Monday, September 22, 2008

The art of marketing is the art

I'm recommending Robert Hughes and The Mona Lisa Curse - despite Germaine Greer's review this morning! I also agree with quite a lot of what she says too in Germaine Greer Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of many artists you don't get in the Guardian Online.

Mona Lisa
(Italian: La Gioconda, French:La Joconde
Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503–1506
oil on poplar, 77 × 53 cm, 30 × 21 in

Musée du Louvre

The Mona Lisa Curse is the first in a three-part Art and Money season of documentary films on Channel 4. 70 year old art critic Robert Hughes delivers a very timely polemic as he examines how the world's most famous painting came to influence art and how art became a commodity as a result.

You can watch it online, it lasts 75 minutes and you have 30 days left in which to view it - click this link for access to the programme.

A preamble as to viewing: I missed the beginning of it last night and was sat up late last night watching it on Channel 4's catchup-player on my laptop when it suddenly occurred to me that these 'watch after the event' facilities must mean people can watch this over the internet. What I'm not sure about is whether they get blocked in certain countries - so it would be great to know your experience if you try to watch it.

Why watch?

Hughes basic thesis is that when money and art became intertwined, critical appreciation loses out as art becomes transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold at auction - where value becomes intrinsically linked to the price paid. This in turn, he suggests, appears to have corrupted the nature of the relationships between the bastions of the art establishment - museums and public art collections, auction houses, the plagues of art advisers as he calls them and big money collectors. None of which actually benefits the artist.

So why watch? In summary, for these reasons:
  • See film of a 70 year old Robert Hughes alongside a much younger Robert Hughes with notable artists that he has known and listen to his very many caustic comments about what now counts as art.
  • Understand art in terms of train spotting - about how when the Mona Lisa went to New York in the 1960s people went to see it to say they'd seen it not because they loved painting.
  • Understand how a collector who loans an artwork to a prominent museum increases the value of his investment in that commodity.
  • Find out why all major museums have now been squeezed out of the art market. Get to see the directors of three major museums in the USA - Philippe de Montebello (MMA, NY), Thomas Hoving (Montebello's predecessor) and Thomas Krens (Guggenheim) explain the role of museums and brand marketing and franchising in relation to contemporary art - any why museums can no longer compete for art in the marketplace and are dependent on loans.
  • See the film of Robert Rauschenburg confronting New York taxi company mogul Robert Skull after the Skull auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York in October 1973 - in which Scull auctioned off 50 works in his Pop art collection. This was the auction which Hughes identifies as shifting the emphasis from aesthetics to money and which began the start of the new trend of art as commodity. Artists like Rauschenburg and Jim Rosenquist suddenly saw their work being sold for huge profits - but they got nothing in return. I'd very much like to see the whole film of the sale which according to this article provides an analytical explanation of what took place that evening in terms of a much broader social, cultural and economic context.
  • Watch the art auction as an art event. It needs to be remembered that the Damien Hirst auction last week is what he will be remembered for - not his art. That's the point Germain Greer makes in her article - also echoed by Roberta Smith in Saturday's New York Times article After the Roar of the Crowd, an Auction Post-Mortem. The art is in the marketing - not the product...........
The art market is to Mr. Hirst as popular culture is to artists like Jeff Koons: his main content. Mr. Hirst revels in revealing its machinery and making it jump through hoops......And Mr. Hirst may simply have morphed into the Thomas Kincaid of contemporary art, running a factory that produces major, minor and starter Hirsts. Eventually he will probably cut the auction houses out of the deal, too.
New York Times - After the Roar of the Crowd, an Auction Post-Mortem
  • I had a big smile on my face as I watched Hughes talk to the chap whose father owns the biggest collection of Warhols in the world. I watched its valuation drop by the second!
  • I had an even bigger smile on my face when introduced to Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. She was a librarian and he was a postal clerk. They lived on her salary and used his to build up a collection of 2,500 works of contemporary art - and then gave it all away to museums - see this National Gallery of Art article about the Vogels and this new website Vogels 50/50: 50 works for 50 states. Now those are the sort of people who I really admire as collectors - people who do it for the love of the art, who disregard its value as an asset and who then give it to museums so it can be shared with others. People have done it for years - but they seem to be a dying breed.
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel - Vogel 50/50

I took a look at the Banksy Forum and one comment stood out
The fact that some art commands such high prices is one of the reasons I became interested in art in the first place
Says it all really.............

Except Tyler Green had a good note in today's blog post on Modern Art Notes - Weekend roundup, silly Smithsonian edition
Several years ago, when I was working as an art critic for Bloomberg, I wrote about how horribly awful the Damien Hirst 'pill paintings' show at Gagosian was. My editor didn't like that I'd ripped the show, and she told me I had to be wrong. Her rationale? Gagosian claimed that the show sold out before it opened. (Yeah. I departed shortly thereafter.) On Saturday Roberta Smith examined how Damien Hirst toys with the market -- and how he isn't afraid to make horrible art (like pill paintings) to do it. Don't miss the last paragraph.
I have got to try and let this matter rest. I just get so annoyed by art being treated like a commodity! Next week Hughes looks at the new Russian influence.

Tomorrow back to more serious stuff as I try and get my Series Project kick started - finally!



  1. Unfortunately you need to be within the UK or Ireland to watch Channel 4 material. Bummer...

  2. I am in the U.S. and the player blocked me. It said I had to "Come Ashore" in the U.K. to watch....

    I was kinda disappointed.

  3. I wondered whether it might be something like that

    Well - in that case - look for it arriving at a TV station somewhere near you in the near future.

  4. Just some quick thoughts. I support the capitol economic theory, and see nothing intrinsically wrong with abstract values placed on any commodity. But the commodity needs to meet some inherent or unassailable criterion for value.

    The rub comes when art is critically bad, and I mean over time shown to be bad. Then the value ought to fall off, regardless of the ticket price. But, you have to link some "harm" to over-valuation.

    Gold is one that interests me. It seems to me that a finite commodity, like gold, cannot power an open ended thing like the economy. Art, OTOH, is still being made, and will be for as long as there are economies. eg, art is better than gold.

    Just some thoughts from an armchair economist!

  5. How about gold is a common standard valued across many cultures and economies over very many centuries? It is the original bling!

    Plus it's an artifact which can has an objective and scientific measure which relates to actual value ie what carat it is/how pure it is.

  6. I really enjoyed that programme and found myself saying YES! to a lot of what he said.

    The comment at the very beginning about the Mona Lisa being shown in the US and some people coming to SEE it and others to SAY they had seen it was very telling and very true of a lot of they Emperors New Clothes hype over some conceptual contemporary work.

  7. You've started me crying again, Katherine. Crying is what I do every time something I want to see becomes available on the internet and then I discover I am blocked in Italy.

    I'm even blocked from Australian Broadcasting Corporation internet television and that's a government broadcasting body in a country where I still pay income tax! I don't seem to be blocked from ABC radio - can you explain that! I should be grateful, of course. I am grateful - really, don't take away this simple pleasure ABC. Please!

    This time I'm crying because not only am I blocked from Channel 4 television material because I'm in Italy - I'm also blocked because I'm a Mac user. I'm not blocked from Channel 4 Radio. I'm daily grateful for this. Extremely grateful.

  8. So disappointed I won't get a chance to see this in the US- Hughes is always entertaining and "nothing if not critical". The funny thing is Skull (taxi mogel) originally collected Rothko and other abstract expressionists and auctioned that collection off to start buying Pop when it became the next big thing- Warhol, Jasper Johns, et al thought that was just great until their turn came...hmmm, what goes around, comes around...

  9. Thank you for sharing the link. Among the lucky ones to see it. Although Sarafi does not work if you use Mac, got to switch to Firefox and get a plug in for it. I wonder if it's a regular show that can become another item on my google feed reader?!


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