Last week my little sister called to tell me she had sent me an article clipping from the Wall Street Journal. She had zoned in the piece it because it was about art, but knew nothing about the content of the article. When I got the letter and opened it up, I found a review of the Palmer Museum's (at Penn State University) show "Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art." You can read the review here. This was SO apropos (for both my own studies and the WSJ).
I am currently in a transatlantic art seminar in which we have been studying the work of Golden Age artists like Whistler and Sargent. There is copious literature about high price bidding wars, artistic speculation, and tariffs on French paintings. However, as this article reminds us, it was a period in which millionaires were both made and broken.
The show, review, and my recent research has clued me into a recent trend of historians, critics, and curators looking at art as it interacts with economic markets. Influenced by Marxist theory, this new art history at times (as in the Palmer exhibit) highlight conspicuous absences, but it also views art in terms of the culture of commodity trading. (For an example see Laura Meixner's "Gambling with Bread"
Monet, Speculation, and the Marketplace available here; be forewarned, Meixner deals with a considerable amount of stock market jargon.) I find it fascinating the way in which scholarship is responding to contemporary crises. I know that art never operates outside of its cultural context, but this is the first time I remember it being so overt. Also, this is the first time I have been knowledgeable enough to recognize the subsequent change in scholarship. I wonder if the increasing interest in less traditional mediums (like graffiti art and video) is also being fanned by the decrease in funding for traditional forms?
Back to the Palmer. The only issue I had with the review was the comment, "Fortunately, the exhibition itself is not depressing, for as the catalog notes, artists knew that their paintings could not be too "squalid," or they would not sell," which makes me wonder if the gravity of the crises is sometimes glossed over in an attempt not to be "depressing." Like it or not, there are victims and lessons to be learned. Although, I can also appreciate that being depressed serves no greater good, and that perhaps even those most adversely affected appreciate the infusion of hope.
The reviewer's final statement is the perfect response to these issues, the exhibit and current scholarship: "For its size—about 30 academically informed, narrative paintings and a few etchings, including one of beggars by Mr. Whistler—this exhibition covers a lot, indeed too much, ground. . . Perhaps that is because the show itself was the victim of the current recession. Originally, it was conceived as an exhibit of about 70 works, with a catalog—now about 75 pages—longer by 200 pages. Shrunken by the times, it's quirky and uneven, but it does remind viewers of this neglected genre of American art." What is your take? Do you see parallels between contemporary art/scholarship and 19th century/current economic situations? How can the turn of the last century inform our perceptions of the present?