Is the decision of the galleries a one-off exception or is it the first sign of a radical change?
Museums are a relatively new achievement in the history of our civilisation. Up to the French Revolution, art treasures were mainly the private possessions of kings, princes and other members of the nobility who were the patrons of the artists of their time, commissioning them, paying them and keeping their works. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century at the time of the rising bourgeoisie that art treasures gradually began to be placed in state-financed museums where they could be viewed by the general public. This was a great step forward.
Since that time the number of museums has steadily increased. And today, given the decrease in government funding, they are in intense economic competition with one another. Faced with the need for ever more capital in a time of drastic cuts to government subsidies for the arts, they find themselves caught in the “income-from-visitors” trap. Even though museums were intended to serve the public interest and not commercial ends, they find themselves constrained to follow the model of permanent growth. This has given rise to two key consequences.
First of all, the trend to blockbuster art exhibitions whose stakes are high on the commercial art market. The operative principle here is that if it costs a lot it must be worth a lot and will thus serve to draw in the crowds. This trend means that there’s no room available for experimental concepts or lesser-known artists who don’t figure among the art scene’s galaxy of pop stars. The risk of making a loss on an exhibition is simply too great for the museums to bear.
The second consequence following on from the first is that in their efforts to finance such crowd-drawing exhibitions, many museums welcome donations by rich private individuals and companies with open arms.
Now you might be thinking that money has no smell so it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. And if it serves a good purpose like keeping works of art in museums or restoring Notre Dame, then there’s nothing wrong with it and in fact such sponsorship it’s really both cheap and effective.
And in fact for a very long time nobody was interested in where the money for the sponsorship of the arts came from and what type of consequences such sponsorship entailed. It’s only now that people are beginning to take a more critical look.
Take, for instance the group of activists who, drawing on the famous “To be, or not to be” from Shakespeare´s Hamlet, call themselves “BP or not BP”. They are investigating the sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum by the BP oil corporation, and in particular attempts by the oil giant that have now come to light to exert influence on which special exhibitions should figure in the programme of the British Museum.
In the case of the Sackler family, the protest is directed at the fact that their sponsorship of the arts amounts to a “whitewashing” of the money they earn through their morally dubious pharmaceutical business.
And in mid-April when a fire seemed likely to destroy Notre Dame cathedral and part of the cultural heritage it contained, this triggered not only a universal wave of dismay and consternation but an unprecedented outpouring of donations from the richest families in France. In next to no time a staggering 800 million euros was donated. Undoubtedly this is of tremendous benefit to the badly damaged cathedral. And yet it prompted a wave of indignation from the French people. What is at the root of such discord?
In a pluralistic society based on democratic principles, the question of the autonomy of institutions dedicated to the common good is of primary importance: only a sufficient degree of autonomy can ensure genuine diversity and encourage innovation – works not streamlined to swim with the current of the times but which might be contentious or thought-provoking. This is beneficial to an open society.
At the end of the day, this kind of sponsorship of the arts can only prevail because the public coffers are too empty to allow institutions to act freely, independent of such support.
All too often the fabulously rich can slip their obligation to contribute to the common good of society in the same unostentatious and altruistic way as the rest of us do. With their voluntary donations they make good on this obligation and by doing so also appear as benefactors.
Now to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me add that it would be disingenuous and pure speculation to deny that sponsors have any true feeling for art and culture. Even so, the question of the ends served by many an act of generosity is still a valid one. Whether by a company or an individual, sponsorship is always a form of advertisement and marketing which in most cases comes in combination with an alluring write-off or tax relief scheme. This is perfectly legal and indeed from a corporate standpoint even desirable.
So without wanting to venture further into the broad field of museum financing in particular, and the arts and humanities in general, I would say that we really do need to take a much closer look at where the money for our cultural life comes from. I for one at least hope that the move taken by the Tate group of British art galleries will not prove to be a onetime event but a laudable example that in similar circumstances deserves to be followed.
Another brilliant coup by the artist Banksy in which he succeeds yet again in laying bare the absurd mechanisms of the commercial art market for all to see. To fully appreciate this you have to know that Banksy is a street artist who attaches great importance to the impact that his graffiti and art performances have yet who refuses to take part in the speculative games of the art market. His independence is much more important to him than fame and riches.
So it’s even more astonishing that his Girl with Balloon has now been put up for sale at Sotheby´s auction house and at the very moment that the picture was bought by the highest bidder it self-destructed and so became worthless. But this is exactly where Banksy shows himself to be such a brilliant debunker – because in such a system is a shredded picture necessarily a worthless picture? This case shows that the very contrary is true – it increases, even substantially increases, in value. And so the shredded picture becomes a kind of magnifying glass through which we can view the absurdities of the commercial art market close-up and as they happen.
As an artist as soon as you engage in this speculative art market system, you can hardly avoid becoming entangled in its coils, and run the danger of gradually exchanging your inner freedom for money. This is the reason why I don’t sell OUBEYs pictures. They were created in the greatest possible spiritual freedom. And I wish to conserve this freedom for them and also for myself in what I do. They don’t need to have any material value put on them in order to assert their value as works of art. Naturally, the position taken by Banksy and the intelligent consequences of his actions are a deep source of pleasure for me. He too has set his sights not on sales but on impact and public perception.
When he does sell, the transaction becomes enveloped in a kind of aurora of enlightenment. Take, for instance the time when an anonymous seller at a stand in New York’s Central Park sold passers-by original Banksy works for 60 dollars. Whoever bought a picture by an unknown artist from this stall did so not because they were buying a “Banksy with expectations of a rapid increase in its value” but because they were buying a picture they liked. Banksy taped this action and published the video – much to the chagrin of all art dealers who had missed this unique opportunity to make a killing. Unquestionably, they would have dearly loved to resell these works at a vast profit.
It would even seem that Banksy had given away his Girl with Ballon with the proviso that the receiver would never put it up for sale. A test balloon to show how strong the counterforces need to be to withstand the blandishments of the art market. Counterforces such as “respect for the wishes of the artist”; “appreciation of the mark of trust shown in bestowing this gift”; or simply “love of art”.
Apparently such forces were not as strong as the magnetic attraction of the art market on which the picture became yet another item for auction.
Despite the very different character of his work – in their free spirit, their need for autonomy and the marked distance they keep from the art market, OUBEY and Banksy are very similar. Both of them have resisted the powerful attraction of the art world. OUBEY mainly did this to paint the pictures that sprang up in his head without being in the slightest influenced by expectations from the outside. Banksy does it so that his works might debunk, demystify, and criticise but also bring his art to that place where he thinks it truly belongs: among people who cannot afford expensive art.
Whoever believes that the higher value of Girl with Balloon after the picture self-destructed means that Banksy’s action has missed the mark or even achieved the contrary effect, is quite wrong.
Because it’s precisely this increase in value that shows just how strong the power of speculation is, and that the spotlight here is not fixed on art. Rather it’s the market that annexes art just as it pleases. Even when that art is destroyed.
Banksy´s coup was perfect. In its unique way it is a clear demonstration of how the market functions, how it twists and turns, adapts to circumstances and eventually triumphs. Whether you find this good or bad is another question. But it’s clear that this is how it is. The goal which was to reveal this has been achieved. The whole world is talking about this stunt and it won’t be forgotten so quickly.
So when I was faced with the task of bringing his hitherto unknown legacy into the light of public attention, I was faced with rather a sticky situation because on the one hand I certainly didn’t want to fall into the role of becoming the one who – because of having some privileged access to his art – awakening the impression that I held the right keys to its interpretation. Yet on the other hand, naturally, I wanted to act in a way that OUBEY would have approved of and I wanted to remain faithful to his spirit. In short, I wasn’t the slightest interested in furnishing explanations. What did keenly interest me though was how I could succeed in placing his pictures in a high-quality process of discovery from a manifold variety of alluring perspectives. Would the opinions held by an art expert or another artist be conducive to such a process?
My considered response to this question is NO! What I did do was to travel with his paintings to meet people whose professional lives were concerned with dealing with much the same themes and issues as OUBEY: astronomers, astrophysicists, biologists, mathematicians, quantum and complexity researchers, musicians, philosophers, and composers. Throughout his life OUBEY had always engaged with the findings of these disciplines on a very high level. And as these encounters progressed I came to realize how right I had been in my decision to take this particular course.
“I have to warn you. I know absolutely nothing about art” – this was often the first thing people said as they prepared themselves to encounter an unknown work of OUBEYs in front of a running camera. And in each and every case my honest answer was always the same, “That’s great. This is exactly the reason why I’m with you here today with this painting.”
“The sense of immediacy is the decisive factor for my paintings“ OUBEY once said. Immediacy springs from the direct unfiltered emotional encounter between the painting and its viewer. This is exactly the hallmark of the “Encounters“ with OUBEY, that can be seen online as a video documentary. They show an exceptionally broad and enormously variegated spectrum of insightful and spontaneous resonance – free of any of the claims and pretensions of art expertise.
When we talk about art, we mainly think of painting. However, let’s think about music, for instance, and the myriad possibilities people now have of listening to music whenever they want and as often as they want. This doesn’t work with painting. I can certainly look at paintings in my home or online or as illustrations in a book on art – yet it’s pretty difficult for me to do so whilst riding a bike or walking or taking part in some other activity, all of which are situations where it’s perfectly possible to listen to music.
Music reaches people in a much more direct and simple way than any other form of art. This doesn’t just apply to music delivered by media: live concerts have their own particular quality and emotional dynamics which are worlds apart from those of an art exhibition. Yet the music business too naturally has the filter function of expertise which is similar to the art expertise of art experts in galleries or on the art market.
Even so, ever since people have been able to post their own musical presentations online on YouTube, a type of freedom has been established, a type of democratization that was unknown just a few years back. Everybody can upload, everybody can download. Views, likes, shares and downloads are expressions of immediate reactions to things heard or seen by a broad worldwide audience.
Obviously you could now object that all this is nothing more than just “the tastes of the masses”. Yet you might do well to remind yourself that behind every single one of these reactions stands an individual who likes or doesn’t like what they hear or see. This is indeed not at all easy to transfer over to painting. Yet the experiences I have made so far in using the internet to broadcast OUBEYs art have only strengthened me in my resolve to continue using this exceptional and innovative conduit and to gradually broaden the resonance space thus created.
Sure, it’s something fine and important when art experts voice their opinion on works of art. Yet it’s equally fine and important that you first form your own opinion. This makes it all the more interesting when you subsequently listen to what the experts have to say and can compare their opinion with your own. And often enough, we shouldn’t forget, different experts can have wildly differing opinions on the same art work.
This is why I find it good that people going to museums first take the time and freedom to contemplate the exhibits and then ask themselves “What kind of thoughts and feelings does this picture trigger in me? What do I personally read and see in this picture?” Because no matter what kind of intellectual considerations may play a role in such a process, it’s first and foremost always an emotional reaction that connects us to a work of art.
At the same time our society adheres to the view that whatever carries a high price tag must be intrinsically valuable. Otherwise why would so many people find that an expensive pair of jeans must be much better than a cheaper pair? Often enough it’s just the brand value of a product that determines the price difference between goods of the same material value.
The evaluation of companies on the stock exchange is a more complicated matter. Based on suppositions about the future development of a company’s share value, it’s the psychology of investor behaviour that decides which company’s shares are to be bought or sold. From the standpoint of such speculative profit expectations, questions as to whether a company operates solidly and sustainably, and makes clever investment in its future – and thus represents genuine value – by no means always play the decisive role.
But how does the relationship between value and price play out when it comes to art? Here we generally find a combination of the two mechanisms. If an artist and his work have achieved the same level of name recognition as a leading brand, the same work that once went for a modest sum will now fetch an astronomical price – often in hopes that the value of this artist’s work will continue to rocket on the art market. Art as investment.
In particular for young unknown artists, the predictions made by a gallery owner or art dealer about the expected long-term development of the value of their work for prospective buyers can be of existential importance. This is where we find the same psychology of betting at work as we find in investors. Nobody knows for sure whether things will turn out exactly as the experts say.
Thanks to OUBEY I came to realize that art which has the extraordinary good fortune to be created in complete freedom from the market can develop its own very rare and very special quality. And when art that has been created in this way is not up for sale and thus comes with no price tag attached, then this freedom can also be transferred to the beholder and endow the encounter with a quality as exceptional and rare as that which imbued the process of its creation.
Such freedom can also be seen as a particular kind of luxury. The case of the marvellous painter Vincent van Gogh, however, shows that this supposed luxury of free creation can come at the cost of serious hardship and deprivation. As he hardly sold a single painting during his lifetime, he was totally reliant on the financial support of his brother for his very existence. Yet from such involuntary freedom he painted pictures of stupendous power in a style as revolutionary as it was unique. Today the same paintings that nobody wanted 120 years ago reach record prices at auctions. Yet the true intrinsic value of these paintings was exactly the same at the time of their creation as it is today. It is simply there – independently of any price.
If price cannot set the value of a work of art then the way is open for another non-material form of appreciation that comes from within. Possession is no longer the point of the exercise but rather pure discovery and pleasure. This is why I will never sell OUBEYs paintings even though I am often pressed to do so. I have freed myself of the rating system of the commercial art market.
The value of OUBEYs art is revealed to me in the resonance his paintings evoke in people when – free of all forms of commercial speculation – I place them in an open-ended process of discovery through others. This is just as experimental as it is deeply satisfying. People tell me that looking at certain pictures makes them happy. This is not something that can be computed in terms of money. It’s personal and it’s life-enhancing.