounded by the difference between price and worth. I emphasize the ‘public’ since I feel the art ‘punditry’ knows it well…and unfortunately capitalizes on it in the full sense of that verb. Oscar Wilde, as I’ve also noted in the past, has made much of the difference in the meanings of those terms, even extending his criticism of crass materialism by his pronouncement that “America is the only country that has gone from primitivism to barbarism without ever passing through civilization.” A little strong, maybe, but I continue to find Wilde less 'wild' than alarmingly astute…as I come across so many examples of the glaring paucity of present-day discrimination and taste in art — in all the arts. Surely, cost trumps value in so many instances. Today's 'art market' is certainly heavy on the marketing and more than a little light on the ‘worth’ aspect of its products. It is due, I think, to our viewing of art as a commodity that has so fed and nourished our ‘market’ mentality or, put in another way, promoted cost over value. Art is often purchased not for any intangible value such as aesthetic pleasure, but as a business venture, a chance to make a "killing" when resold in the future. "If I buy a Warhol now, what will I be able to sell it for in 10 years? 20? 50?" (I suppose some recompense ought be ceded for having to live with silly or tasteless art for any length of time.) Certainly, it behooves the seller to accentuate cost over value, rather than trying to raise the buyer's taste on any cultural level. We receive a great many invitations to ‘cutting edge’ (read ‘non-art’) exhibitions, ostentatiously touted — mostly for being touted (and, also mostly for selling at big bucks) — by equally-touted and well-paid 'bloviators'. Putting the "being famous for being famous" nonsense in another context, Paul Cadmus once said to me in private discussion many, many years ago, “de Kooning is famous for being famous!” Can we be so easily duped by 'celebrity' status rather than talent? My often-decried ‘benighted taste’ keeps me at bay and now at the age of 82, I avoid such over-hyped invites written by glib pitchmen posing as art critics ever more frequently. What keeps me going in my job, however, is the periodic discovering of unsung artists (what I call ‘real’ artists) tucked away in remote studios or popping up in galleries far from the madding crowd, located on less-traveled streets and roads in small villages and towns throughout the country and abroad. My heart gladdens and spirit soars as I sit and talk or look around to discover — once again — that despite Danto’s dictum that “art is dead” it is still being nurtured and created by kindred, groping souls such as mine. It is gratifying and personally rewarding to visit, to meet, and to profile the artist or critique his/her show that inspires, uplifts or, in Bernard Berenson’s words, “enhances” our lives instead of foisting personal agendas, politics, ‘issues’ and the like upon us which we can readily imbibe on TV’s nightly news shows when or if we so choose. History has shown that down through the centuries ‘monied’ patrons have bought (or purloined) art depending on the recommendation of their retainers, rather than on their own (often) tasteless choice of cost over value. Possessing ‘art’ may have signified (or still signifies) being ‘cultured’…but rare are the rulers, monarchs, despots or patrons that have truly ‘enhanced’ their lives, outlooks, power or, alas, their tastes. To cite just one historical example, Catherine the Great, who collected art for the Hermitage as did her father Peter, bought 'art' by the truckload and, while knowing little of its artistic value, was yet keenly aware that it added to her prestige as a 'cultured' ruler. Judging by what's on the walls of the homes and offices of many of today's wealthy and powerful, it seems the tradition continues; however, what modern-day big-money seems to often rely on for advice is seller-hype rather than cultured knowledge. Cost rather than value has always swayed the materialist. I presume that maintaining one's position at the top allows for little time and interest in taking an art history or art appreciation course to develop a refined aesthetic discernment. So much the worse for the genuine artists and their work.

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