This week's column by Ctein
Mike's recent post on Dave Hickey and the comments that followed made me realize that there's actually quite a bit I have to say on the subject of good art and photography and our perceptions of the modern state of affairs.
It's not uncommon for folks to think the modern state of art (and photography) is a pale shadow of what it was in times past. Putting aside questions of personal taste (some people hate color, some love color, some hate nonrepresentational art, some love it) there's certainly a bit of a bias towards thinking the past was better.
I suspect that's more sample bias than anything else. For example, there are a fair number of Americans who think British TV is just uniformly wonderful, because all they know of it is what PBS imports into the U.S. Gatekeepers can make a whole genre or body of work look a hell of a lot better than it really is.
History is the ultimate gatekeeper. Most crap doesn't survive. Wealthy patrons are no guarantee of taste. If anything, the opposite. They enable art to happen; and that's a wonderful thing, but I'm not convinced they do much to elevate talent. I have seen truly wretched and appallingly bad historical portraits in rich people's homes (and in some museums). Honestly, most of the patrons can't tell the difference.
The Legion of Honor in San Francisco has an unusually impressive collection of mediocre and bad art (intermixed with a certain number of gems). The reason is that most of it was acquired by the nouveau riche of the 1900s—the California robber barons. Not generally folks of exceptional taste, although of exceptional wealth.
Especially noteworthy is a bust by Rodin, a portrait of one of those Barons (I can't remember which one). It might very well be the single worst piece Rodin ever made. It is certainly the worst piece I've ever seen, and not by a small margin. It is just astonishingly awful. I don't mean "meh." I mean "bleahh!" I suspect the Baron was terribly pleased at having acquired an original Rodin. I imagine Rodin was terribly pleased at getting a chunk of the Baron's money...but it's not too much of a stretch to guess he didn't much respect (or like) the man.
Rich people who do have taste and a discerning eye stand out. If you want to see a collection by someone who had a brilliant eye, visit the McNay Museum in San Antonio. Marion McNay was born into oil money in Ohio In the late 1800s. Against the strenuous wishes of her family, who felt it was not appropriate for a woman of her station, she went to the Art Institute in Chicago. After that, she taught art and worked as a commercial and medical illustrator. She was quite the rebel, for one of the 0.001 percenters.
She married five (!) times, outliving most of her husbands, adding to her already considerable fortune with each one. A chunk of said fortune went into constructing an extraordinary mansion in San Antonio, parts of which she designed, and accumulating an even more extraordinary collection of artwork.
I visited the museum a month ago with several friends. What impressed the hell out of us was how incredibly good the collection was. This woman had an eye! I don't think I've ever seen so much excellent art in one single collection, in so many different styles and media, in my life. (Of course, a lot of the excellent work on display was acquired by the museum after McNay's death. I'm talking about the work McNay herself acquired.)
If the Legion of Honor is the Omega, the McNay is the Alpha.
It's not that rich people can't have taste, it's just that being rich is no predictor of it. The money just lets them indulge themselves, for good or for ill.
Finally, I close with this thought. Nostalgia is just another way of saying "I've forgotten all the bad stuff."
Ctein—his name is pronounced "kuh-TINE," and yes, it's his only name—is TOP's regular weekly columnist. His columns appear on Wednesdays.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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