A Lack of Hoof Beats

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“Politicians don’t bring people together. Artists do.” Richard Daley, Former Mayor of Chicago (from PerformingArtsConvention.org)

When news of the financial demise of the city of Detroit began leaking out, the fate of the magnificent collection of the Detroit Institute of Art came into question. Many were hoping for a knight in shining armor atop a mighty steed to come galloping to the rescue to save this wonderful collection. When there is no money left for basic services, there is definitely no money for art.

The New York Times reports that the court has approved the official bankruptcy proceedings but so far nothing specifically was ruled on the fate of the D.I.A.’s art. Randy Kennedy, reporting for the Times, discusses the response by Judge Steven Rhodes. “A one time infusion of cash by selling an asset,” he (Rhodes) said, would have only delayed, “the inevitable financial failure” unless it could also have come up with a sustainable way to enhance income and reduce expenses, reports Kennedy. In other words, any money from the sale of the art will only throw more feed in the trough to quickly be gobbled up like everything else in the city’s coffers. Somehow, someone will have to say enough is enough and hold those accountable who created this mess. Until that happens, any infusion of cash by the sale of the art will just be flushed away with the rest of the city’s assets.

Sadly, this wonderful collection could be broken up and sold to collectors all over the world. Should that be the final outcome, hopefully, the sale can be justified and utilized in a beneficial manner and not treated as more slop for the trough. The collection is estimated, so far, to be worth between one and two billion dollars. If the collection is broken up and sold off, most if not all may disappear forever into private collections never to be seen by the public again.

The politicians have created the mess in Detroit. Possibly, art could save Detroit. There is still time for a knight in shining armor to come riding to the rescue of the Detroit Institute of Art, but so far no hoofbeats have been heard. At this point, it doesn’t seem likely that any will be. It may be too late for the art or the city to be saved.

*Photograph shown is from The New York Times and taken by Joshua Lott for Reuters

The Language That We Speak

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“Art is a basic human language that is universal among cultures and across time.”

–Peter William Brown (from The Painter’s Keys)

The well from which visual art arises in the soul is a place difficult to put into words.  Artists express what is in this place through what they put on paper or canvas. It is a fountain that is forcing its way out, pushing to the surface to be expressed. The fountain pours out, spills over.  What needs to be said appears on the surface.  What and how the expression is said is more or less directed by the individual artist.  The important point for artists is whether their art must be literally understood or is it open to the translation of the observer?

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 8.43.51 PMThis past April, Chinese-French artist, Zao Wou-Ki passed away leaving behind a legacy of art that bridged two cultures. Julia Grimes has written extensively on Zao and his art.  Grimes quotes Zao in her article for CNN, “French and Chinese thought are not the same.  It’s hard to translate between them.  Sometimes you must wear yourself out trying to understand.  Painting must express these feelings.”  Zao’s art expressed what words could not.  Zao tells The New York Times, “Everyone is bound by culture.  I am bound by two.”  He had no words to adequately communicate the two cultures he inhabited.  Painting did that for him.

Does an observer understand Zao’s struggle between two cultures?  Or does the observer simply see art that is pleasing to the eye?  Does it matter?  Zao was immensely successful.  The language of his art spoke to others on many levels.  Whether others saw or understood his struggle did not affect his success.  The question for artists in their own work is if it is important for the language of their work to be understood literally?  If understanding is the important factor then a decision must be made as to how best to get the point across.  If the point is open for the interpretation of the viewer, more freedom of expression is possible.  It’s the artist’s language.  Each artist can decide how to speak it.

Forging Reality

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“The handwriting on the wall may be a forgery.” Ralph Hodgson (from Brainyquote)

Two opposing articles have been published recently about the forgeries that brought down the venerable Knoedler and Company Gallery in New York City.  One viewpoint in the New York Times, argues that forgeries are a good thing for the art world.  The opposing viewpoint in The New Yorker debunks that viewpoint with many points of reason.  A third article, also from The New York Times, explains the process of how the forgery happened.  Whether for or against art forgery, or the details of how it went down, none of these viewpoints addresses the real issue.

Blake Gopnik, art critic for The New York Times makes his case in an article titled, “In Praise of Art Forgeries” with a number of points.  One of Gopnik’s issues he elaborates on is that forgeries bring down the price of art making it more affordable for museums.  Good idea!  We can fill all the museums up with cheap forgeries.  As far as that goes, why have any real art at all.  It’s expensive to maintain and insure.  Think how much money could be saved.  No where does Gopnik address the reality of what exactly a forgery is.

 In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, is concerned with the skill or lack thereof, of the forgers.  They are not real artists, you see.  The forgers are merely imitators.  And what’s more, they don’t even have to completely imitate the original artist’s work.  The forgers only have to mimic, “the look of” the master’s hand.  So not only are forgers not real artists, they don’t even have to be good fakers.  How insulting to the forgers!

Another article in The New York Times by Patricia Cohen gives more details about how the con went down.  Cohen also gives the details of the court case and lawsuits against gallery president, Ann Freedman.  Cohen cites documents in the case quoting Ms. Freedman as arguing she, “had no clue the artworks were forgeries.”  Just who you want to buy million-dollar art from, a clueless gallery president!  She doesn’t seem to have been clueless about pocketing the commissions on fake Willem de Koonings, Mark Rothkos and others.  But Cohen also misses the real point here.

In all this talk about whether forgeries are good, forgeries are bad, who forged what and why, who knew or didn’t know, nobody points out the obvious.  Forgery is a crime committed by criminals against artists. Forgery literally and figuratively devalues the hard work of all artists.  In all of these for and against arguments,, descriptions and excuses, nobody seems to recognize the real victims.  Nobody is reading the handwriting on the wall.  Artists are being hurt here!  Hello??  Can anybody read that?

The Getty Research Institute has more on the history of the Knoedler and Company Gallery here.

Painting shown is by Willem de Kooning

Theft in Point

Ever wonder what art thieves do with stolen priceless art?  Me too.  You can’t buy a home, car or anything tangible with the stolen art.  Its not currency. Why rob a museum when you can rob a bank?  The security is similar.  Most major works stolen can never be displayed anywhere.  They can’t be easily resold or insured.

The New York Times has an article today on the company with the best success rate for recovery of stolen art, Art Loss.  Apparently, some museums and collectors are unable to afford the usually high cost of recovery.  The company’s founder, Julian Radcliffe says recovery can require elaborate and expensive sting operations. He states the agency is not profitable due to the high cost of operation.  Art Loss runs an extensive database of stolen art utilized by multiple law enforcement agencies including the FBI’s art theft division, (read more on the division’s work at the link).

The Guardian newspaper runs a regular feature on art theft and has recently been covering the theft from The Netherlands of major works by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Gauguin by a Romanian group.  These thieves may have burned the priceless works once they found themselves unable to resell them.

The theft of Munch’s The Scream from Norway generated much publicity and the thieves were soon caught.  The painting was recovered.  How did these thieves think they were going to dispose of the painting?  It’s so well known posters of The Scream are sold at Overstock.com and many other stores.  Evidently, some of these guys are so smart they can thwart sophisticated security but are too dumb to know what to do next.   Unfortunately, not all are so dumb and the The Thomas Crowne Affair is not a true story.