The Bad Taste of the Bourgeoisie

Forgive my beginning this piece with what some may consider a dig, gentle reader, but a review in this morning’s online edition of the Torygraph made me think about what horrible things people have hanging on their walls. The television film being reviewed considers why some works of art fetch astronomical prices, and questions the motivations among a class of new elites for paying such prices. However what also needs to be questioned is whether these collectors are really all that different from the middle classes, when it comes to wasting resources on objects which are meaningless to their owners.

The Daily Telegraph’s James Walton discusses a film , “The World’s Most Expensive Paintings” that aired over the weekend in the U.K.: a sort of countdown of the ten most expensive paintings sold in recent years.  Walton describes how the presenter, Alastair Sooke, takes the viewer down a different road from the usual fawning over the lives of the very wealthy which audiences perennially enjoy. Sooke believes that the people paying extraordinarily high prices for art are doing so out of a sense of exclusivity and a celebration of wealth, rather than out of an appreciation for the art they have purchased.  Walton concludes his review by asking a hypothetical, “is this really a new state of affairs, or does it represent a return to a centuries-old aristocratic tradition?”

In many cases, the goal of the private art collector buying at the high end of things is to be considered a man of sophistication and wealth by his peers. The social class of the high-end players in the art market may have changed, from lords and ladies to financiers and entertainment moguls, but the game has basically remained the same. No doubt many well-to-do collectors appreciate the art they are spending fortunes to acquire, but many others simply want to be well-thought-of by their peers, and so buy what everyone else is buying, or what an art advisor tells them to buy, without really thinking about what they are doing.

Now let us look a bit further down the tax table.  There are few things I loathe more than the meaningless, reproduction “decorator art” by unknown artists that one can pick up in bulk, pre-framed, in almost any shop carrying housewares. Such things are often featured on do-it-yourself television programs, where the interior decorator does a before and after on a room. I inevitably cringe as they gesture to the “art” (untitled and by an unnamed artist, natch.,) purchased specifically to match the drapes or the upholstery.  This is generally where the middle class collector, regrettably, purchases the art that decorates his home.

Unlike the man of infinite wealth, the bourgeois is not trying to join an elite club with a high price of admission when he purchases a piece of art.  However, if he fails to hang something over the sofa, his friends and neighbors would make comments about his walls being bare. This would somehow reflect badly on his taste, or his ability to afford something to hang over the sofa in the first place. Thus, the price points between the economic classes may differ, but the motivations really do not.

It is particularly irritating to see that this attitude toward art is so ingrained among the bourgeoisie in this country, who are usually more possessed of common sense than the newly rich.  For the same price or less than what one paid at an establishment when one picked up new sheets and vacuum cleaner filter screens along with one’s art, one could purchase an actual, original work of art from an artist, a market, an online auction, and so on.  It is not so difficult a task as people seem to think, so long as they collect what they like, and not what is being flogged to them as being hip or trendy, a kind of “must have” for those who have no idea what they are doing.

A goal of mine in these pages, gentle reader, is to try to convince people not to be afraid of art as something being solely the realm of intellectuals or the extremely well-off. Some of the rich may waste their enormous resources in buying paintings which they do not care about in order to fit in with their peers, but there are plenty of average, everyday people who, in their way, do exactly the same thing. Both groups need to make more an effort to educate themselves, and to collect better.

Visitors to an art exhibition, 1950’s


3 thoughts on “The Bad Taste of the Bourgeoisie

  1. There was this huge piece in our paper about this couple on Ocean Drive (millionaire boulevard) anyway, they had art on thier front lawn that I pass by on occasion that were these weird big red boxes. Anyway, your piece reminded me of it because the article spent more time telling us about the $$$ they spend on art “all over the world” instead of the history and story behind it. Interesting. 🙂


    • Thanks for reading! I can almost guarantee you that these people had no idea what the art was supposed to be either, nor had any real skill gone into the creating of it. They were told they ought to buy it, and they did.


  2. Amen! Even in the olden days, the wealthy commissioned paintings that had purpose. They would have portraits to record the family, maybe a setting or scene of someone in the clan doing something grand in history if they had such. They furnished the churches with altarpieces and sculpture to educate the illiterate, or have something as their contribution to public space and actually say something, even if it’s “I’m King and don’t forget it.”

    I already told you about my cousin, who panned the corporation’s art choices, which were as bad as you describe the people in the article above. In 1993, Arthur Andersen in Chicago got a number of pieces for their third floor right before I left, and they became the butt of everyone’s giggling. Each 16×20 piece was a three panel canvas, with the panels tied together with twine. One had a red circle, drawn and filled in with colored pencil. One had a green square. One had an orange triangle. And so on.

    Most purchases ARE like the Dick van Dyke show where his wife bought some “thing” at auction, and no one could ever figure what it was:

    But as far as reproductions, if I can’t afford an original but still want the piece, I’ll go for a print. Over my couch hangs “Fans shed light on the Game” by Scott Mutter ( We Cubs fans who remember Wrigley Field before 8/8/88 thought that was the only way we’d ever get night games. By the dining room hangs a print of the Flatiron Building in a blizzard by Henri Silberman. The scene is desolate and the building dark, except for one lit room in the wedge near the top. The fun is in tying the viewer in with the scene. “See that one light on? That guy is really working his real estate business. Now if you went to work tomorrow with his dedication, you could buy a new car.” My cousin has a repro painting of Picasso’s Guernica, and had a narrative for that. I know you were more criticizing generic repros.

    With the internet, there’s no excuse for bad art acquisition anymore. You can get stuff that speaks to you out in Hayseed Dixeed, delivered to your moonshine shack in the holler.


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