06/06/2012: Exhibition of artwork rejected by the RA Summer Exhibition flirts with democracy
This week Happenstance gallery is holding a show of artwork rejected by the Royal Academy, which prompts a discussion about valuing and defining art with democracy. This is important so let us get stuck in….
To discuss art valuation, let us be reminded of the dominant system our society uses to set prices for things, free market capitalism. It bears similarity with the free vote system of democracy. It’s the free bit. Both attempt to be fair by giving everyone influence. Supposedly, everyone is free to vote for who they want to decide who governs. Supposedly everyone is free to buy or sell what they want at the price they want which sets prices. No-one is forced to vote for what they do not want. No-one is forced to buy what they do not want.
Those wants are also called demand. Demand is a bit like a vote with your money. Economists would have us believe that free markets work automatically matching supply and demand. There is an assumption that want or demand just magically happens on its own. In fact, that is not always true; let us look at it more closely. Demand for a bottle of water to quench thirst will arise on its own, but your demand for a book written in Chinese will probably not happen till you learn to read Chinese. Demand for the Chinese book depends on getting some education first. This is typical of demand for many types of media. The demand level for a communication medium depends on the education level of an audience to understand it. Demand is not automatic like thirst for water. Art is like this. You may want (demand) an artwork because:
YOU find the artwork aesthetically beautiful;
YOU detect a message or commentary in the art;
YOU detect the artist emotion in the artwork content;
YOU feel your own emotions stirred by the artwork content;
As a medium of communication and expression, art can do all of this but demand for these intrinsic values of art depends on ability to understand its visual lingo (i.e. visual literacy). Demand also depends on openness to handle your own emotional stirrings as well as the emotions of others (i.e. emotional intelligence.) These characteristics provide a framework to consider a definition of what is art but I shall not consider that any further.
Visual literacy and emotional intelligence powerfully impact demand for art; everyone can sharpen up or dumb down these faculties. It really is just a case of practice, which readily comes if you have information and access in the free market.
Now here is the problem! One of the basic guiding principles of fairness behind free market capitalism is that everyone has equal access and full information about the stuff for sale. However, the art market does not operate like that. It is riddled with insider information and is not regulated; it violates free market principles. It is corrupted. This corruption even extends to those we trust to keep its integrity; The TATE receives considerable taxpayer and lottery funds and recently bought a work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei but they have not publicly revealed the price paid. Contrast a transparent regulated stockmarket where sale prices are published in milliseconds on trading screens for everyone. If information is not flowing fast and free then supply cannot match demand in a meaningful way and price valuations will be wrong, led by a few insiders in an un-free market.
As a direct result outsiders (the majority of us) lack access and information, which directly impedes the chance to practice visual literacy and emotional intelligence. Consequently, for the majority, the main criterion behind demand-led valuation of art becomes aesthetic beauty alone. Meanwhile, economists wrongly categorise art as a luxury purchase rather than an essential. Art helps manage emotions and this is essential, not a luxury. Worse, the economists and policy makers fail to correct free market theory (and practice) to allow for visual literacy and emotional intelligence in pricing the true intrinsic value of art.
Does all this matter? Well, this exhibition has invited us to vote for our top 3 choices. Why have we been asked to vote? Probably because we like democracy. So, let us look again at our parliamentary voting system. It is one person, one vote. Some decisions which affect our country involve very complex factors, which you may not understand. Some elitists believe we should remove the vote from those who do not understand and leave complex decisions to the elite. Still, it’s one person, one vote. Educated or not, we consider everybodys opinion valid in choosing who runs the country. Not everyone has the luxury of time to learn everything about everything although we must take interest. The informed elite must be public spirited and good enough to make sufficient, succinct information available for all to make informed decisions. We people are capable of understanding the complex stuff.
Unfortunately, in the art world the opposite applies. Instead of sharing information equally, the informed elite keep the unregulated art market un- free and corrupted with privileged access for themselves. In so doing, they impede promotion and practice of visual literacy and emotional intelligence, leaving the majority dumbed down allowing themselves to step in as elite price-setters. Do you really believe they know how many of you would really enjoy a powerful emotional response to the artworks they accepted or rejected from the Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition? They do not know you. They do not know your life or your emotions. Of course they do not know. Do they believe their own emotional response is more valid than yours? If so, they would be wrong. So what if they know about the art? That's only half of this emotion communication circle. They don't know about you, nor everyone else.
So, why do we allow this un-equal information advantage in art but not politics? They have hijacked the free market by controlling information and access.
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The Happenstance show operated a basic low tech voting system by giving each visitor 3 white sticky labels to attach on the wall below each artwork they like. The artwork with most sticky lables wins. I suspect the purpose of this show in inviting votes is to compare and contrast the democratic choice with the expert choice. No doubt there will be a difference between the choice of the elite and the masses.
Does this matter? Yes, absolutely.
I salute this attempt at democracy although the show only displayed about 80 artworks out of probably thousands that got rejected. So, if you really want to level the playing field in the world of art, what can you do?..........Click here