Culture & Conversation

Art @ Fair Prices: PART 1

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, wrote John Keats. If you consider immortality an asset, his words have outperformed his body by 800%.

Linking financial gain or the even the word “investment” to art is not a typical thought process in Quebec, where arts groups tirelessly pursue the public and governments for “support”, offering private patrons a charitable tax deduction in return for their cash, should said institution have managed to get themselves officially declared non-profit.

In this context, it’s probably a faux pas to start a series on the visual arts by talking about the art market. But let’s be honest, money is one reality.

Just because a person (such as myself) has only had a regular paycheque for something like 3.7 years since the age of 20 doesn’t mean I never think about it. On the contrary, a slew of money-making schemes have come and gone. The stock market brought out my worst side: I wasn’t willing to spend time researching the inner guts of business, couldn’t be bothered checking sources, and so jumped instinctively off several cliffs.

I did a little better in real estate, got to meet a lot of interesting people as a landlady, and finally grew desperate to get rid of them all and write a farcical novel, which I will someday. My new big thing is art. I’ve long been fascinated by the lives of artists, especially painters and writers. In fact it was probably the life-style that drew me to writing more so than the thousands of hours it takes to write a few pages that come even close to being a joy right now, never mind forever.

Believe me, the novelty of knowing artists soon wears off, and it comes down to the work. I love looking at pictures, sculptures and the incredible splay of new art forms emerging within a scene loosely called the visual arts. Sure there’s phoniness and hype behind the international art market, but we’re lucky in Montreal, where there are so many talented artists beavering away in their studios producing work that in any other major North American city would be snapped up, first by a circle of friends and soon enough by galleries that know how to sell art.

We are living in a great age of visual art, and it’s going to get better. Not to mention, more expensive. Why now, you ask? The answer has a lot to do with aesthetics. Specifically, with taste and those who shape it.

In the late 19th century, co-incidentally (or not) with the invention of photography, several explosions in the world of painting rocked the long-standing house of representational art (recognizable things and people): Impressionism, post-impressionists, Fauves, German Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, leading finally to pure abstraction – shapes, figures textures. By the 1970s, the kind of art that was considered great, hot, worth collecting by sophisticates and worth writing and talking about by leading taste-makers (i.e. formalist critics like Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd) was pretty well all stuff a backbencher or a pig farmer in Alberta would laugh at. And they did, notably when the National Gallery of Canada paid $1.8 million in 1990 for three vast vertical stripes. (The best thing about Voice of Fire is the title – but it’s a great title.)

As the two sides continued to laugh at each other, the visual arts went into serious decline. Painting itself began to seem quaint. (I remember interviewing a Canadian in 1977 who had moved to Nice to take up the artist’s life. He was hiring nude models to pose for large, garish abstract paintings. He struck me then as weird, now, a little sad.) Sure, antiques continued to sell, and a bus-load of Greenwich Village bad boys grew rich and famous. But “modern art” became a household joke. Andy Warhol? Was he an artist or a hugely successful brand?

By the eighties, painting began a comeback, as the New York Times put it recently, “because painters like Sigmar Polke, Davide Salle and Julian Schnabel started pitting representation against abstraction, albeit self-consciously and often ironically”.

These days, it isn’t representation versus abstraction, but a dance between the two. Arguably an obvious idea, it has unlocked incredible possibilities for talented artists, and – as important if not more – let the general public back into the room. Because the truth is, guess what? A naked Emperor is not a thing of beauty or a joy forever. Most often he’s a fat old turd with nothing going on but power and money.

Visual art today is a vibrant, youthful scene. Not only are the rising stars shamelessly young, but the best artists at any age seem young. Maybe that’s the Baby Boomers’ most recent achievement, to crash the party both as creators and shoppers, thereby turning painting’s comeback into the next big thing.

Over the past few years, I’ve visited galleries in many cities, mostly Berlin, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. I can assure you that young Canadian talent is thriving, and wherever the shopping public has been seriously exposed to their work, it flies off the walls and into homes. Montreal lags behind, but that won’t last.

Which brings me to the Rover Art Fair, April 16, 17, 18: this magazine’s humble foray into a world whose time has come. Check out our catalogue and check back in a few days for a new NOTEBOOK, wherein I’ll explain how the art you buy should someday outperform your house.

  • Leave a Reply

    Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

    Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS