Late Night Musings on the Value of Art and Why I Paint Squares

Metro Green Grey Brown Black Indian Yellow

I’m reading the $12 MILLION STUFFED SHARKThe Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2008). It’s a great book.

Don Thompson teaches economics to MBAs at York University in Toronto and, in the past, at Harvard Business School and at the London School of Economics. The book is about money, branding and how power players navigate through the art world. It’s witty, well written and fast-paced. There’s a lot of information about artists, galleries and dealers (he lists the 25 major contemporary artists). He talks about auction houses, auction psychology, VIPs (as opposed to VOPs), art fairs, art and money…

Damien Hirst, a famously famous young British artist, created – or had fabricated – the $12 Million Stuffed Shark and gives the first half of the title to the book. Hirst says: “Becoming a brand name is an important part of life. It’s the world we live in.” He was discovered and branded by Charles Saatchi, a famous, branded art dealer.

According to Don Thompson, branding adds personality, distinctiveness, and value to a product or service, and branding offers risk avoidance and trust to the art collector.  He adds: The motivation that drives the consumer to bid at a branded auction house, or to purchase from a branded dealer, or to prefer art that has been certified by having a show at a branded museum is the same motivation that drives the purchase of other luxury consumer goods.

The VIPs are buying art because they are VIPs and the art they purchase validates them as VIPs. For me, making art (and the art I love) is about making sense of the world. So, that leads me to the question – What is the value of Art?

BUT IS IT ART? An Introduction to Art Theory (Cynthia Freeland, Oxford University Press, 2001) is all about the value of art. It’s another great book – a kind of reader’s digest of theories on contemporary art and criticism. Freeland is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, TX and a member of the American Society of Aesthetics.

Have you ever thought about the aesthetics of blood in contemporary art and culture? The chapter “Blood and Beauty” does, and is illustrated with the image of a huge embalmed shark in a glass vitrine by Damian Hirst. The work is titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991). Freeland says the title is intended to stop you in your track. Hirst permeates discourse in contemporary art on every level.

Another chapter discusses taste and beauty, and philosophy: Aristotle and Plato, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, John Dewey and Arthur Danto (who extols the genius of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes). Freeland says Warhol helped spark the transition from macho NY Abstract Expressionism to gender-bending postmodernism. She adds: An object like Brillo Boxes was baptized as “art”  (because it was) accepted by museum and gallery directors and purchased by art collectors.

The chapter about music, geometry and harmony and Medieval Chartres Cathedral brought me back to Chartres. I read the rose window was about the orderly cosmos, and the square illustrated moral perfection and was the basis for proportions in the façade, towers, windows and interior walls. The order by which the world was organized is now deconstructed.

I’m reminded of another take on contemporary culture. I found David Hickey’s article, titled “PAGANS” folded and tucked into the book BUT IS IT ART? The article appeared in the Oct. 2008 issue of Art in America magazine. It’s a perfect coda to all of the above.

Hickey says we live in a pagan world now, and we shop for dreams in galleries and boutiques, and every cent we pay for an object that exceeds its utility may be taken as a pagan sacrifice.  And we sacrifice happily.

The article includes two reproductions of C prints by Andreas Gursky titled Prada I and Prada II (one print is 50 by 86.5 by 2 inches –shoes lined up in display cases in an upscale shoe salon.). Gursky was born in Germany in 1955, is listed as one of the 25 Major Contemporary Artists in Don Thompson’s book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, and is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in NYC.

See to read a great conversation with Hickey at the Frieze Art Fair in 2008. He was asked how things have changed for artists in the last 10 years.  He has a lot to say.

In conclusion, I always knew I liked squares, so I’ve included images of my own recent works that are very geometric and contemporary,  and allow me to return to the light and glory of Chartres.

©Nancy Egol Nikkal, May 2010

I hope I have inspired you to read these books and think about the meaning of art. Please add your comments.

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