These days, if you aren't certain about the difference between a classically beautiful, enduring, engaging, expressive piece of art and a piece of froth, you are not alone. Lately, many people have told me that they aren't even sure of what they like anymore. But there is a way to spot the good stuff even if you don't know the first thing about line, color, minor shadows, rhythm, and the third dimension. It's easy. All you have to do is imagine the painting in question under a fluorescent light in a dingy little room, against a really ugly wall- one with cracking, yellow-stained, and finger smudged wallpaper. If the painting looks good in this setting, you've found the masterpiece for you.
This is a glib and facile joke, but it makes the point.
Sometimes, walking into a gallery can be scary- not because the art is shocking or because the art-hopping hobnobbers are dressed in a frightening manner, but because you can never be sure that what you are seeing is the truth. The walls are white, so there is no color competition. The lighting is perfect. It is a whole package. This is the marketplace, the store. Its existence is determined by sales.
When I went to the gallery as a kid, my mother made me be very quiet, as if I was in a shrine or a museum. I could never understand this. She said we had to shut up because people were trying to make up their minds about how the artwork personally affected them. My father told me what the real story was. We had to be quiet because buyers were trying to figure out if the prices met their budget. At a tender age I found out that it was the hype that was important, that people could be coerced by good advertising. A gift looks better if it comes in a special box.
What a flimsy way to look at art. But lately, the owners, dealers, investors, patrons, and, of course, the artists themselves are looking at it this way. In this strange atmosphere, where businessmen are trying to have eyes of artist and artists are trying to act like businessmen, nobody remains the same. The artist begins to lose his art and the businessman becomes tempermental. What used to be called the victory of art over tyranny doesn't exist anymore. There is no such thing. Everybody is working together in one big happy art pie.