Damien Hirst, one of the celebrities of the contemporary art world, once remarked that if people went to art galleries as much as they went to the movies, there would be more appreciation for art today. I really wonder if that is actually a desired outcome.
A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. The film was fascinating because of the portrayal of Peggy Guggenheim as the black sheep and outsider of the Guggenheim clan. Never quite as attractive as other women, never quite as wealthy as her relatives, she became the rebel of the family, traveling Europe collecting artists of the emerging Modern Art trend and beyond.
The impression I got was that art was a passionate affair for everyone involved. Certainly, the final shots of the film showed Peggy’s museum in Vienna, filled with art lovers looking at her collection. Certainly the film itself was all about art passion, particularly for those on the fringe of acceptable society.
As soon as I finished the film, I raced over to Gallery1988 West, which was exhibiting the Star Wars: The Art Awakens exhibition. This was an exhibit where artists were chosen by submissions to a Tumblr account. The art was then put up on display and bid upon via eBay. The gallery is much smaller than the galleries I saw in the Guggenheim film, but no less crowded. There was no end to the bumping and positioning as fans came to take a look at paintings in oil, acrylic, watercolor, collage and pencil. There were video works as well. The exhibit ran the gambit. Prints were sold out and the artworks were reaching prices between $1500 and $3500 the one time I checked. It was exactly the kind of art world depicted in the Guggenheim film. Then something funny happened…
A couple weeks later, I had the chance to do another art run. This time a friend had asked me to visit a local indie gallery. I won’t say which one; these places tend to be small shops that need the foot traffic badly. I didn’t expect a huge volume of people given the nature of the space, but what I immediately noticed was that no one was actually looking at the art. Most people were partaking of snacks and talking to each other. New people would come in occasionally come in and look around, but very quickly engaged in what appeared to be a social get-together more than anything else. Most of the art was in a post-modernist style, with some traditional works. It was interesting, but not enough to hold my interest for long. Since I only knew the friend who invited me there, I decided to leave and check out the galleries at Bergamot Station where a number of new exhibitions were opening.
I expected the galleries at Bergamot Station to have more of a similarity to what I experienced in Gallery 1988, but surprisingly, it was not. In fact, it was closer to the indie gallery with the exception of more people and a higher level of artistic quality. The vast majority of people I saw were taking selfies, catching up with friends, drinking, eating or otherwise engaged in some activity that wasn’t looking at the art. I saw people wandering around as if waiting for someone and children brought to the gallery by their parents and generally mystified as to why they were there. I entered one gallery that was twice as large as my apartment and covered in art too large for any of my walls. That vast majority of the space was vacant save for one corner where multiple groups of people were drinking wine, trading gossip and just hanging out. I think I only saw a two or three people seriously consider the works in the gallery. One girl had a friend take a picture of her next to a painting.
It took me a while to understand this, but I think now that I see that Peggy Guggenheim was basically the comic book fangirl of her day. Even though fanpeople, geeks and nerds are hip and trendy, it’s all based off the idea of being that outsider with a dedication to some expression of something. Comic book fandom has always been about the art, whether it be the art of writing or the art of illustration or even the art of coloring, inking and lettering. Fans stand in line hours before a convention opens in the hopes of getting custom art from Adam Hughes. People spend money hand over fist to get an original from Alex Ross. Sure, there is talking and socializing, but it is almost always art first, comparison second and general hanging out third.
With comic book fandom the enthusiasm is infectious. Not only are the fans eager to look at artwork and talk to the artists, they are eager to become artists themselves. It’s never easy breaking into a creative field, but there doesn’t seem to be nearly the opaqueness that the fine art world possesses. With comics, the economic dynamics are fairly clear. Comics get sold and licensed for games, books and films. Comic book writers, artists and editors are hired to make this happen and the volume of current economic needs means there is always room for new blood. And if the industry locks you out, there is always the web and indie publishing. The avenues to success are plentiful, if trying.
With the fine art world, it’s a little more difficult to get a handle on how the economic dynamics work. Where comics is pretty clearly high-volume/low-price, the fine art world seems to work on low-volume/high-price. That is, get a large number of people to move through the gallery and at some point, enough patrons will buy something to keep the gallery afloat. Certainly, the prices support this. A single work can sell for thousands of dollars. But the culture isn’t one that is very infectious. In comics, there is a clear path from “I like that” to “I want to do that” to “I am making a living doing that”. This doesn’t seem to be the case with fine art. That’s not to say a person can’t do it, but this is an economic system that relies on a few people making big purchases. Such a system is much more susceptible to trends and the whims of the consumer. As a result, art dealers are more likely to work with who they already know. Networking is a necessary evil in both the fine art and pop art worlds, but much more so, it seems with fine art.
Maybe it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe the fine art world wants things like this. After all, it’s a great filter for separating the weekend artist from the dedicated artist. I’ll still go to galleries, of course, but when I think of that quote by Damien Hirst, I wonder if everyone appreciating art is what the fine art world actually wants.