Rags, Riches, and the Contemporary Art Trade

Why is it that when one sees articles like this, describing how the halls and salons of The Louvre are being filled with contemporary art, that the sensation is one of anger arising from a deep sense of injustice? We all know instinctively that much of the headline-making contemporary art we see is garbage, and sometimes quite literally so as shown in the photograph which accompanies this post.  Unfortunately, few people have the courage to actually stand up and say so, and there are several possible reasons as to why.

One reason might be that many in contemporary Western society are brought up to believe that anyone can make good art, which is simply not true.  It is one thing to encourage little Tracy to make a nice picture for Aunt Hilda with her fingerpaints. It is another to convince adult Tracy that she is a great artist, and can in fact teach other people how to be artists, when she cannot even draw properly.

I cannot speak to the European experience, but the rather poor state of art education in this country is something I suspect most of my American readers know first-hand.  One learns very little beyond a smattering of Attic sculpture, the Italian Renaissance, a bit of Dutch genre painting, and the French Impressionists,  followed by an over-concentration on Modern Art.  Then one spends the rest of the course making bad pots, or poor sketches of one of the girls in the class seated on a wobbly stool.  In fact, far more time is spent in the American education system teaching students how to boil an egg, parallel park, or avoid getting Suzy pregnant, than is on educating them about the great artistic legacies of Western civilization.

Increasingly it is the persona of the artist, feigned or otherwise, and not the art itself, which is valued and praised.  The art becomes secondary to the story, i.e. the mythos created around the artist: this one is a political dissident, or that one is a public drunk, or that one sleeps with anything he can get his hands on, and aren’t they fascinating people?  In the end, seeing someone put thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds in a room may be amusing, but no one dares to ask whether it is actually good art. [N.B.: It isn’t.]  

The contemporary art world does not genuinely want to ask itself this question, nor does it want you to question their judgment on this point, because in reality much of that segment of the art market is nefarious, at best.  When you read about someone paying astronomical prices for what looks like – and in fact, is – a pile of poo with a title placard, the story is not really the art.  Rather, it is about the amount of money changing hands, based on how well the art dealers and press have managed to create a marketable brand value for the artist whose work is being sold.

What most people do not realize is that the majority of this art which makes you scratch your head or roll your eyes is not actually being brought home for people to display.  Instead, it is going into places like bank vaults or gigantic tax-free storage facilities, where it is kept as an investment  readily convertible to cash by financiers, spendthrift entertainers, and arms/narcotics merchants.  This story which broke yesterday, about private AND institutional collectors pulling out of Christie’s art storage warehouses in Brooklyn, should give you some idea of the vast amount of art created and sold over the past 30-40 years which is sitting crated up somewhere, unseen.

If it were all released onto the market at once, the value of such art would collapse, since frankly no one would actually want it.  There is already so much of it available that it has lost that one quality which collecting objects like Old Master paintings or fine porcelain has always had, which is scarcity.  We all know from economics that once the market becomes aware that something is not actually rare or difficult to obtain, it begins to lose value, and sometimes precipitously.  The contemporary art market keeps pushing along, making new art stars out of delusional half-wits to keep the flow of goods coming, but looking less like an intelligentsia and more like the purveyors of tulip bulbs.

As someone who has collected in some very niche areas of art for the last couple of decades, I regularly encourage my readers to go out and collect what you love.  Owning art is not only an ongoing means of self-education, it is simply a joy.  I would based on the forgoing advise you to avoid the temptation of buying art which requires you to install a dedicated video monitor, or put down a layer of plastic on the living room floor, in order for you to be able to display it.

Instead, look for those contemporary artists who know how to do things like actually paint – like this guy – and have made a career of careful and attentive craftmanship.  These people develop their natural talents into something striking and accomplished, whatever style they happen to work in, because they know that great art takes time and patience to create.  These artists are the men and women who inspire and encourage us to feel that link of continuity with the history of our culture, and not that we are simply cattle to be manipulated by the contemporary art world for the purposes of commerce.  And when the contemporary art market finally does burst, these will be the artists left standing.


“The Venus of Rags” by Michelangelo Pistoletto (2013)
from an temporary installation at The Louvre, Paris

A Quiet Place: The Landscapes of Sir John “Kyffin” Williams

So much of modern and contemporary art is rather loud, poorly executed, and ultimately forgettable, that is always a joy to discover the work of painters who bring a quiet, workmanlike dignity to their art.  Such is the case of the late Sir John “Kyffin” Williams (1918-2006), who not only had a long, fruitful working career which led to his becoming one of the most celebrated Welsh artists of the 20th century.  Most of all, I find his work appealing because he managed to convey a sense of peaceful isolation in his pictures.

Williams is one of those great “but for” cases in the history of art, since interestingly enough, he only took up painting in his twenties.  He began his career in the British Army in the late 1930’s, but in the lead-up to World War II he failed a fitness exam due to his epilepsy.  On the advice of his physicians, he took up the study of painting as a therapeutic measure, and managed to gain entry to the prestigious Slade School in London.  From there, his career as an artist was to span over sixty years.

The viewer is immediately struck by the relation of Williams’ work to that of another artist who enjoyed the use of the palette knife in the creation of landscape,  Paul Cézanne.  Yet whereas the French 19th century artist’s work is often a collection of golden sunbeams dancing across honey-colored stone, lavender fields, and green-black cypresses, Williams tonalities are those of his native Wales: cool, often gray, and bathed in that diffuse and cloudy atmosphere which pervades much of the British Isles.  It is the kind of environment which conjures up images of knights, dragons, and adventure.   One can imagine Tolkien, for example – no mean watercolorist himself – looking at Williams’ paintings and imagining some of the misty landscapes of Middle Earth.

As a figure painter Williams was admittedly a bit more flat in his line, and I must confess that I prefer his landscapes to his portraits.  I also prefer those views where there are no people to be seen hiking along a ridge or strolling down a path.  He also worked in print-making, as it happens, which certainly shows in the way that he treats the human figure.  He typically reduces it to a series of forms much in the way that a stained-glass artist does.

However for me their inclusion in his landscape paintings often serves as a distraction rather than a completion.  One cannot imagine Turner’s justly famous view of “Mortlake Terrace” at the National Gallery here in Washington without the little cut-out dog standing on the parapet, but in the case of William’s paintings I often feel that they would be improved by the removal of the figures.  The blocky nature of the palette knife as an instrument of creation often rather lends itself to the geometry of houses, rocks, and trees, better than to the portrayal of people.

What’s more, it is perhaps a sad commentary on contemporary collecting that his pictures can be picked up for a comparative song.  While untalented British hucksters like Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers rake in millions for their enfeebled mental detritus,  Williams’ lovely “Welsh Landscape with Rocks, Cottages, and Hillsides” was recently sold at Bonham’s for less than $50,000.  Note that this result was double the pre-sale estimate, delighting seller and auction house alike, yet how very sad it is that someone who could actually paint – as opposed to simply fooling the nouveau-riche into pretending that they are hip and have good taste – commands such startlingly low sums for his work.

Be that as it may, one can enjoy the work of Williams in this gallery of dozens of images of his paintings provided by the BBC.  One of my favorites appears below, showing the mountains in the Welsh region of Snowdonia, the blocky forms made by the palette knife reinforcing the idea of hard, moss-covered stone and slippery sheets of ice.  Given his prolific brush, or knife, those of my readers in the UK would do well to keep their eyes open at the next estate sale or local auction, since you never know when some undiscovered gem by this woefully under-appreciated artist might come your way.

(c) DACS and Sir Kyffin Williams; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Snowdon Range” by Sir John “Kyffin” Williams (c. 1990-2006)
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

One Is Never Enough


[N.B. This piece was also selected by WordPress as the Editors’ Pick for one of the top 10 posts of the month.]

As if you could not guess, gentle reader, I am something of a bibliophile.  By this I do not mean that I collect beautiful, leather-bound volumes of first editions, nice as those are.  I mean that I love and collect books in many different subject areas, fiction and non-fiction, all of which I actually read AND display.  I am the sort of person who winces when he reads of decorators purchasing bulk lots of books by the yard from secondhand bookshops, graded by size, to fill up the shelves of someone whose taste in literature is generally limited to the airport newsstand variety of novel.  And more often than not my books have come to me via someone else’s previous collection.

On the British sitcom “Black Books”, bookshop owner Bernard Black is generally in an impenetrably foul mood.  He hates his customers interrupting his reading, smoking, and drinking, usually getting rid of these interlopers as quickly as possible.  And he has only two friends to speak of: his long-suffering shop assistant and flatmate Manny Bianco, and their mutual friend and fellow alcoholic/chainsmoker, Fran Katzenjammer.  If you have never seen the series, it is a wonderful mix of black comedy, misanthropy, and surrealism.  It is also about the love of books.

It is easy to understand why Bernard gets so fed up with the people who paradoxically both allow him to continue to have books to read, while at the same time they stop him from reading so he can serve them.  Many people in secondhand bookshops are more interested in browsing than buying, and if they do buy they rarely pick up anything more than one book at a time.  The amount of effort required for the shop owner to realize a sale is so much greater than the actual reward, that Bernard does not really care.  In one episode for example, when Manny has successfully managed to shift a large quantity of the stock through good salesmanship, Bernard becomes despondent since he will now have to contact a book supplier to send more books, something which he hates doing and, thanks to his customer handling technique, he almost never has to do.

I know of a bookshop in Barcelona with a proprietor not unlike Bernard in his way, where a few years ago I managed to purchase a book by my great-great-grandfather.  It is probably my most valued book in a rather extensive library (a collection still split between my current residence and my childhood home), since my ancestor inscribed it and gave it as a gift to a friend of his.  The following year I returned to see whether they had any more of his books, but instead of dealing with a pleasant and helpful young shop assistant as I had the previous visit, this time the old man himself quite literally shooed me out of the shop and refused to see whether he had anything: he was too busy smoking his pipe and talking with another elderly fellow.  Needless to say I have never returned there, as tantalizing as their stock is.

Another secondhand bookshop I know here in Washington is somewhat different in its view of its stock, for if you purchase four books you may take a fifth, free – lowest value, of course.  As it is run by a non-profit with a fairly high rate of book turnover, it does a reasonably brisk trade, and there are always new finds being placed on the shelves by the elderly ladies that work there.  I am particularly fond of tracking down rather technical history and architectural/artistic theory books, or English translations of lesser-kn0wn works by Balzac, and often have success at this shop.  Yet here again, one of the women behind the desk strikes me as a bit suspicious of her patrons, and a bit slow to serve, more interested in what she is reading than in serving.

Perhaps this has to do with the sort of person who would be attracted to working in a bookshop in the first place, or more particularly to working in a used bookshop.  People who love books often are only understood by other people who love books.  One can imagine that the scriptorium of a medieval monastery must have been somewhat similar to a secondhand bookshop in this respect, with some of the monks lingering lovingly over the words they were copying, or the librarian himself keeping choice books back for his own, private enjoyment.  In fact, one of the reasons Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” was such an engagingly-written tale was that it tried to capture that love – albeit an obsessive, unhealthy love – of the accumulation of more and more books, which has not really changed over the centuries.

At the moment back at the manse I have a stack of books which I have not yet read, and which I know I need to tackle, and I will definitely take the sensible option of getting through all of them before I even think of accumulating any more.  Yet even as I do so I cannot help but think about what books I want to read which are missing from my collection, or what wonderful discoveries of books or authors I have never heard of might be waiting for me at a secondhand book shop, charity shop, yard sale, or the like.  Unlike most addictions, the love of good books does not make one less, but rather more, of who you already are – provided, of course, that you try your best to be polite.

Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) tries selling an unusual volume on “Black Books”