A great story about Hugh Grant making £11m on a work of art he bought while drunk appears to highlight the uncomfortably fickle link between art and money.
The suggestion that the financial gratification, associated with neo-liberalism, in the 80s and 90s has undermined accepted notions of artistic value is both right and wrong. Of course it’s somehow immoral that the otherwise pure world of the arts should be tainted by the dark-deals of philistine city folk (or in this case, Hollywood celebs). But it’s hardly new, and it would be naive to think that the art world is not complicit in some way.
Serge Guilbaut made a very explicit link in the content and title of his book ‘How New York stole the idea of Modern Art‘, referring to the transformation of arts practice, and in particular the rise of abstract expressionism, in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Elsewhere, John Berger made the link in relation to established greats such as Gainsborough, painting the ‘wealth’ of the slave-trade. And, of course, the connections between financial wealth, patronage and the arts can be seen most obviously in renaissance Italy.
The best analysis of the more complex inter-relationship between arts practice, arts consumption, and commerciality realities of both is in Ken Worpole’s brilliant ‘Reading by Numbers’. Get hold of a copy if you can. It’s an entirely disinterested analysis of the way in which literary styles in the early 20th Century developed in response to technological and educational changes which were making ‘reading’ a much more popular pastime – and how the development of reading and writing influenced the wider political and financial economy, both directly and indirectly.
But, it does seem somehow fitting that, in this age of user-led creative practice, it should be the drunken purchaser, rather than artist, who should be challenging some of our assumptions about art practice!