Money and Art — a response to (the documentary HBO film) “The Price of Everything”

At this point, the majority of my friends who make or are otherwise involved with art have seen HBO’s new documentary about the corruptions at the top end of the roaring contemporary art market. The title itself says a lot about the content of this film. The Price of Everything is a truncation of a quote from Oscar Wilde, who had one of the characters in a play state that a cynic is a man who “. . . knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  The creators of this exposé made a dutiful, if feeble attempt to raise the subject of the second half of that sentence in the person of the aged former art world insider — later turned outsider, and now re-surfacing prodigal — Larry Poons. But the crotchety old Poons, in his paint spattered pants and Bowery drunk’s knit turban, isn’t enough of, or as thoughtfully examined an example to override the filmmakers’ clear fascination with the spectacle of wealth that they lay before us. The triumph at the end of the story is Poons’ portended re-embrace by the very sharks whose existence we have been told throughout that his whole being contradicts. What exactly is that meant to tell us?

Making things by hand and eye, whether they be pictures — painted, mechanical or digital — sculptures in three dimensions, or all the different kinds of handmade things that have traditionally been identified as “craft”, are all processes that incorporate the  thoughtfulness, skill, personal involvement and transference that we have come down the centuries to think of as “Art”. This is no less true of a hand-carved colonial gravestone, an Eastlake chair, or a letterpress printed and hand-bound codex than it is of Michelangelo’s David or deKooning’s Montauk Highway. Genuine art has never been limited by the kind of thing a person chooses to make, but by the quality and intensity of the care, attention, emotional investment and intelligence of its maker — for all of which nebulous, even metaphysical contents, the physical object becomes a fixed repository and potential translator in the material world.

It doesn’t matter if these made things are traded for money, given away, or simply left in an attic or warehouse to be forgotten and perhaps discovered later. The exact manner or value of the trade that conveys them from maker to whatever owner or place in which they land, is completely distinct from the objects themselves, which will outlive all such fleeting transactions until they too pass from the world by way of neglect, outright destruction or a slow deterioration. The genuine value of art is not determined by what it costs, but by the degree to which it is loved and preserved over the long haul by people who have completely forgotten what it cost in the first place. This is why it is such a hopeless project to assign a plausible value to contemporary works; we haven’t figured out yet if they are valuable or not! We still have the once completely unknown Johannes Vermeer’s paintings three and a half centuries on from when they were made, not because they were identified as having exceptional monetary or cultural value at the time (which they were not), but because they were such powerful objects in themselves that all those generations of individuals who found themselves in possession of one thought them worthy of preservation. Only time will tell if the emanations of a Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, or Jenny Holzer will be treated with similar reverence going forward.

Money does not confer real value or quality to the things of art any more than a lack of money denies it. Therefore, deciding arbitrarily that some object is worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars only stores that arbitrarily monetized figure in the object for possible later retrieval, gain or loss. In all such high-flying transactions, the object’s real artistic merit (or lack thereof) is obscured by its incarnation as an analog of the poker chip, which is nothing more or less than a symbol of trading and purchasing potential.

“The Art World” is a misleading name for the network of institutions and retail outlets that collectively comprise a thriving multi-billion dollar industry in art-like commodities, some of which are genuine works of art, and a great many more of which are relatively shallow imitations of such things. The whole circus is enabled by the enormous volumes of personal capital that have been extracted from our economy, especially in Britain and The United States, over the past forty years since the deregulatory, greed-adoring Thatcher and Reagan eras. All that money has gone into the hands of a vanishingly small minority of players — people who have more cash than any individual could rationally need or use, and who must therefore invent things to do with it, and places to put it, which reinforce the grotesquely egotistical notion that having gotten hold of it in the first place was either a meaningful or an admirable human achievement (without which justification, they might run the risk of actually looking in the mirror).

So where does that leave real art? In the past half century of its hyper-inflation, the contemporary art market has arrogated to itself the authority to pronounce a desired value for the assets it sells, based entirely on nebulous cycles of taste and fashion of which it is itself the principal author. The perverse paradox at the heart of this activity are the conjoined ideas that anything CAN be a “great” work of art, but that only a tiny handful of self-proclaimed experts are equipped to tell us which ones ARE. This hokus-pokus of pretended expertise cannily circumnavigates the deeper truth that real artistic quality is discernable to anybody sensitive and educated enough to be interested in looking for it on their own. This is not to say that art is not a complicated topic, or one that does not genuinely require expertise to understand. The best artists are the masters of skills, both manual and perceptive, that are extremely hard-won and which it takes a substantial amount of education and exposure to successfully deduce. That kind of understanding is what we used to call connoisseurship. It takes work to know this fine stuff when we see it, just as it takes work to learn how to make it. But all of that expertise is available to anybody who is willing to take the time to learn it. Relinquishing it to some expensively hired interpreter is both a forfeit of the pleasure of direct knowledge, and an open invitation to be swindled.

The relationship of money to art is neither as mystical nor as moral as we alternately crass and puritanical Americans want it to be. Artists deserve to be paid, and paid well, for real skill when they have successfully accumulated it — no less so than good doctors, lawyers or chefs are entitled to a rewarding fee in exchange for giving us something we need or desire and cannot make for ourselves. The relative comfort or security of the livelihood that a skilled professional can command is entirely justified by the hard work it took to become that skilled in the first place. But celebrity status and fortunes that are inflated beyond such a rational level soon become ridiculous parodies of the original acts that gave them birth, and inevitably undermine the real quality of the essential one-to-one exchange between maker and viewer that rests at the heart of this curious vocation. If the prices an artist is paid for her or his hard work become fraudulently inflated, that artist (or athlete or rock star) is somehow tainted with that fraud by accepting it, whether they want to admit it or not. This may not impact the quality of the first works sold at such a scale, but if one goes on manufacturing things in pursuit of ever more inflated remuneration and recognition, that hungry motive has a way of creeping into and diminishing the work. If the price I get for a canvas as a life-long and relatively skilled painter is sufficient to keep a roof over my head, support my family and give me more money to paint on, then I have been paid well. If my reputation as a good, or even a great painter grows to the point where I don’t have to work as hard at selling my things as I do at making them, that too feels entirely fair and balanced. But, if I am getting enough money for a single painting to bankroll 20 other painters like myself at that originally rational scale for many decades into the future, well . . . something is out of whack. This is not a point of moralizing so much as it goes to the central critical issue of our age, which is the ideal of sustainability — or of being content with enough, rather than craving too much.

The fact is that we are living in an age of unprecedented excess: excess extraction of our precious resources; excess damage to the ecosystem on which we depend for survival; and above all, excess numbers of human beings overcrowding and using up the fragile world of which we are an embedded part. The whole project of human survival into the future (if it is possible at all) will depend on retreating from such excesses and finding a more sustainable scale at which to live and be human. Art is, as it has always been, a mirror of our realities. At the moment it happens to be reflecting all these fatal excesses. The now numerous documentary exposés which chronicle the corruption of the art market, such as The Price of Everything, Netflix’Blurred Lines, or the late Robert Hughes’s much earlier The Mona Lisa Curse are entertaining, and can outrage and titillate the audience with gusto. But none seems to offer an alternative. They all appear to be saying “This is how it is folks!  Get used to it!”  And with the exception of Hughes’ film, they also clearly delight in the excess they are reporting, and covertly praise it in a sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fetishism of this preposterous wealth.

This artistic incarnation of human excess has rendered a lot of what was once manageable almost impossible to sustain. There isn’t much we can do, until the bubble bursts, about the way in which the long historical legacies of art that are the province of the great museums have been pushed out of their reach by being too monetarily valuable to acquire or insure. But in terms of contemporary art — art being made now — there has always been an easy antidote to the dilemma portrayed in all those damning documentaries: we just have to stop being enthralled by that giant glowing head within the art world’s lavishly decorated proscenium and take a look behind the curtain at the real wizard of this overblown, technicolor Oz. The reality is that the gorged art market, alongside its supporting network of galleries, auction houses and museums is as tiny and cloistered a realm as the population of absurdly rich patrons who enable the whole intertwined and conflicted network of interests to exist. There are, in fact, legions of artists and makers working outside that universe, who never get any sort of “traction” within it, but who are making things as good as, and often infinitely better than, what it has to offer. The most genuine and best art today is additionally being made, bought and traded at a far more rational economic scale (meaning a scale at which the maker is able to achieve a reasonable livelihood while the buyer is able to attain a very fine thing without bankrupting him or herself) completely outside the precincts of the high-end art market.

In other words: If you are an artist and want to have some success, don’t be discouraged by the awful art world. Ignore it altogether. Instead, put everything you’ve got into learning how to make things that are incredibly hard to make, which make you feel good, and which excite somebody else who you can relate to, to the degree that they are willing to pay you a fair fee to own them. If, on the other hand, you are a sincere lover of art and despair at the corruption or financial obstacles of the market — quit looking for it there. The good stuff is out here in the real world, and easy enough to see if you simply train your own eye and trust it to see the things that matter to you.

Leslie Parke at SUNY Oneonta

Advanced Projects Dance Class, Bennington College, Fall 2009
Leslie Parke, SILVER LIGHT, 46 x 94 inches. Silver pencil, chalk and chalkboard paint on canvas

I have often heard it said that if Christ were to come back and deliver his message of peace and tolerance today, he’d be crucified all over again by his most rabidly intolerant followers. The same could be said, in a different way, of many of our most revered artistic masters. Imagine a painter as changeable and inconsistent in his method as Henri Matisse attempting to get a show in a New York gallery today. Not a chance! The operating standard in the currently market-dominated art world is product consistency above all. You could fill a booth at Miami Basel with little piles of thumbtacks, or 20 airbrushed photorealist paintings of blown-up details of inflatable beach toys, and nobody would bat an eye — but by god they’d better all be similarly conceived and manufactured! A whole generation of artists, gallerists and curators appears to have forgotten — or perhaps never learned in the first place — that the greatest works are often arrived at by dint of a risky, uncertain experimentation that is completely antithetical to the strategies of market-ready design.

But engineering a stylistic or conceptual “look” that can be dependably turned-out and then patented with an artist’s name and identity is the opposite of what the best art does. It doesn’t project anything at us, but rather invites us in to the sharing of a visionIts purpose is not to be looked-at, but to be looked through in order to see something else — as we see through a lens, or a window, or simply our own eyes, on the way to discovering the unfolding world around us. That seeing begins with the artist herself, who, if she is genuinely searching, will find something at the intersection of the external world and her internal process that she can look at, and thereby discover meanings not previously realized.

All the dead painters I love best made a great many awful pictures in their careers. There are the occasionally ham-handed royal portraits by Goya, with skin that seems like a burn victim’s on the verge of sliding off its sub-strait of muscle and bone; there is the patchy viridian goulash of Manet’s attempts to paint the sea; or JMW Turner’s slug-like invertebrate figures: There are O’Keeffe’s more cloyingly precious Southwestern still lives; Hopper’s often clumsily rendered roadside scenes and putty-fleshed hotel room denizens. On and on it goes. All the best painters make bad paintings alongside their finest ones. It is when every work that issues from an artist’s hand precisely conforms to his or her most fully realized standard of excellence that we should begin to be suspicious. The greatest successes are built not only on a willingness to risk failure, but on multiple failures or near-misses actually having occurred along the path to that highest achievement. But if a painter feels compelled to make something perfect every time she picks up the brush, well…she will never get there at all.

Leslie Parke, a professional painter with a long and steady career of gallery and museum exhibitions stretching back into the 1970s, is an exemplary artist of this exploratory kind. Like so many American painters who came up through the second half of the 20th century in the shadow of New York’s various postwar movements, she has spent a lifetime attempting to reconcile the still-estranged parallel universes of representation and abstraction.

Parke’s way into this struggle was, from the outset, to tackle an abstracted formal order via representationally identifiable, but fundamentally disordered contents. Initially this exploration led her to copy and reinterpret masterworks by classical figurative painters, ranging from Giotto to Matisse, Ingres and Goya — work she developed through the 1980s and 90s and in a five-month residency in 1994 at Monet’s studio in Giverny in France.

Still grappling with the figure after that sojourn in the land of Impressionism, Parke turned to the battered landscape of prize fighter’s faces, captured from photographs of ongoing bouts. These echo Bellows and other gritty Ashcan-era painters of the urban scene who were, in their time, also trying to find a distinctly American rejoinder to the Impressionists’ sun-dappled modernism. But Parke soon realized that both the light and the natural environment she’d been exposed to at Giverny had planted their seeds. A growing interest in understanding nature by way of the effect of the sun’s rays reflected off and through the interstitial spaces of its organic forms — its waterways, hoarfrost and tree branches — led her back into a series of land and waterscapes.

Eventually, Parke settled into a still life object-based realism, rendered in vertical compositions that strike a delicate balance between moving chaos and grid-like formalism. The most fully realized of this series, which she painted through the mid 2000s, feature cluttered topographies of china cups and saucers, immersed in unspecified bodies of water that could be anywhere from the kitchen sink to forest streams or tidal races along the beach. These paintings of baptized crockery, as well as a later series of compacted trash and plastic-wrapped commercial and industrial products, all are rendered with a robust paint application which feels nearly Impressionistic up-close but resolves at a distance into an exacting observational realism.

Despite that one senses a clearly directional chronology to these explorations, Parke is a painter who works all her different avenues of interest simultaneously — tackling one kind of picture for a time, then breaking off to leap into another parallel track on a related but distinct form. And yet, like her realism, which resolves its clarity at a remove, the strength and urgency of Parke’s formal eye settles as the dominant theme of all her work when one stands back to review the whole of her career.

Now in her fourth decade as a painter, all Parke’s many languages have broken loose of their moorings to the literal and have fully embraced a new kind of representationally-founded abstraction that is entirely her own. Over the past several years, she has embarked on a vigorous amalgam of constantly diverging and re-integrating themes from each of her principal forms of the past two decades. These include the densely forested landscapes of tree-branches, some vertical bodies of uninterrupted sea, plastic-wrapped bales of trash, a sprawling mountain-scape of what could be a Baroque wedding dress draped across a bed, and various other, often mysterious forms. As has always been the case, Parke’s many visual languages are marinated in art historical precedents. The tree pictures pay an unabashed homage to Pollock without feeling derivative. A giant, vibrating, horizontal chalk-board of repeating white circles on a black background evokes Cy Twombly, but only by showing us what that artist never mastered himself: a tightly-sprung, electric calligraphy evoking the rhythms of the spheres, of gravity swirling around and through black holes, and charging at the viewer from out of the sublime vacuum of the cosmos.

Returning to the opening observations in this review, the strength in Parke’s work is enabled not only by her ample skill, but by the risks that do not fear to challenge its most dependable formulae. Not every one of her new pieces is a flawless tour de force, but the occasional stumbles, or odd divergences, are precisely what enable her greatest successes, just as similarly reaching but faltering exertions enabled many of the best paintings we know from history.

For anybody who loves not only painting, but the true ethos of its eternally questing process, this latest body of Leslie Parke’s work is arrayed to great advantage in an ongoing exhibition titled Continuous Flow, which is on view until December 18th at SUNY Oneonta’s Fine Arts Center.

For information or directions, contact The Martin-Mullen Art Gallery at 108 Ravine Parkway, Oneonta, NY 13820.

Phone: 607-436-3456  or  607-436-2445. Open Monday through Friday, 11am to 5pm and by appointment.

The exhibition can also be viewed by looking at the artist’s dropbox gallery at https://shwca.se/SUNY-PARKE