A small rant about money

Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele (c.1490–c.1546) The moneychanger and his wife (1539), Museo del Prado, Madrid

Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele (c.1490–c.1546)
The moneychanger and his wife (1539), Museo del Prado, Madrid

I want to talk about money. Except I don’t. Unless I am in a bank, and you are a banker, I can’t see much point in discussing money, whether it be how to get some, why I don’t have more, etc. The only money I ever show interest in is Imperial Roman coins, and that’s because I had 3 years of Latin and can read their inscriptions. People who are fascinated by money usually care more about it than they care about other people, which is a sure road to greedy bastard status. Perhaps they secretly wish they were money, and thus would be desired with the same intensity with which they desire money. It all gets a bit pathetic.

Yes, I know I am writing and not talking. I don’t care.

Worse than talking about money in general is talking about art and money. Sadly, this appears all to regularly in newspapers and magazines. Writing about the art market is not writing about art, it’s about economics or commerce. Auction results give a clear view of how the market is doing, but says next to nothing about the art itself. Billionaires buying up art can easily outspend museums, even if there is the hope that, somewhere down the road, they will donate the work – or, a less desirable option, start their own museum. Vanitas, vanitatum, etc.

It is especially annoying when a respected critic such as Peter Schjeldahl, of The New Yorker, reports on the art market, even when that report is presented as “Cultural Comment,” with an eye every bit as jaundiced as mine. Schjeldahl would prefer not to pay attention to the commercial side, and I wish he would stick to that. The line between art and commerce has always been indefinable, so some reportage and commentary is inevitable. Just don’t seek it out.

Schjeldahl cites an article on artnet.com by J. J. Charlesworth, “Why the Art Market Is a Bubble That’s Not Going to Burst,” which sounds rather too much like what people were saying leading up to 1929. The same speculative certainty is there. It is in the nature of bubbles to burst, and to assume otherwise is optimistic and/or naive.
There are some good economic developments regarding artists. For the last two years Rhode Island has exempted works of art from sales tax; Louisiana has culture zones free wherein art may be sold tax-free. This is a boon to smaller artists, who have to deal with enough tax paperwork already (though there is paperwork connected to the tax exemption), yet has little meaning to the big players. If you can afford a Warhol, you can afford the tax on one.

There are always bad assumptions about art: a piece that commands a lot of money must be good. A famous artist’s work will only increase in value – consider the buying frenzy of the 1980s, Artists such as Robert Longo or David Salle have seen their value decline although they still command high prices. If you see a work of art only for what it costs, you’re not really seeing anything at all.

I tell you, I’m tired. We’re faced with a Presidential campaign that has over a year to drag out, and what will they discuss? Money. Sooner or later every issue is dragged back to money. If we could save the world overnight, someone would get up and argue that it’s too costly. Arts funding might get a mention, though it’s as likely to be an attempt to hot-button some old facet of the culture wars of past decades. So here I am, talking about money, because when I’m feeling this cynical, I shouldn’t talk about art.


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