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THE PICTURE: Recession Proof

Art should never be a slave to the market. A call to arms.

This is the opening shot of The Picture--my new, biweekly column. I’m not planning to restrict myself to the visual arts here, although they will certainly be a central concern. I want to range more widely than I have in the past, writing about the interlocking worlds of books and pictures and culture that are my lifeblood, my passion. I may describe a forgotten novel that I picked up in a secondhand bookstore. Or salute the life and work of a friend who’s not around anymore. From time to time, I'll dedicate a column to a painting that's excited me in a museum in Milwaukee or San Francisco. But I may also want to say something about a movie or praise an actor's performance. I’m certainly going to discuss the perilous state of our print media world. And comment on any other aspect of the cultural universe that annoys the hell out of me. I hope that The Picture will become a chronicle of one critic’s works and days.

Has everybody forgotten that the arts are recession proof? Yes, of course, revenues shrink, contributions dry up, and expenses continue to rise. Those are the problems that numbers crunchers are put on earth to deal with. But the arts—the play of the imagination, the need for this parallel universe with its dream logic and its moral reverberations—are not affected by shifts in the housing market or the Dow. The value of a painting has never been established at auction. The power of a novel has never been determined by the advance the author happened to receive or by the number of copies that eventually sold. The greatness of a theatrical production has nothing to do with how many people attend. Dancers who can barely make their rent go on stage and give opulent performances. Poets, with nothing but a pencil and a piece of paper, erect imperishable kingdoms. And there are millionaires who chose to live with the barebones beauty of a Mondrian or a Morandi.

Is this wild-eyed idealism? Is it beside the point to speak about the fundamentally independent nature of the arts at a time when nearly everybody in the arts is feeling the financial pinch? I think it’s essential. We are drowning in pragmatism, utilitarianism, situationism—in a mechanistic belief that art and society are joined at the hip. Drifting through a lot of the talk over the past year or so has been some sense that the recession might be good for the arts—that it will teach extravagant artists and arts organizations a lesson or two. A few weeks ago, a reporter in The Art Newspaper, an English publication closely followed in gallery and museum circles, observed that “In America, certainly, the economic downturn is hastening a realization that business-as-usual won’t work anymore—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” And last September, an art critic in the Times announced that “we’re spoiled. …We’re in a transition phase, always a good time to think about change.” There is similar talk on Broadway, where shrinking box office is said to be precipitating a welcome retreat from over-the-top production values.

Everybody knows that hard times necessitate tough fiscal choices. That’s a no-brainer. What’s objectionable is the idea that fiscal necessity is a good thing. The professionals who engage in this supposedly tough talk are selling art short. Is there no longer any value or idea so compelling that it must be defended at all costs? A lot of cultural arbiters are coming right out and admitting that they’re nothing but slaves to the market. When the markets are up, excess looks artistically exciting. When the markets are down, asceticism is beautiful. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Whatever anybody may think about Franco Zeffirelli’s fantastically elaborate opera productions, those warhorses from the old, high-on-the-hog days at the Metropolitan Opera, they must be judged in terms of the relationship between music and drama and the gifts of particular singers, not on the basis of what the productions cost. A friend of mine who thought long and hard about these questions used to say that if Zeffirelli had Callas for Traviata, he would simply put a bed on the stage and leave it at that, but given the singers he was working with, he thought the audience needed all those sets. You can agree or disagree, but you cannot reduce this to economics. In the arts, over-the-top is a choice.

What we are talking about here is a problem that pits those who understand the freestanding value of art against everybody else. The enemies of art come in all sorts of ideological guises. There are the neo-conservative supplysiders, the academic Leninists, and the Duchampian aesthetes. Who could be surprised, given the highfalutin philistinism that is the order of the day, when a few weeks ago the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles announced that its new director was going to be an art dealer, Jeffrey Deitch. Some New York critics were elated; the pick was said to be “creative” and “inspired.” You might imagine that after what Wall Street had done to the U.S. economy there would be questions about Deitch, who once upon a time was a Citibank VP and created the bank’s art advisory and art finance programs, but I guess Deitch gives Wall Street a Warholesque appeal. Deitch goes to Los Angeles as the servant of Eli Broad, the billionaire art collector who pulled a cash-strapped MOCA from the brink and must see in Deitch a man who knows how to do glamorous on the cheap. At Deitch Projects, his downtown Manhattan venue, the solid gold confetti of the Chelsea galleries and the uptown auction houses has been reimagined as dimestore glitz, and I suppose that’s what Deitch will now proceed to do with MOCA. He could sell off a Pollock and let a thousand graffiti artists bloom. And why does Deitch want the job? Another finalist was Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer who runs Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide and was a hero of the go-go art market that tanked not too long ago. I wonder if either Deitch or Meyer would have considered such a job five years ago, when they were the darlings of the boom. After helping wreck the art world, are they now glad to jump ship and wreck a museum or two?

But there is very little that anybody can do about Eli Broad and Jeffrey Deitch and their ilk. Our only chance right now is if the people who still recognize the freestanding value of art take a decisive stand. What has been most troubling in recent months is a sense that our greatest institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art for one—are allowing the recession to shape their thinking. Enough of small-is-beautiful. Now is the time for Thomas Campbell, the new director at the Met, to announce some wildly ambitious projects, something important and difficult and costly, something that will put the business side of the museum in a sweat. We might all begin by taking a deep breath and remembering what the Museum of Modern Art did during the Great Depression. They decided to build their first freestanding home, a daring modernist structure on West 53rd Street. Talk about crazy schemes. Discussions began in 1934. By the spring of 1936, the necessary parcels of land had been acquired and a building committee was at work. The new museum, which cost about $2 million, opened in 1939. When culture is at stake, financial considerations cannot be allowed to rule. Cultural institutions must be fiscally responsible. They must also be artistically responsible. And when it comes to the arts there is such a thing as too much realism. Tell that to the donors. Who knows? Maybe somebody will get the message and pull out a checkbook.

Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic.

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