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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Cheap Twombly

A few years ago an ill-conceived act by a possibly delusional artist occurred in a gallery and became known as the Phaedrus Incident. It has since been faithfully and widely reported by many media outlets. It has been discussed in contexts of vandalism, museum security, art validation (the original canvas was blank) and more.

Most of these miss an intriguing aspect of the eventual outcome.

Incident details for those unfamiliar

The event itself seems surprisingly pedestrian. Cy Twombley’s Phaedrus Tritych was on show in Avignon when a young lady went up to a panel and kissed it. Fair enough. However, red lipstick is not a great addition to a fully rendered solid white panel. Afterward Rindy Sam (the protagonist) claimed she was an artist and that the act was an uncontrollable response to beauty. She obviously doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us.

A French court fined her for defiling the $2 million-valued work. €1000 went to the painting’s owner, €500 to the showing gallery and a token €1 to the artist.

What does this say about art?

The market rules and money talks. Art is meaningless and valueless until it is traded or, at a minimum, shown. The context a piece is seen in gives it validity. There are many artists out there, working away at their grands oeuvres in their respective garrets. In market terms these works are worthless until someone agrees to show them. This is not to say they are not legimate pieces. Nobody told Kurt Schwitters when he built his Merzbau.

Conversely artists have been making livings by taking matters into their own hands in various manners. These seldom have the impact and legitimacy of a gallery supported artist. Shepard Fairey went from graffiti artist to US politico-artist via gallery showings.

Thomas Kinkade's art is driven by demand. Taste is a rare commodity.

Thomas Kinkade's art is driven by demand. Taste is a rare commodity.

The questions around the relevance of art’s context have been previously discussed ubiquitously and ad nauseum. Artists have fought the situation by attempting to remove galleries’ hold on art market (see for example Michael Asher’s interventions, especially at the 1976 Venice Biennale. In essence, he produced an unmarketable piece in the middle of the largest art market). But it must be remembered that it is these same galleries, festivals, institutions and collectors that fund the artists, give them exposure and thereby allow a continuing body of work.

Concerns are regularly voiced that the market and its supremo collectors really define the direction art goes in. Its effects are seen lower down the financial scale where demand for pastoral watercolour landscapes incites galleries to stock up and sell. In essence demand fuels the market which sees art as a commodity like any other.

Of course, it should be stated that the diversity of the art world prevents this process from being a monoculture- there are plenty of examples of alternate curatorial practices that make art a heterogeneous enterprise.

Nothing new here. The unique, bohemian and experimental has always been unprofitable – see anyone from Van Gogh to Henry Miller to Faust. But over time markets can come around and these artists can become bankable.

In the end though, its all just a bit sad that its the possession of an art piece that gives it value, and not its creation. But then we are jealous creatures and want what others have… It must be conceded that art stills holds a unique place in our minds – if it was the owner’s car that had been damaged, the manufacturer would have received no recognition.

Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton, Granta, 2008
BBC News reports incident in question
Great discussion on meaning of incident
Cy Twombley
The Gagosian is an art market leading gallery/a>
Interesting article on the effects of greed on the art world
Artdaily on Cy Twombley’s true worth

This article was posted by on Monday, March 29th, 2010 at 05:01.
It is archived in America, Art, Culture, Legal, Media, Museum and tagged , , , .

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