Clear As Mudd

The final episode of Robert Hughes’ seminal television series, The Shock of the New, addressed what he regarded as the distasteful post-war commercialisation of modern art. The programme was broadcast at the dawn of the 80s, a decade which some might say knew the high price of everything and the value of nothing. By turns imperious, laugh out loud funny and witheringly spot on, the late, outspoken critic bemoaned the stock market mentality in modern art. He decried that paintings and sculptures were treated in the manner of ‘bullion,’ symbolic of corporate wealth and spending power, rather than aestheticism. Incensed, Hughes fumed, “most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.”

The point is neither shocking nor new: wealthy patrons and starving artists have often made for surprisingly compatible bedfellows. In the middle ages, it was common practice for the artist to include the likeness of the person paying for the painting within the artwork itself, his stature (it was typically a man) relative to the scale of his pecuniary contribution. In the 17th century, prosperous Dutch merchants paraded their riches by acquiring art, not as a measure of their good taste but as ‘furniture for the wall.’ Arguably one of the most politically charged paintings of the 18th century is by Thomas Gainsborough (an artist who often complained bitterly that well-paid portrait work stifled his talent for landscape): it pictures the newly wedded Mr and Mrs Andrews casually posed against the backdrop of their vast estate and underlines the fact that they are considerably richer than you, the viewer.

Towards the end of the 19th century, as perhaps art became more problematic, and the relationship between artist and public grew less straightforward, key talents would often die in obscurity, their genius recognised and proclaimed only years later. It is an oft-quoted irony, for instance, that Vincent Van Gogh, ridiculed by a reactionary art establishment, was unable to scratch a living as a painter. Today his work is amongst that most highly prized, fetching eye watering figures on the rare occasions it is offered for sale. Tellingly, a recent list of buyers of the ten most expensive paintings at auction  consists entirely of investment companies, not museums. Art, then, is a currency, arguably as much a product of our post-modern, brand aware times as Heinz baked beans or Campbells’ soup. It is of our own choosing. We blur the distinctions to such an extent that art and its commercialisation fuse together, become one and the same in our minds. Andy Warhol understood this; so did Salvador Dali. Before he died, the Spanish surrealist added his signature to a set of blank canvases, a recognition that one bought the artist and not the artwork, a paradox embodied in the decision to christen a family car with the surname of possibly the twentieth century’s most important artist. In his influential book, Mythologies, French essayist Roland Barthes suggested that cars, “conceived with passion by unknown artists,” are appropriated as “purely magical” by whole populations. How much more so, a people carrier autographed by Picasso – or his Foundation at least.

Enter any gallery or museum exhibition gift shop and try ignore the repackaging of art into pencil cases, key rings, fridge magnets, mugs, tea-towels, jigsaws, posters, every possible bankable permutation. The visitor is subsumed by the merchandising of the artwork, rather than by the artwork itself. The work of a Matisse or a Turner or a Michaelangelo, reconfigured as a mouse-mat or a set of drinks’ coasters, is a mirror reflecting itself into infinity, an ouroborus which renders the original a little less real. Hailed as the death of art itself, Jean Braudrillard argues that reality has become “confused with its own image.” Put another way, the high street chain of estate agents responsible for co-opting designer Arne Jacobson, in order to reposition itself as anything other than a high street chain of estate agents, is not being nearly so clever as it thinks it is… Or maybe it is. The fact it is worthy of mention at all would suggest drinks all round at the bar.

And, while it might have irked him a great deal, it is doubtful whether Robert Hughes would have been that surprised – let alone shocked – by how things have turned out. As the man himself said, “What strip mining is to nature, the art market in turn has become to culture.”

Many thanks to Neil Mudd for providing content in this blog: @ANMudd