Art vs. the Art Business

Here’s a fascinating NYT article about a brilliant photographer who worked alone for forty years before showing anyone his work. Now he has shown other people his work and it is receiving the attention that it deserves. That’s great. Mr. Stochl (the photographer) as well as the photography teachers, curators and gallery owners who are promoting him deserve credit.

But I was struck by this quote in the NYT article from a museum director whose views are consistent with a way of seeing art that I don’t find appealing:

Yet other observers have not been so quick to praise Mr. Stochl. “Keep in mind we wish him well,” said Rod Slemmons, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. “But if he’s just as good as Robert Frank, or someone like that, we’d rather spend our money on Robert Frank.”

He added: “If somebody came to the Art Institute with a bunch of paintings that looked just like – or were just as good as – the Franz Kline paintings of the 1950’s, in the heyday of his work, do you think the Art Institute would buy them or show them? What would be the point?”

Not that Mr. Slemmons dislikes the work of a previously unknown artist, it’s just that he prefers to invest in blue chips rather than take a flyer on a risky biotech stock. This is not an unreasonable attitude for someone whose job is to buy product with an institution’s money, but it seems at odds with the appreciation of art for its own sake. It brings up the old question about whether a high-quality reproduction of a great art work is as good as the original. I think it is, aesthetically speaking, and that’s all I care about. But from the standpoint of business the original has more value, and maybe there will always be tension between aesthetic and business values here. And of course consumers buy art for all sorts of reasons. This is all just as well, because you need the business people to promote the art and the buyers to maintain a market in it. But it’s also wise to know what matters to you before you accept someone else’s evaluation of a particular work.


1 thought on “Art vs. the Art Business”

  1. That is indeed an odd comment by Mr. Slemmons. Fortunately for the world, people felt differently about Emily Dickinson. Her work was not discovered until after her death; 1,775 poems found in a drawer by her sister, while others were discovered in old letters she had written to her friends.

    Mr Slemmons would have asked “What would be the point?”

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