This week, The Stranger‘s art critic, Jen Graves, wrote a blog post titled, “Should We List Prices With Art Reviews?” When I first saw the headline, I had a knee-jerk reaction to the effect of, “No!!”
Of course, I’m sure that’s what Graves was anticipating. (Good job in the headline department.) When you click through, her post links back to a piece she wrote for this season’s Seattle Art & Performance Quarterly (A&P), which she begins by citing the art-criticism golden rule: “Thou shalt not talk about art in terms of money.” From there she goes on to wonder:
But would it be a bad thing for art and artists if the line between looking and possessing were less stark? What about for audiences? As art critics, do we implicitly support a system built on inequity when we leave out information that would point to the fact that most people can only afford to vicariously experience what certain people can take home and live with? Or is even entertaining that thought inviting more trouble than it’s worth?
The piece is very short, and that paragraph is the crux of it. She doesn’t go on to make a strong case for her proposition; she merely concludes by saying that in the current issue of the the A&P, they’ve listed the prices of the art they cover, “just as an experiment, to see how we feel about it.” (And then there’s a poll — you can see the results from when I voted below.)
All of this got me thinking: how do I feel about it (beyond that initial, extreme reaction)? Graves raises a lot of good questions, ones I’m not entirely sure how to answer. On the one hand, I don’t really see the point of including prices in an art review. The art world is filled with money, and it’s gross. It’s not like we need to mention it even more. At the end of the day, for most people, what matters is whether they can afford to go see art, not buy it. So most publications list museum admission prices, which, as Graves points out, theater and music writers do as well. Even though art is often comprised of physical objects that can be bought, sold, and owned, for the majority of art lovers, it is ultimately a fleeting, transitory experience, much like seeing a performance. Your memories and the pictures you take (if you’re allowed) are all that you take with you.
Still, Graves’s first question is an interesting one: “would it be a bad thing for art and artists if the line between looking and possessing were less stark?” Again, my initial thought was a bit dismissive: how would listing art prices make a difference here? But the more I thought about it, the more I could see a way in which it might. Money is a huge factor in the art world, but unless you’re reading a piece of writing that’s explicitly about the market, it tends to go completely unmentioned, sort of like the first rule of Fight Club. The omission is sometimes so complete that I wonder if readers and even beginning critics realize that there’s art out there they can actually afford to buy. If you read about a show, saw a reproduction of one of the works, and then read in its caption that it cost $300, would the presence of that number in front of you make you more inclined to buy it — or at least contemplate taking that leap? I think it might.
But the question that got under my skin the most in Graves’s piece is this one: “As art critics, do we implicitly support a system built on inequity when we leave out information that would point to the fact that most people can only afford to vicariously experience what certain people can take home and live with?” I find myself genuinely concerned with and stumped by this one. If I review a gallery show of incredibly expensive work — something at Gagosian, say — would it make the review more honest to discuss or include prices; or rather, is it dishonest not to mention them?
My inclination is that, ultimately, it’s not so simple as “yes” or “no.” When Damien Hirst’s spot paintings rolled through town, it’s not like writers avoided pointing out that Hirst’s art is generally overhyped and overpriced. Then again, when it’s not Hirst, when the art is good, does quality eclipse the obligation to mention prices? Where does taste fit into all of this?
Last fall, Jerry Saltz criticized MoMA for showing “The Scream” mere months after it sold for an insane $120 million at auction. He listed the price near the beginning of his piece and then went on to write, “Yet, a show like this — which is not a show but an event — here, now, is a case of MoMA indulging its spectacle-driven side. With (we presume) the best of intentions, it is flirting with the bad magic — the system that guarantees that obscene art prices are good for business.”
Interestingly, though, Saltz concluded with this:
I am not against collectors spending grotesque amounts on art. But I want it to stop mattering how much art costs, because price has nothing to do with quality, and talking about prices is totally boring. See you in line.
I’ve always sided with Saltz in wanting to wish away the money and bring the focus back to the art itself, but now Graves has me wondering whether avoiding the money is not only wishful thinking but potentially harmful. Who is right? I really don’t know.