The Laws of Nature

Sunday, April 25, 2010


But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland

I've returned from a lovely weekend with former classmates at my 40th reunion. It was wonderful in every way and a reminder of how important those developmental years were for each of us.

On Tuesday I'll announce the three lucky winners of the contest to win an autographed copy of Wendy Richmond's excellent book, Art Without Compromise! In the meantime, I'll continue my discussion of Freeland's book.

Diving right into chapter 4, Freeland begins an examination of the evolving role of museums. This interests me a great deal because she asks some probing questions that I hope to discuss throughout this week. Today, I'm interested in Freeland's inquiry into whether present-day museum directors may feel restricted in what kinds of art can and cannot be shown because of the source of funding for these exhibitions.

To be clear, a general shift in museum funding occurred around 1965 away from private philanthropists to corporations who were interested in promoting culture and the arts. According to Freeland: the earliest corporations to provide major funding to museums were tobacco and oil companies, which likely sought to polish tarnished imaged by supporting "culture." The shift to corporate sources coincides with the rise of the "blockbuster" exhibition where funders expect a lot of bang for their buck.

These exhibitions include the Treasures of Tutankahmen, Pompeii, and Jewelsof the Romanovs which, according to this author, were intended to appeal to the largest number of the public and middle-class taste (whatever that is!).

So, my question is whether or not these corporate-backed exhibitions induce a form of self-censorship in museums who need them to remain commercially viable. And, if so, does the public suffer as a result?


-Don said...

I'm a firm believer that when money is the main reason for anything heart and soul suffer. Once big money becomes involved the head is trying to figure out how to get the best bang for the buck and forgets what the heart and soul desire and/or need.

Welcome back. I'm glad you had such a great weekend. It's always great to reconnect with old friends...


Stan Kurth said...

Public = Masses. The Masses don't know squat about art; they think Kinkade is art. So in a roundabout way, I do believe there is a "cultured" demographic that suffers here.

Carolyn Abrams said...

I agree with Don and Stan that when the dollar is the bottom line everything gets skewed. That being said, having worked for an Arts Center whose existence depends largely on corporate sponsors it is one of those necessary evils. I think where the line gets blurry is when the sponsors dictate what goes in the center or museum.

Unknown said...

Hi Don - I'm inclined to agree with you. But, there's another part of me that wonders if these blockbuster exhibits are also providing a valuable service to our culture by enticing many to visit these museums when, otherwise, they might not. It's an opportunity to educate.

Hi Stan - I had to chuckle over your comment because I've noticed that one of my cable channels is featuring Kincaid's "junk" day after day. I still can't believe how much money people invest in his work and stuff!

Hi Carolyn - I agree - if the corporate sponsor becomes the dictator it can come to no good.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I feel the exhibitions Ms. Freeland mentioned were more about history than art. There have been others that have focused on artists, and corporations have been helpful to local art organizations. Without corporate money, many of us would never see anything other than Kincaid.

Full disclosure: I am a stockholder in Altria and Philip Morris Int. but I enjoy hanging out with the masses--I dislike travel so I attend the blockbuster exhibits if they're close by. (I skip the car races.)

As for polishing their images, the financial institutions might want to jump in and follow suit. And don't we all want the most bang for our buck when we contribute?

Dan Kent said...

I don't know much about this. But I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that there was ever a time in western culture that money had nothing to do with the display of art. One always needed to keep the rent paid and the lights on (even if they were candles). And I doubt there was ever a time that art was displayed without regard to the traffic it would bring. Maybe I'm just cynical.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - yes, we do want the most bang for our buck! But, for me, the "bang" is usually an intimate thing - standing still before a painting that truly moves me. That's about all I need.

Hi Dan - like you, I'm not informed enough to know if that's always the case. It would be interesting to find out, though.

Mark Sheeky said...

I think the blockbuster exhibitions are good for art. The van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy in London has been so popular that they opened on Sundays and evenings. Even exhibitions that aren't directly art related help introduce people to culture and history. I'm lucky though in that in this country the state sees art and culture as important enough to fund. I think there would be genuine public concern here if museums entertained instead of educated.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - it's great to know that your government provides so much support for the arts, and it's great that the public responded so favorably to the Van Gogh exhibit. Wish I had been there for it!

Tonya Vollertsen said...

I think the whole thing about Kinkade is pretty funny. I mean the guy accomplished what he set out to do which was produce art for the masses. They love it they buy it and he laughs all the way to the bank. I wonder if the guy had set out to make art that the art world didn't consider junk if he would have been successful at that. He's like the Babe Ruth of the art world; he pointed his bat at left field in an arrogant way and hit it out of the park. But is it art? Evidently not.
Of course, then there's also the Blue Dog guy, Rodrigue, same thing except he was a little more accidental. That guy suffers though because he was a regular working artist like the rest of us but got caught up in a fluke of his work and can't get out. He tries to do other paintings but everyone wants Blue dogs. I guess he could just refuse and starve.
Evidently the public needs to be better educated as to what "real art" is but who's job is that? The "real artists" can even agree on "what is art". LOL!

Unknown said...

Hi Tonya - I've always said the Kincaid is laughing all the way to the bank. When you get right down to it, "art" is in the eye of the beholder and purchaser.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

OOPs, that was supposed to be: ... "can't" agree on "what is art?"