A couple of weeks ago I visited New York City to see my brother. While there I visited the Met, because that is something one is supposed to do when visiting NYC.
Of course, preparing for the Apocalypse was bouncing around in my head as I meandered through the exhibits. The obvious question one tends to keep coming back to when thinking about the end of times while looking at art from around the world is “Is art useful?” This is a question that has been pontificated on in countless essays, plays, poems, paintings, and movies before me. Personally, I find pieces of art about the purpose or making of art to be boring self-indulgent intellectual masturbation. To paraphrase a line from the great Bill Campana, they are echoes in gas chambers.
I do expect most of the “Art of art’s sake” musings expect that the art made is produced in a functioning society. My own opinion, as an artist, is that of course art is useful and needed, but for the higher levels of Maslow’s needs. For example, art is not as necessary for physiological needs such as water and food, rather it serves a role in the health, well-being, love and belonging needs.
The bulk of the art at the Met was originally for rich people, few was for the masses. Probably the best example of this is the current exhibit The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City. Of course, the Met has only the best examples of various forms of art, and therefore the rich had them. For the bulk of mankind’s history, the art for the masses was more for entertainment than anything else. Think Shakespearian fart jokes versus Mona Lisa’s smile. I suppose the other major form of art for the masses was the stuff found in cathedrals and temples which was more to brainwash people than anything else. Art demonstrates the wealth of a society, because it represents excess labor or at least labor not needed to plow the fields or hunt for meat.
One room of the Met has the panorama painting depicting an afternoon in Versailles. Before movies were made for the masses, panoramic painting served the role of letting the unwashed masses visit somewhere different, see how someone else lived. This is one of the few things in the museum intended for the masses, and yet its main focus is still the privileged few.
One of the exhibits I particularly liked was Moyra Davey’s Copperhead Grid. It is a series of close-up photographs of pennies in various states of decay. The little blurb beside the exhibit stated that the piece made in 1990 was created during “the end of the 1980’s art bubble.” The scratched and withered pennies give a “melancholy sense of loss.” This little blurb made “the sense of loss” that was being lamented the fact artists couldn’t sell their stuff when times are tight. Art is, after all, the classic example of a discretionary good. You can’t after all, eat a Picasso.