Artists produce their works in whatever media they select as their mode of expression-paper, panel, stone, metal, silk, canvas, cardboard, synthetic materials, reused “found” surfaces. Depending on their own inclinations, they will either set aside their works for posterity, sell them or exchange them for other works.
Buyers, depending on the value and perceived importance of these works, have disposable income on hand, allowing them to constitute minor or major collections, driven by themes or simply an eye for what appeals to them at the moment of purchase. It’s all very personal. And, depending on their relationship to the creators, they acquire their works to support them or as investments, or because of their interest in what the works represent.
Most artists will remain “unknown”. The established “art historical” community will not recognize the intrinsic or extrinsic value and importance of their works for highly subjective reasons dictated by their tastes, inclinations, and relationships with what we know as “the art market” and “cultural institutions.” In other words, these “unknown” artists have not been given the privilege of having their works studied or reviewed by so-called experts and critics who, thanks to their training and specialization, pass judgment on these artists’ works and either promote their potential success or bury them into the dustbins of history where all is left to be forgotten for posterity. More often than not, experts and critics align themselves with galleries, museums, and collectors. Their objectivity should be called into question. And yet, many “unknown” artists are known in their communities, in the regions where their communities are located, through extended networks which might stretch across borders. But they will never attain a spot in the “pantheon.” That is not necessarily the worst fate in the world. But such exclusion produces enormous amounts of frustration, insecurity, and marginalization among creative producers.
Operating in a higher tier of the art market, a coterie of gallery owners, art brokers, well-heeled collectors buy low to sell high, occasionally hover over the “unknowns” and rely in part on their “experts” to guide choices and focus on potential success stories that can produce a return on their investment. Their interest is to “make” a successful artist, reflecting “their” vision of what “success” means. This is where the artist’s world intersects with what we idolize and love to hate as the “art market”—a chaotic mixture of businesses, large and small, and entrepreneurs whose primary motive is to make money from art sales. Profit guides one’s inclinations and tastes, more often than not.
Gallery owners and brokers alike rely on a wealthier clientele, one that hails from the national and international financial, commercial and professional worlds (read lawyers, accountants, consultants, entrepreneurs, etc..). The market becomes more complex at this level and intersects with industry, finance, commerce, and politics through the buying and selling of art, which becomes a status-based undertaking. Companies, banks, professional groups, law firms, accounting firms, consulting businesses, acquire art for “show”, perhaps, to project sophistication, status, and taste. This has been standard practice for centuries. Even government agencies acquire art objects.
Because of the interlacing of business and politics, the artist and her works are one or two steps removed from the world of politics, diplomacy, policymaking, trade and finance. These sectors play an important role in shaping the direction of the societies in which they evolve and which they nurture with their investments and know-how, for better or for worse. They also become enmeshed in the sponsorship, financing and promotion of political movements and parties, small or large, in their attempt to shape policies that benefit their best interests. There too, art becomes intertwined with these events, where art objects with value and significance can change hands among the upper echelons of the society and their fate, in turn, can be more closely determined if the winds of change blow in one or another direction.
When we look at the history of objects and that of the people who produced them, acquired them, traded them and displayed them, we are peering into the history of society as we grapple with the story behind these objects. It’s up to museums, those cultural temples that, in principle, are there to educate the citizenry to recount those stories; more often than not, their leaders gut these objects of their context.
Artists do become embroiled in partisan affairs—they tend to take sides in debates that affect large segments of civil society, the direction that policies take, depending on their influence their voice and their works can become part of larger political debates. These stances become part of the stories of these objects. Artists’ faith and beliefs can determine their own fate and destinies, as well as that of their works, depending on what party or formation takes the reins of political and economic power in the societies where they express themselves. That too becomes part of the story of the objects they have created as they make their way from one owner to the next, one storage place to the other, they cross borders, enter institutions or homes in other countries as a result of choices made by their owners or their exhibitors or borrowers. This too becomes part of the story of these objects and should be consigned to paper or to digital templates—so that others may learn more about how art and its creators intersect with what we understand as History, the combined stories of people, entities, groups, communities, and those who lead them.
The art world should not shy away from telling these stories as they relate to the objects, their creators, and their successive owners.