Friday, February 1, 2008


I just learned that an art gallery in Washington D.C. pays $5000 a month to rent their space. Perhaps if you live in D.C. or any other large metropolitan city you are not at all surprised by this, but to me (living in Staunton, Virginia) this came as a shock. This is yet another reason (and granted, a big one) why these so-called "high-end" art galleries are reluctant in the extreme to open their walls to artists whose work doesn't hold the promise of large and immediate payback. But the consequences of this simple action are many.

For the gallery, instead of being a place of freedom--for isn't freedom what art should be about--it becomes a place of constriction, where every decision is governed by making rent. So instead of selling a wide variety of work from a wide variety of artists they must limit their scope to focusing on work that will bring the most money per square foot of canvas (and wallspace). And by definition this leaves out a substantial amount of art from artists whose work should be seen on the national level, but they're ignored simply because they don't have the right cachet, "brand", or resume. And this reminds me of a woman I once encountered. A fine abstract painter she was, yet she proceeded to give me a lecture on the absolute necessity of having a proper (and extensive) resume. She then related a cautionary tale of a young friend of hers, an excellent painter, who approached a high-class white-walled Boston art gallery. The gallery's director after viewing her work told the young artist that it was quite beautiful and would look perfect in the gallery, however she (the director) regretfully had to decline because the young artist just didn't have a "good enough resume". (!!!) My response was that since resumes are so all-important and precious why don't these fancy galleries put the artist's resume up on the walls instead of the artwork! (To any thinking person the word BULLSHIT must come immediately to mind.) Another artist friend told me of a gallery in New York City which can only survive financially by selling work from famous artists like DeKooning, Hockney and the like. But wasn't there a time fifty years ago when DeKooning couldn't get a show, couldn't sell a painting--which means that these art galleries are ALWAYS going to be 50 years behind the times! And how is this good for Art with a capital "A"? It certainly isn't any good for the artists who are not DeKooning and Hockney.

So with outrageous rents in all big cities this is another reason to support the assertion that the most exciting and vibrant art being made today is art that is counter to this mindset (and therefore in venues where there are cheaper rents). What's needed here is the long view. Art as a continuum. After all, doesn't it seem the least bit hypocritical for an art gallery to have a show called "DeKooning's Early Work" (which commands top dollar), yet when DeKooning was actually doing his "early work" this same gallery would have shunned him? But I believe the problem does not rest with the art gallery and its owner but ultimately with the landlords themselves. Proudhon* once declared that, "Property is theft." What else would you call it when someone does all the work to keep an art gallery going (and there's a lot of it!) while someone else just sits back and collects a $5000 paycheck each month for doing nothing. For owning something. This is beyond reprehensible. And yes, it is one of the side-effects of capitalism, that glorious experiment in making a few people really, really rich while the rest of us supply the labor. And how do you change this? How do you rid the human heart of greed? I don't know. But I do know that if history has taught us anything it's that everyone has a breaking point. If you keep taking and taking eventually you reach a limit. And this limit is called "revolution", be it on the personal level or the political and societal level. And who's better at being a revolutionary than the artist? As T.S. Eliot once said:

"The artist is the only genuine and profound revolutionist, in the following sense. The world always has, and always will, tend to substitute appearance for reality. The artist, being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real. His function is to bring back humanity to the real."

*Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th century French anarchist, believed that the common conception of property had two distinct components which, once identified, demonstrated the difference between property used to protect liberty and property used to further tyranny. He argued that the result of an individual's labor which is currently occupied or used is a legitimate form of property. Thus, he opposed unused land being regarded as property, believing that land can only be rightfully possessed by use or occupation. As an extension of his belief that legitimate property was the result of labor and occupation, he argued against such institutions as interest on loans and rent. (!!!)