For the prompt Art’s Impact, we are asked to describe a piece of artwork and how it moved us. Moreover, the term art is defined to cover not only the visual arts (painting, etc.), but also the other arts: dance, literature, music, and so on. For this brief essay, I chose pictorial art. And as I set about reporting on a how a painting by the great abstract-expressionist Joan Mitchell affected me, I realized that my response to the painting, while undoubtedly shared by others, was also unlikely to be universal. There would be some who disliked the artwork to she same degree that I admired it. And so, with (I hope) the forbearance of MyRetrospect’s other members and its administrators, I would like to make a few brief remarks about the broader impact of art.
For the prompt Art's Impact, we are asked to describe a piece of artwork and how it moved us. [But] I would like to make a few brief remarks about the broader impact of art.
Let’s begin with something I’ve just hinted at. To put it formally: The impact of any artwork is not universal; it will undoubtedly produce positive and negative effects. In other words, some of its viewers (or listeners) will like it or love it, while others will dislike or even hate it. Some may even experience a mixture of both. As an example of the often uneasy co-existence of the first two kinds of response, I’ve had the experience of being in a room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, transfixed by the abstract-impressionist paintings being shown, while occasionally someone would walk by scowling, with the proverbial steam coming out of his or her ears.
This is not a matter of small moment. For if the response to an artwork is mostly negative, the artist may find it difficult to make a living, either by selling work on his or her own website, or by being represented by a gallery. And, of course, the work of that artist is unlikely to ever be shown in a museum.
An important kind of positive impact is the effect art may have on art history. If a sufficiently large number of fans and art critics respond positively to the work of a certain artist, or more likely to a group of artists who work in the same style, then art history will be changed significantly. This has happened twice with painting in the last two centuries, first when impressionism displaced realism in Paris in the 1869s, and then when abstract-expressionism, along with color-field painting, shifted the center of the high-art world from Paris to New York City in the 1950s. This is not to say that older styles, realism, for example, simply disappeared. But it now had to share its space with the newer styles that had won favor. Other examples come from music, with the rise of jazz in the 1920s, and then minimalism in the 1960s. Here, too, the older styles persisted. After all, who can replace Bach? Or Louis Armstrong?
Finally, another impact is on how art is bought and sold. In recent decades, more and more art has changed hands over the internet, rather than in old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar establishments. Taking pictorial art as an example, it can be purchased directly from an artist’s website, or from a gallery or museum, or won at auction. The art itself is of many types: paintings, etchings, screenprints, lithographs, photographs, woodblock prints (Japanese woodblocks prints became collectors’ items decades ago), and so on. The prices vary considerably, too. Most are reasonably priced, so one needn’t be part of the 1% to build an enjoyable art collection. This is an impact I’ve never seen discussed, but it shouldn’t be slighted. For instance, I retired in 2000, and since then I’ve amassed a collection of 273 pictures of the kinds just listed. About 70% of them cost under $200, including a few open-edition art prints purchased at museum gift shops for as little as $25. (Let’s not forget that even that can be a stretch for some people.)
At the other end are a group of pictures, just under 7% of the total, that cost $1000 or more, including a number of limited-edition lithographs or screenprints (called “limited edition” because they are printed in relatively few copies, sometimes no more than 30 or so). They include two lithographs by the above-mentioned Joan Mitchell, won at auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. Others were won at other auction houses, or purchased from the artist’s website or from museums, including the little-known high-end art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Mitchell died in 1992, and her paintings now sell for many millions of dollars, way beyond my pocketbook. So I’m thankful that she also did lithographs.)
Why so many pictures? Simple. My mother was trained as an artist (she was also a jazz fan). And from the time i was a preschooler, she took me to museums and galleries until I was old enough to go by myself. So when I retired, it seemed natural to start buying art. About 90 of the pictures are on the walls of my apartment, the others are stored in closets.
One last note. Having at home a collection of personally selected pictures and music, which can be enjoyed either alone or with friends, is, I believe, essential to keeping one’s sanity in these trying times. And that is the final impact: indeed, the most important one.
PS. The photo below depicts one of the Joan Mitchell lithographs I won at Sotheby’s. It came framed, and is five feet high by eight feet wide. It hangs over the living room couch.