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  • Rainey Knudson

Art Has Left the Building (397 words)

We live in a world where they applaud the price but not the Picasso.

Fran Lebowitz, "Pretend It's a City"

To understand what's wrong with the art world (if it isn't already obvious), just imagine a financial speculator trying to flip a song or a poem.

The tulip mania in the art world is not destroying art—as if such a thing were possible—but it has destroyed our understanding of historical art objects as art. Whatever substance they once had has long since been reprinted as a scarf.

Now these Picassos, and everything else rocked in the bosoms of the big galleries and auction houses, have become "art" in quotation marks. (At the risk of hurting the feelings of successful contemporary artists—or should I say "artists"—this includes a lot of contemporary work as well.) These spendy doo-dads don't serve the true purpose of art any more than a Boardwalk or Park Place card from a Monopoly set. Their content is merely a question of how much colorful play money is attached to their name, and whether they look good behind the Italian couch.

Unfortunately for artists, most art has to be overlooked right now to resonate. Fame kills it. One of the great pleasures of the pandemic is poking around the online collections of museums. It feels quiet and intimate, stripped even of the performative aspect of looking at art in a gallery. Just you and the art on the screen—and, somehow, the artist behind it, bless them.

Meanwhile art has left the building, but the art world is still partying in the graveyard of what art used to be, propping up all the sagging art carcasses with stacks of cash. Of course, this too shall pass: we've probably already started the inevitable transition from totems of a decaying aristocracy to an American Soviet social realism every bit as earnest and disturbing and bad as the original. Round and round we go.

Perhaps that's all the struggle has ever been: to cut through the noise and find the art that sings with no logo affixed, no hamfisted agenda. It's out there, but the search for it may feel as quixotic and lonely as the making of it likely does. But when you find it: how dear and precious the connection! It's one of the things that makes life worth living.


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