true value (Part Two)
the supreme icon
early-20th-century philosopher Irwin Edman gives a remarkably
simple bit of insight into what art offers us in everyday life:
"Painters speak of dead spots in a painting:
areas where the color is wan or uninteresting, or the forms irrelevant
and cold. Life is full of dead spots. Art gives it life. A comprehensive
art would render the whole of life alive."
The history of art includes the history of icons
in every imaginable variation. It's a history that goes back as
far as the cave drawings at Lascaux.
Examples of iconic images range from Christ and
the Virgin Mary to Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Cans.
Icons help connect us with not only religion, but
also with culture, nature, human events and the inner self. Icons
form a language of symbols we use to connect with and find meaning
in our lives. The greater the meaning a symbol or image can convey
the greater the value we place on that image or icon.
It's easy to understand how iconic imagery becomes
an artistic commodity in the commercial side of art. The term
"value" takes an entirely different meaning when we
talk of the business of art. In this context the dollar is the
supreme icon. Imagery becomes a means to a profit rather than
a symbolic dialogue on the meaning of things.
PBS recently aired a 90-minute biography of Frida
Kahlo. After detailing her life, her art and the intensity of
the imagery in her paintings, the credits rolled over a video
of an auction for one of her simple self-portraits. The bidding
closed at $1.2 million. That's a strong statement, but I wonder
about the message it sends to the average person who will never
see that kind of money and doesn't have much knowledge of art.
from the author's neighborhood: "Evening At Bagdad,"
by Kay Buckner. [photo courtesy of Leninger Fine Art Conservation.]
Why are people so eager to lay down such a huge
sum for a single painting?
The desire for ownership of famous works by famous
artists is the common way of rationalizing such purchases. We
covet cultural icons familiar to us and to society at large.
On a deeper level it's about the desire to own anything
that is the product of genius. Owning the work of a genius offers
a material connection with the artist, maybe even a window into
the mind of the artist.
For the artist and the collector the artistic process
is about making a commitment to an idea and an ideal as a means
of defining personal identity. The artist creates and the collector
adopts as both follow a path of self-discovery. With the discovery
of a unique identity comes the creation of a bridge between the
self and the rest of the world.
When, as an aspiring musician, I adopted Picasso's
"The Old Guitarist" as a personal symbol, I had unconsciously
started down a path that lead me to a greater understanding of
who I was at a particular time. That enhanced consciousness helped
me let go of one phase of my life and move on to another. The
end result was personal growth.
We are faced with the duality of the commerce of
esthetics. The art business is the production, marketing and sales
of artistic windows into the mind, heart and spirit.
Long ago I had the fantasy of buying a painting
at a modest price only to find out years later that the dollar
value of the piece had multiplied beyond reason. I'm ashamed to
admit this was part of what lured me to buying my first piece.
Now that I've lived with numerous works of art for
20 years, the idea of selling any of my treasured icons seems
crazy. They're like family to me. They've become a significant
part of who I am, how I view the world and in what I believe.
Each piece of art I discovered and purchased became
a building block in the growth and nurturing of my own unique
The culture we live in today has evolved into an
Orwellian nightmare of commercial and political homogenization.
Fox Broadcasting has transformed news into propaganda and polluted
the entire mainstream news distribution process. Madison Avenue
bombards us with manipulative advertising with the sole purpose
of brainwashing us into buying any and all junk they throw our
way. We look out on the world through our media, our institutions
and the places we work to find powerful forces bent on stifling
the search for individual identity.
Consider that the selection and purchase of art
for placement in our homes and work spaces is one of the few venues
we have for exploring the unique aspects of our personalities.
Our society has lost touch with this spiritual treasure that owning
art offers. We have traded it for an obsession with the dollar
value we place on any and all artifacts we choose to own.
Even before I started collecting, I wondered how
the value of art was determined. I wondered why some art became
priceless and some was ignored or even reviled. It still puzzles
me how some people feel so strongly about art that they become
obsessed over it, while others seem indifferent.
Both the production and appreciation of art involves
the search for unique, personal identity and a connection with
the infinite. During this process art serves as the perfect vehicle
for intensifying individual experience. Art offers an endless
array of symbols that foster an understanding of life and the
inner self. It injects life into mundane experience. Art gives
us stable, idealized images of all that is fragile and transitory,
all that is timeless and permanent.
of beauty justifies itself and has its own unique value: "Untitled
Male Nude," by Linda Dies, from the collection of Todd
Leninger. [photo courtesy of Todd Leninger Fine Arts Conservation]
The process of ascribing value to art has always
been disjointed and messy. The subjective nature inherent in buying
and selling art creates this mess. Art dealers, museum curators
and art critics exploit this mess as a means to justify the monetary
value they ascribe to the art and artists they happen to like.
All too often selling art is a convoluted process in the most
stylish wrapping. This is especially true in the blue-chip galleries.
The production of art brings into the world an endless
variety of unique objects of beauty, pleasure and meaning. It
also brings us images and ideas that disturb us and cause great
Sometimes we covet and ascribe great value to art.
Other times we chastise particular works of art as decadent and
worthless. The judgments we make reflect the values and virtues
we want to see in ourselves as well as the sins and transgressions
within ourselves that we fear facing.
The time has come to tear away the fixation our
culture has on the art business and rediscover the true value
one of Duane's essay in last month's edition