Let’s talk about art. There’s a bit of mysticism that surrounds it. We’re scared that we won’t understand it.
“Art is pretentious,” is a phrase we hear very often. Half of you have probably said it before. The art industry does a very good job of making everyone not directly involved with the art industry feel excluded.
Let’s define the word pretentious.
attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
The artist is pretentious
If we’re saying the artist is pretentious, then of course; artists do attempt to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. That’s actually a leap you have to make to create anything.
We all hope that we can evolve from not knowing how to do something to know how to do it; then eventually doing it well enough that you might want to share it with other people. But in order to do so, you have to gather up a crazy amount of confidence.
The creative process is mostly filled with insecurity and frustration, and only small moments of pleasure or where you think you’ve made something decent. Top that off with the night sweats as you lay in bed and think about whether you’re a fraud no matter how many people say they like it. You really don’t know if someone is going to like something you’ve created until you put it out there, and even then it’s hard to know their true opinions.
At the end of the day, fuck it. You as an artist made the step to create something. Of course you’re trying to impress people with it. What’s so bad about that?
The art itself is pretentious.
If it’s artwork itself being referred to as pretentious, then I wholeheartedly agree. Art is made out of a bunch of random things: objects, materials, sounds, movements. More often than not, they are inexpensive and don’t hold any inherent value outside of the cost of the materials. Artists take these materials and turn it into something else by giving it a meaning and value that doesn’t live with the materials alone (refer to the definition of pretentious above). These clumps of materials are trying to impress you, regardless of the fact that they are made of dirt and rocks and their derivatives.
There’s more bad news:
The only difference between expensive and inexpensive art is name and reputation.
You’ve probably been at a museum or gallery and thought to yourself, “I could’ve done that.” Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve. A truer statement would be, “even if I did that myself, it still wouldn’t be worth thousands of dollars.”
Because these clumps of materials are trying to impress you, the price of art is heavily determined (maybe even entirely) by perception.
I tried making the scaling of these to be representative of how they compare to each other in real life.
The Riley painting is substantially larger than the Stone painting and size is a big factor in the sale of art but not to this amount.
Audrey Stone is younger than Bridget Riley and she’s had a couple solo exhibitions but hasn’t gotten the recognition Riley has just yet. There are probably a few factors why the Riley painting sold for way more than the Stone. Bridget Riley has been creating abstract work like this since the 60s and one of the most recognizable names in the Op Art movement. For the past 50 years, Riley uses lines, shapes, and colors to convey movement.
Here’s a bit of a dark side to it all. Riley has a track record of auction results. That track record proves to auctioneers that there’s some sort of rational to what they’re spending on her art and that the piece will retain its value, if not increase.
You might think that Stone’s painting is better but that has no effect on the monetary value of the work. There’s simply just more demand for Riley’s work, so it’ll fetch higher prices. The work carries a little bit of history. What’s more expensive? A pair of 14k gold sunglasses or a pair of Elvis’s 14k gold sunglasses.
You might be able to say that one painting is objectively better than the other but there is no real ground to that in the art market. There are other things like taste, trends, and hype that figure into an artworks value, even systemic racism and sexism.
The art market is a scam perpetuated by the rich to launder money.
It’s sometimes true. There’s a good episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” that actually talks about how the art market is a huge price-fixing scheme that benefits the collectors and excludes most artist that you should watch. (“Adam Ruins Art” Season 2, Episode 5)
The art market is not synonymous with art itself. There’s a lot of excellent contemporary art that completely avoids the art market and critiques the way the art market influences the value of art.
There’s much more to the experience of art than that ugly aspect of the market. It’s easy to let the art market dominate your experience of art, especially in a major city. You may hear about art reaching record-breaking prices, but there’s a whole world of art that avoids the dark side within the art market. No one’s getting rich out there, but on the bright side, no one is getting rich out there.
People are open-minded about art.
When you’re talking about art, you’re presenting a case for why anyone should pay attention to a particular artist or kind of art. Sometimes you’ll convince someone and other times you won’t, but at least there’s a dialog.
Haters are gonna’ hate. To me, it’s actually a little reassuring when I hear people say “I hate x kind of art with a passion,” at least the person cares enough to have an opinion. When I hear hate or anger, I see a person who has a firm idea about what art is, or at least what they think it should be. That opens up a space to talk about art and consider where our views on it overlap and through that hopefully we give art the time, attention, and consideration that these pretentious clumps of materials deserve.