A Question of Quality
Last year, when we held our annual summer survey assessing the state of the market, we focused on the question of quality, an issue which still seems extremely relevant. Many of the dealers, collectors and gallery goers who constitute the art world’s rank and file are probably unaware that “quality” has become a suspect commodity within academia. The rigid, linear trajectory once posited for the development of modernism has long ago been debunked, and the absolute values that accompanied this discredited scenario have likewise been called into serious question. Recognizing that all values are socially determined and reflect the predilections of the privileged classes, scholars today are reexamining the extant canon with an eye to the prejudices which helped create it. Attention has shifted away from formulating qualitative judgments, and toward elucidating the processes which condition these judgments.
Inasmuch as the Galerie St. Etienne has always attempted to bridge the commercial and academic branches of the art scene, we are concerned that the intellectual shift toward contextualizing art has been misunderstood--and occasionally misused--by the art-buying and -selling communities. In reshuffling the modernist canon, scholars have unearthed much new and interesting material, but they have sometimes done so with little eye to its relative merits. Momentarily abdicating their function as arbiters of quality, academics have allowed the marketplace to become the primary determinant of value. It is indeed ironic that dealers have rarely been more eager or adamant in their espousals of “quality,” while scholars increasingly beg the entire question. The distance between the commercial and the academic arenas, at least in terms of aesthetic theory, has perhaps never been so great as it is today.
The present gulf between the commercial and scholarly sectors of the art world has impeded the healthy cross-fertilization that once occurred between the two, and arguably contributed to some of the excesses of the present marketplace. Neither sector is perfect: both have from time to time been subject to grievous error. But in the past, a subtle interaction between commerce and scholarship has eventually served to adjust and correct these errors. In the smoothing out of excesses, history is written and a consensus regarding quality is achieved. Nothing is cast in stone, of course, and each generation rewrites its own version of history, makes its own judgments of value. It did not take the postmodernists to tell us that taste is variable and to a degree arbitrary. However, rarely before has the acknowledgment of aesthetic relativism so severely eroded the essential mission of qualitative consenus-building.
In the absence of the corrective formerly applied by scholarly observers, the marketplace is free to redefine the masterpiece in purely monetary terms. Mainstream art criticism languishes, while popular publications highlight the alleged glitz and glamour of art. Auction houses create their own ersatz scholarship by patching together lengthy yet superficial catalogue entries from various academic sources, which are routinely quoted out of context. Selling art still requires the imprimatur of the scholar and expert, but the qualitative judgment is often made by someone who is neither. As truly first-rate material grows increasingly scarce, the temptation to advance mediocre works to the level of masterpiece becomes great. And as art dealing takes on the attributes of big business, there is evermore incentive to expand the market beyond the inherently limited pool of dedicated collectors. Art becomes just another commodity consumed by the wealthy, and the market is diluted by the presence of buyers who have neither the time nor the desire to properly study or learn from their purchases. The good news is that real collectors can still function quite nicely in the lacunae left by these buyers; the bad news is that the combined naiveté and money of the new breed of buyer distorts the shape of the market for everyone.
Some would argue that the market is a lot “smarter” today than it was in the late 1980s, when money was frequently thrown about indiscriminately. While this is certainly true, the structural transformations wrought in the marketplace during the ‘80s have not been undone by the “correction” of the early 1990s. If anything, the period of retrenchment has served to concentrate power in the hands of the largest and best financed players and put the squeeze on the mid-sized dealers who historically nurtured knowledgeable collecting. The scholar-dealer and the commercial gallery as a public educational forum seem to be vanishing. Auctioneers and dealers who place their principal emphasis on the bottom line confirm academia’s worst suspicions. The circle is thus completed, for just as academia has largely forsaken its role as arbiter of quality, significant portions of the commercial sector are forsaking their commitment to independent connoisseurship.
We can never return to the immediate postwar decades, when the art world was a smaller, more intimate place comprising dealers, collectors and scholars whose passions generally meshed, even when their interests momentarily diverged. Nor should one idealize those days, for the old system was fraught with problems. However, it would be equally incorrect to think that the present estrangement of scholarship and commerce will obtain indefinitely, for the two sectors of the art community ultimately need one another. Without connoisseurship, there can be no true collecting. And in a capitalist society, all art ultimately filters through the marketplace. The scholar-dealer may be in temporary eclipse, but his or her role is more important than ever. For it is this sort of dealer who forms the necessary link between art and commerce, cultivating the specialized knowledge necessary to evaluate a work of art both in art historical context and in terms of market value. Dealers who lack this knowledge are of little use to collectors, as are scholars who disdain the market entirely.
The pendulum of aesthetic theory and practice will inevitably swing back, but in the meantime, those who care about art might pay closer attention to the effects of revisionist scholarship. The upending of values that has characterized much recent academic writing began with the valid observation that formalist, Eurocentric, male-dominated art history left out a great deal of good, important material. A fuller, richer account of twentieth-century art history is in the making, and collectors would do well to look here for inspiration, rather than heeding the hype of the current marketplace.
In the past year, the Galerie St. Etienne has focused on a number of new areas that are ripe for exploration. Two exhibitions, bookending the season, paired well-known and less well-known German Expressionist artists. Christian Rohlfs, one of the most important instigators of the Expressionist movement, is as yet little recognized outside Germany, whereas the colorful watercolors and haunting prints of Emil Nolde have won him a large international following. Our pairing of Käthe Kollwitz and Lea Grundig this past spring not only provided an expanded context for Kollwitz’s socially oriented prints, but highlighted the under-appreciated contributions of women to the Expressionist movement. Two exhibitions at mid-season defied the rigid categorization that has often characterized traditional readings of art history. The Viennese Line demonstrated how fluid were the boundaries that separated the fine and applied arts in turn-of-the-century Austria. That Way Madness Lies exposed the fallacy of such labels as “outsider art” by juxtaposing the work of artists living at the psychiatric hospital in Gugging, Austria, with pictures by ostensibly sane Expressionists.
As is our custom, the Galerie St. Etienne’s summer exhibition showcases our latest acquisitions, which are presented within the general framework established by the preceding season’s shows. Highlights of the present effort include a major oil painting by Morris Hirshfield, Mother Cat and Kittens, and two oils by Oskar Kokoschka, Portrait of Lily Gesinus Visser and Hercules. A selection of drawings by George Grosz and prints by such Expressionist masters as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Otto Mueller join the work of Rohlfs, Nolde, Kollwitz and Grundig. Following the great success of our Gugging exhibition, we have received a new collection of the artists’ works from Austria, which will be featured for the first time. Though some of the works in the summer exhibition certainly qualify as masterpieces, this has not been our primary orientation. Quality cannot exist without a context, and the most valid context is still that provided by history, rather than by the passing gyrations of the salesroom.