Over the past 17 years, contemporary art prices have grown by 1,400%. What is it if not evidence of increased public attention to art? However, it seems that the galleries are still empty, and the excited crowds are in no rush to reach for the beautiful. Could it possibly mean that art is the subject of concern for the artists themselves, as well as for a very limited number of gallery owners, art critics, collectors, and businessmen (who so far show the greatest enthusiasm in purchasing art)?
The artists whom I am personally acquainted with often complain that no one cares about art today. But in fact, it has always been that way. The value of art for humanity is hugely exaggerated. The illusion of demand for works of art from past eras today is created by a stirred up commercial interest. The pieces of classical masters of art are a profitable product now, and the fewer of them left, the higher the price. The laws of economics rather than those of love of beauty play a key role in here. In the same way, wealthy people develop the demand for truffles. It is not about their marvelous taste, but rather the rareness of occurring in nature, and the inherent desire of a person to possess them inversely proportional to their level of rareness.
Some of the contemporary art pieces today are good-selling products for sure, but for a different reason. We live in an investment era. If you figure out what art piece will beсome relevant in the future, then you will make a lot of money out of it. The art investor task is to buy a low-cost artwork today and sell it for dozens or even hundreds of times higher price later on. One day, an art historian would write an entertaining book about it and, perhaps, distribute it within a broad circle of artists or art college students. If that art historian turns out to be talented, the artwork will transform into a masterpiece and will find its spot in the art history scenery.
Well, does it prove the existence of the public demand for art then? Of course, for the people who are engaged in this occupation — yes, but given the small percentage of these people, one might say, that for humanity living here and now, it is of almost zero interest.
One may object that even people not involved in the art recognize a significant number of artists, go to museums, and sometimes even hang paintings or their reproductions on the walls of their living rooms. Indeed, everyone knows the artist Salvador Dalí, but it’s seldom that anyone can name at least a couple of his paintings. The truth is that nowadays Dalí is not an artist, but a brand. Dalí pieces are as well-known as Bosch vacuum cleaners. Everyone is familiar with the brand, but no one knows what particular models of vacuum cleaners they produce, and what are their value differences of other manufacturers. Bosch managed to convince humanity that they are reliable, while Dalí made the same with his craziness.
People do go to museums, but only to those that brand themselves, somehow far from the area people live. These visits have nothing to do with fulfilling a passion for art. The common public requires these visits to emphasize a wealthy person privilege (after all, you have to have the financial ability to go there), and to represent this privilege to friends in the form of a photo. Therefore, Madam Lisa Giocondo usually sees lots of someone’s backs.
Similarly, people hang paintings on the walls of their apartments or put statues in the garden/living room. These are also trophies of a privileged life. So, officials, businessmen, and senior civil servants wear their Rolex so that everyone in the crème de la crème club immediately recognizes they have deep pockets and hold this club’s honorary card. Prehistoric humans also created and wore eye-catching jewelry, thus displaying their social rank and relation to a particular tribe. In some countries in Africa, the elite not only drives insanely fancy cars, but they do it ridiculously slowly. Nobody around should forget for a mere second that a rich man is driving and he has plenty of time.
Concurrently, the time to buy art comes just when all other tangible goods have already been purchased. Then and there one’s high social status becomes indisputable. It is now the turn comes to prove your intelligence and culture (do you recall the play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Molière?). In the reality of late digital capitalism, the rate and quality of life of wealthy people increases, and therefore the demand for art increases.
Ordinary people with an average income are not that interested in art’s original “the mind games of the universe” implication. They have neither the time nor the energy for these games. You cannot spread art on bread, you cannot hammer a nail with it (although you can try), you cannot wear art to protect your body from heat or cold. History knows there were cases when paintings were used to plug holes in a barn.
Summing up, we can say that humanity, generally speaking, do not care about art. I absolutely do not want to admit this as an artist, but if we set aside a product and social rank dichotomy, we’ll see that art is not essential for anyone except the artists themselves (those dopamine release junkies), and several extra collectors who love brain puzzles. And I personally thank them a lot for that!
‘Untitled’ by the artist Yue Minjun, 2001
Pig looking for tuber
‘Salvador Dali’ by the photographer Weegee, 1950
Selfie with ‘Joconda’
Photo with ‘Toyota Land Cruiser’
‘Iris’ by the artist Van Gogh, 1889
Written by Yod. 2018
Read it in Russian
Translated by Yana Ladinskaya