Monday, June 23, 2008

Is the Only Good Artist a Dead Artist?

As an art historian spending time thinking about the works of Caravaggio, Louise Nevelson, Diego Rivera, or Eva Hesse, I often joke that yes, this is true. Certainly I don’t believe it. Robert Rauschenberg has been a favorite of mine well before the sad day of May 12, 2008. Though admittedly, it is sometimes much easier to study an artistic style that I can hold still for a moment rather than one that continues to change.

The NY Times published an article Sunday exploring an artist’s death not as a research convenience, but as a marketing strategy. This seems like a common story we hear in the arts. Van Gogh provides well-known an example. But the article cited more recent incidences of artists who suffered from lack of interested audiences while alive only to find their estates reaping bigger benefits. Like many before them, these artists notably refused to respond to the aesthetic demands of the gallery. Instead, they did the work they wanted to do despite their inability to sell. This is a brave artistic statement to make, especially in the 1980s (when these artists lived and worked). Some even refused to sell their work in galleries, thus maintaining their independence from the market.

Can art galleries enter after the artist dies to offer a changing of the rules? The NY Times story implicates a few galleries that admittedly thrive on these posthumous cases. While I understand and even appreciate the supply and demand argument, exploiting death for a dollar is too uncomfortable for me to contemplate for long. But my question is who is being exploited? Is it the artist or the art lover? Does it matter?