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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Art as a commodity, Museum funding

 Sebastião Salgado's best shot: 'Sometimes they sat down and cried' ... Canadian firefighters in Kuwait battle to seal an oil well

  The recent controversy surrounding the funding, by an evil mining corporation, of Sebastian Selgado's exhibition at London's Natural History Museum has brought up an issue that is in some ways the most basic issue about art. Authenticity and value.

The problem with the art world is money. Money and subjectivity. Subjectivity attached to perceived authenticity. Should a museum or artist ever say “no” to a grant?

The role of a museum is to hold, care for and display art. This is distinct from a gallery where a gallery's objective is to display and sell art. A gallery is often self funding, a museum never is.

In more civilized parts of the world, admission to most museums are free and the museums are paid for with public money, while in other places museums are run as businesses, and there is always a problem with funding.

Unfortunately we do not live in a Star Trek utopia, instead we must deal with capitalism.

The tenants of capitalism basically say that something must make money or it's not worth doing. In order to make money an object must have a purpose. Art has a purpose to some, and to others it's purpose is to be purposeless.

There is no agreed upon currency that makes sense in the art world. So museums must require membership fees, entry fees or rely on meagre state grants. Grants that are hard to come by because the bureaucracy of capitalism is completely at odds with everything culturally worthwhile. The two worlds rarely collide on an even footing.

Sometimes art wins out, Dali sells four paintings before breakfast, Duchamp fools a museum into buying a urinal, and so on. Other times art loses, paintings are sold to private collections, or artists starve and commit suicide.

Recently capitalists have become interested in art as a tradeable commodity. Art is seen as more stable investment in this economic crisis entirely brought upon by unregulated capitalists ascribing arbitrary value to things they don't fully understand. So, as art is now a 'safe' investment, the capitalists rush to do something they love to do – put arbitrary prices on things they don't fully understand and sell them amongst themselves.

Some artists are doing well in this new system, for now, the value of a painting could jump 500% in a day, then drop 900% the next, but it allows artists to get money and continue making art. For what ultimate purpose? We are still yet to figure out, but capitalism now argues art for the purpose of investment and trading.

Then what of museums? Collections of ancient works that are literally priceless. Priceless is a word we use when we mean something is hugely expensive, but here it is used in its original sense of being unable to have any monetary value ascribed to it. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Museums also house ancient art from around the world.

The Metropolitan Museum here in New York has a great exhibition on the first great capitalist foray into ancient artistic traditions. The last ten or so ounces of beautiful gold and silver ornamentations that still exist after the Spanish drove out the natives, melted all their exquisite gold art and used it to fund a war against other capitalists (thankfully the Armada sunk and we can only hope they died slowly).

In the more modern world, museums get money from corporations who make more money than governments, and no money is achieved through fully ethical means. So when a museum gets a grant they have to go ahead with the show, they are forced into it by the broken system we are all forced to operate under. The ends justify the means, Museums can't afford to be unbending in their principals.

We can't blame Selgado for taking the money and putting on a show, a show that could raise awareness of the problems inherent in exploiting natural resources and displacing indigenous peoples.

Don't hate the player hate the game. We can't fault anyone for taking money from anyone, all money is tainted.

 

by John Hutt

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