21 July 2009

Megabucks and microfractions

Two posts this morning touch on a single (in my mind, at any rate) theme. First, TTMF's "Altair – the next Eagle"; second (though posted earlier, I read it later) Unreal Nature's "Health warning". One is about the future of the space programme, and mentions the collateral implications of such intensely funded projects. The other is about "the art world", and doesn't mention the huge sums of money spent there but does reference the arenas for them – a Christie's auction, for instance.

Being lazy, I'll recycle my comment on Jim's space programme post:

I, too, have very mixed feelings about spending on space travel when there are so many in dire need here on earth. I'm not willing to say "we aren't likely to spend the money to address the earthbound mission, so..." But I do know that human beings must be stretched if they are to survive and that ultimately my argument would mean no science, no arts, no collective challenge. And I would rather see space research as the R&D engine than warfare. If I am going to use up my energies battering my head against a wall, trying to get money switched away from one objective towards earthbound deprivation, I would rather direct them towards the military sponge.

I've not commented on Julie's art world post, so will have to write something new.

Historically, there has always been a link between wealth and art; but until comparatively recent times it was directly linked to production. Michelangelo produced great art because he was paid to do so by wealthy people who wanted the results. Michelangelo got his start because wealthy people wanted great art at bargain basement prices and went to new, unknown talents who were cheaper.

There were, of course, many down sides (including the complete erasure of women from art history) to this arrangement. I am not getting idealistic or romantic about it, simply noting it.

Now it's different. There are, of course, still patrons: people like Charles Saatchi, for instance, who buy new work and thus elevate it to fashionable and collectable status. For the most part, however, the arrangement is that the artist invests in her/his own work and future while the art world waits to cash in later. It's a cliché, but true, that Vincent van Gogh sold not one painting (if you prefer one, or two, sales it doesn't affect my point and I'm not concerned to argue minutiae here) but his work now changes hands for millions.

I'm not idealistic enough to think that it's possible to dent that megabucks art market. Perhaps, though, it would be possible to levy a percentage of the money and divert it to public art expenditure. Then that expenditure could be targeted at the bottom of the tree. One percent of the price paid in 1987 for van Gogh's Garden at the Saint-Remy would pay for two young artists, just starting out, to spend a year in residence at schools in deprived areas – thus supporting their production of early work and simultaneously feeding the minds of hundreds of their potential successors.

Gough Whitlam, in a foreword to Germaine Greer's The obstacle race, points out that a cultured society doesn't arise because it has a few high profile geniuses: it arises from a widespread foundation of culture. He was talking about art, but it applies to science too. I have seen how inspired young people are by the presence amongst them for even a day of real scientists. There are charities (for example, to choose one which I've encountered personally, Clifton Scientific Trust). Imagine how many young minds would get that opportunity if anyone working on the space programme, in any capacity at all, was required to spend one day per year (roughly 0.4% of their working life) in a school. Or, if the equivalent amount of money was spent on placing recent graduates as "scientists in residence" for longer periods. Or, the same equivalent amount of money devoted to employing young scientists on finding ways to apply emerging technologies in aid of the most deprived societies.

It's not realistic to talk of shutting down spending in the science and art (or any other) markets while other needs exist. But it is realistic to talk of ways in which that money can be made to work for what Jim calls "the earthbound mission".


Julie Heyward said...

I like some of your ideas, but I it isn't the money that bothers me about the art market. It's the perversion or subordination of the whole idea/point of art to motivations of ownership.

The high-end art market seems to me to be almost entirely about the "I" of exclusive possession/ownership (who's got it an who doesn't) and very little -- or much less -- about the art itself. The collectors seem to care very little about the appreciation of the conveyance of; or sharing of some deep awareness among as many people as wish to be so joined/connected/giving/taking. Art should be about connections, not exclusion. And it should always be about the art, not about who's got it.

Felix Grant said...

I agree with you; and it corrupts the whole corpus of art practice.

It was the combination of reading your post and Jim's within minutes, combined with the Apollo 11 anniversary, that sparked me off on the money aspect.

Dr. C said...

As for the Space Program, I think it is crazy to attempt to "put a man on Mars" when, by the time we get there, robotics should have progressed to the point where it becomes trivial. Will we ever colonize Mars? I can't imagine why, other than the sheer thrill of it which would wear off after the first night in a cramped, air locked bunker. There is an excellent travelogue on Siberia in the New Yorker this week. I think making even 1% of that vast area inhabitable would be more productive. (I know, this is strange coming from someone who likes to read science fiction as much as I do.)

As for the art market, I don't have much to go on. The only "art" work that my family has is a basalt demitasse set made by Wedgewood that Nancy Wedgewood gave to my mother at her wedding in the 1930's. It is an extremely striking set of utensils (its featured in the MOMA in New York as an example, I believe, of Art Deco). But do we take pride of ownership? I don't think so. We haven't even displayed it.