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The Art Biz: Desire, Culture, Receipts

Calculating the value of aesthetic transactions.

April 19, 2004|Thomas Crow | Thomas Crow is the director of the Getty Research Institute, where "The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market," is on exhibit through June 13.

The "business of art" has an all-too-obvious meaning. When a work of art makes the news, for example, most often it has just achieved some extraordinary price at auction. When a private collection goes on the block and makes a record sum, auctioneers beam like stock traders greeting a new milestone in the Dow. Such headlines, and the dazzling figures involved, reinforce an equation -- not to say a confusion -- between art and money.

But the "business of art" also signifies something more subtle and important: Art has its business in the world, in how a society functions and sees itself. As works of circulate from creator to patron, from dealer to collector, from private interior to public gallery, the transactions can be as much about sheltering the emotional, cultural and intellectual value of art as they are about money, even as prices climb and currency changes hands.

This aspect of art and business lies below the gaudy spectacle of auction sales, but it can be traced and brought to life through letters, receipts, inventories, photographs and even swatches of the fabric used to provide a prized acquisition with exactly the right backdrop.

Consider a letter written to a collector in 1628 by the Italian painter Guido Reni, one of the leading artistic figures of the day. Unlike his lesser competitors, Reni told his prospective client, he would not mechanically fix a painting's price based on the number and size of the figures in the work. Instead, the matter of compensation would be left to the purchaser's discretion, thus making the transaction more a reciprocal exchange of gifts and gestures of esteem between peers. In the end, Reni did the better because of it.

Documents like this one offer crucial evidence concerning the changing status of painting from a craft to something like a cultured profession. They also highlight the increasing cultivation of artistic expertise by the wealthy and well born.

Over time, in place of the intimacy that existed between Reni and his patron, the successful pursuit of such expertise most often depended upon the mediation of a dealer, especially one like Joseph Duveen in the early decades of the 20th century. The papers of this larger-than-life character provide a portrait of Gilded Age manners worthy of Edith Wharton.

Duveen, with galleries in London, New York and Paris, was not above bribing servants to identify treasures in old European collections that might fit the requirements of such eager New World customers as Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon and Henry Huntington. To maintain both a competitive edge and absolute discretion, the Duveen gallery's internal communications passed through an elaborate code that translated the names of collectors (and artists and rival dealers) into a private lexicon (William Randolph Hearst, lavishing his fortune on his San Simeon estate, was "Hasty"). Such a fetish for privacy vividly contrasts with the popular public settings in which their collections can be viewed today.

Deep artistic affinities could overlap with buying and selling. Paul Gauguin, while still a well-off stockbroker, wrote on his firm's letterhead to his teacher, the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, to announce his success in persuading a financial colleague to invest in the older man's work. The most austere and high-minded advocate of Modernist abstraction, U.S. critic Clement Greenberg, slipped into a pragmatic commercial mind-set in a letter preserved from 1963: Writing to a London dealer showing one of his favorite artists, he recommended a certain kind of gilded shadowbox frame for the paintings, which "helps dress them up in an appropriate way -- makes them look more precious [valuable] and crisp to untutored eyes by isolating them from the wall in their traditional quality as pictures."

Looking at a painting and seeing only its price is like going to a film and seeing only its opening gross receipts -- both responses now all too common and equally injurious to fresh experience and critical judgment. Still, a work of art necessarily comes to be seen and understood through its network of exchanges. Isolated on the museum wall, a painting loses that trailing history for most viewers. Yet many of our most trusted assumptions about its aesthetic value were hammered out in the passage that carried it from owner to owner and location to location.

All the parties in every transaction over a painting's lifetime translated their needs and desires into a synthesis of value, one retained in cultural memory and in turn brought to bear on the next exchange. Evidence from the art market can help bring to light for a wider audience some of the deep history underlying any work of art, and that includes the unfolding of everyone's capacity to respond.

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