The Meaninglessness of Art

When I started practicing art again, long after my foray into art school all those years ago, I slowly started to tune it to the stratosphere of the art world. I won’t lie. I’ve had fantasies of becoming a rich and famous artist, mostly because I just want my art to be adored. And the money sounds good, too. I think it’s human nature to look at that and say, “hmm… must be nice.”

Because I was tuned into it, I also noticed a LOT has been written about money and art, some of it critical, like the $20 Million Stuffed Shark and some of it matter-of-fact, like Steve Martin’s eloquent An Object of Beauty. Always there is a march of print articles in the Financial Times and ArtInfo about the economics of art. The worst of it is written with the purpose of guiding collectors who want to get the most return on their investment. The very worst reads like those stories you see when the Powerball lottery reaches some record high.

That’s how I responded to the news of Christie’s record setting auction night this week to the tune of $412 million dollars for post-war artists. First, I thought “Wow!” Then I started to think there is something deeply and seriously wrong with this picture. I think Blake Gopnik’s response in The Daily Beast was right on:

There seemed something tasteless about the timing of the deluxe Christie’s soiree. I couldn’t forget that the city just beyond the sale room has barely recovered from its worst-ever natural disaster, and that whole neighborhoods in it are still in parlous shape, as talk now turns to where money will be found to set them in order again. The country as a whole is also in dire straits, with obscene income inequality being possibly the most notable sign of how badly things have gone wrong. So, much as I adore art, I couldn’t quite take pleasure in watching it become the plaything of the robber barons of our new Gilded Age.

I have been wondering the past few days why I found the whole thing sickening and I think I’ve figured it out: Art is both profound, transcendent, and indispensable to the human experience, but it is trite and insignificant when stacked up against human life.

Art gives life meaning. It can provoke the deepest questions, motivate people to action, or soothe a wounded soul. Art can also stand outside of society and hold an objective mirror up to our behaviors and preoccupations. It is absolutely necessary for societies to foster and nurture art. Without it, we are just automatons.

And yet….

We live in an era of terrible human problems. Hunger, war, and environmental destruction are tied to the vast disparities of wealth being generated by our global economy. These disparities give the richest of the rich the ability to spend mind-boggling sums of money on a canvas covered with paint.

When presented that way, a canvas with paint on it – even if it is a Rothko or a Pollock – suddenly seems pathetically meaningless. Especially when that $40-75 million could be used to do any of the following:

  • Start a foundation… to build free clinics… offer counseling and services to veterans… or, buy up land to conserve a virgin forest.
  • Start a scholarship fund for students with financial needs.
  • Start a grant that would actually help living artists working today.
  • Give it all to the Red Cross so they have it ready for the next natural disaster.
  • CREATE JOBS!!! How many struggling, unemployed people could be hired for the sum of a Rothko? Huh, job creators? Hello?

Just as I am a puny, powerless artist in the world, my voice is probably pretty puny on this subject, too. Still, it does seem like we could be headed for a sea-change when it comes to the priorities of art. I hope so, anyway.

One thought on “The Meaninglessness of Art

  1. I am so glad to heave read this wonderfully thought-provoking post! I have had such similar thoughts (including the pipe dream of being part of the elite crew of wildly famous artists!), but you so coherently described the less attractive and excessive side of that business. Thank you!

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