Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Private Art Market in the "Age of Technological Reproducibility"

While Professor Grady’s intended point was taken, it is an entirely separate issue with the sale of the Warhol print, an article on which was used as a question of ‘original’ over the past few classes, that really struck me each time it was discussed—the fact that a Warhol was sold in a private art auction at all. In his book, “Eye Witness: Reports from an Art World in Crisis,” Jed Perl (who I imagine looking like this <--- But who actually looks like this ---> ) details what he deems wrong with the art world, and specifically, the modern private art market. Much of what he has to say begins with Andy Warhol, founding member of the Pop movement and object of widespread fame and mystery. Warhol’s art theory is based fundamentally on conceptualism and it just so happened that Andy, originally “Warhola,” born in Pittsburg Pennsylvania in 1928 to eastern European parents who enforced strong catholic values and coddled their alienated son after his development of both Scarlet Fever and severe hypochondria which left him at home in bed many weeks out of the year, became enamored of the idea of fame. An artist by trade (he often called himself a “sellout” for his sometimes secret sale of advertisement cartoons and sketches in order to sustain his lifestyle), he abandoned most of what can be considered tradition and dismissed the idea of the authentic, while still creating something considered art. In this act, Warhol’s concept became not only a question of the validity of authenticity, but in his mass production, outspokenness on the universality of fame (“Everyone should have their 15 minutes of fame.”), and his fervent insistence on reaching the public produced the nagging question of whether art is really for the masses rather than for a select few. It is at this point that the private view of art shifted radically, eventually doubling on itself and achieving two extremes in a relatively short period of time.

Warhol’s availability in his artwork as well as as a well known figure got the public to look at art. And I mean the actual public—the people you meet at gas stations in Indiana, the apathetic youth, the people that called Pollock “Jack the Dripper.” Throughout his lifetime, an almost morbid fascination with the man as well as with his artwork was all the rage (which means all the kids that want to be hip now have to hate him for unjustified reasons, but I digress). If the art major has learned anything from her structural engineer, business owning father, it’s that nothing is a stronger driving force in our culture than money, and thus nothing put dollar signs in the eyes of smart men more than Andy Warhol. He had a huge public, with small overhead cost, and just the right combination of authenticity and reproducibility to drive up the cost of such items. By the end of his life, Warhol’s idea that art was for everyone had been capitalized upon to the extent that his actual art was primarily for the privileged. Most people didn’t know or care that most of the actual printing was done by Warhol’s man-slave (or chief assistant if you prefer) Gerard Malanga.

**Come on, it's Tattoo from Fantasy Island! No? He and Malanga were both diligent man servants. Look it up, it's funny I promise.**

With this movement toward art as a status symbol came the popularized private art market. Art gradually became something that everyone wanted and very few could afford. As demand increased, so did prices, furthering the elitism of owning a work of art. In the 80’s, the graffiti art boom opened up new doors as dealers started popping up in art rich cultures like New York city. A smart dealer like Mary Boone, Henry Geldzahler, or Annina Nosei,( who, after buying Jean-Michele Basquiat’s career, kept him living in her basement on a constant stream of drugs, churning out painting after painting) could control the flow of an artist’s work—either holding back 75% of the work, or flooding the market, literally making or breaking the artist’s career. Certain artists capitalized on the economy of artwork themselves—genius business man, but abhorrent artist Thomas Kinkcade opened his own stores, bypassing critics, galleries, and the market to benefit himself solely, and Keith Herring set up The Pop Shop,
an entire store featuring everyday items adorned with his work. Each of these steps leads us to the capitalized market we see today, where museum curators are contextualist as well as consumerist rather than recognizing the inherent value of an artwork.

So (I know that was a long introduction to me actually talking about the text), Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility lends itself to the debate over whether or not the private art market, itself a paradox, is the right fit for artwork in this age. It seems that Benjamin’s points argue directly against a market art scene and for a museum based ideology. In section III, Benjamin claims that “in even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking; the here and now of the work of art…” and goes on to say “It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” [21] This aura of the work is what moves us, something of which the public is deprived in the private acquisition of artworks. Works which are privately owned without being installed in some public venue ask the public to rely on photographic reproduction to experience the piece, stripping it of its aura and denying history of a section of its complexity.

Further issues with the reliance on technological reproducibility after the private purchase of an artwork exist. Benjamin truthfully claims that “replicating the work many times over substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence,” [22] which can be a dangerous slope. Most individuals exposed primarily to reproductions lack a proper appreciation of the aura of an artwork. If we allow ourselves to collectively forget that a painting is very different than a photograph of a painting, it’s easy to see how artistic authenticity can become entirely obsolete in a way that alters both the history and the future of art. The individual acquisitions of artworks that belong in museums rob the pieces of their here-and-now presence in the world, and weaken the quality of museums, thus limiting their reach, and changing “the entire mode of existence of human collectives…[and] their mode of perception.” [23]
In section IV of Technological Reproducibility Benjamin says “the desire of the present-day masses to ‘get closer’ to things and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction,” is the primary link between the aura and the “social basis of its decay.” [23] Private art as a status symbol furthers this decay with the aid of technological reproducibility by allowing reproductions to stand as sufficient in cases where originals are a commodity. The uniqueness of an original becomes extraordinary in its uniqueness since uniqueness itself has been more or less obliterated in reproduction, making it even more desirable as a rarity. This is a cycle which does naught but cheapen the value of artistic expression by creating a monetary primary importance, and allowing reproductions to stand as artworks in the absence of true aura. Benjamin might even go on to argue that this acts as a type of historical censorship, allowing certain truths to exist in our common world, and others to be reproduced in or even removed from our collective consciousness. To preserve the authenticity of art work, integrity of museums, and artistic expression, the private art market must regress to a time when an artist would gain notoriety for work with inherent value rather than monetary value.

So, basically the fact that a Warhol was sold at auction for 22 million dollars strikes me as ironic every time. History preserved Warhol’s obsession with fame and money by destroying his idea of art for the masses.

As a side note, one of my favorite stories in art deals with Ray Johnson (MY FAVORITE! Watch How to Draw a Bunny. Just do.) and his friend Dorothy Podber, who (according to lore) stopped by The Factory one day unannounced where Dorothy proceeded to pull out a pistol from her bag and shoot through a pile of Marilyns stacked against a wall calling it performance art. Ray and Dorothy were, of course, asked to please not do that again, but the shot Marilyns are much more coveted than the average--evidence that signs of authenticity are appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. Word, Emma. I really enjoyed reading this. I not only like the information that is in the article but I LOVE the voice and writing style. It's a really cool post.