What good is it?

I was remembering the way  Robert Hughes ends the Mona Lisa Curse documentary by pessimistically stating that if the current Art world isn't capable of answering the question of what it's good for, then we should pretty much just wrap it up. Art and the market of Art are not separate worlds anymore, they have melded into a media-thirsty pot, where it is now indispensable that the artist becomes a recognizable brand. And while I do agree that the business of art has opened doors that are going to be difficult to shut, I question if this apparent new direction is really all that different from the one that came before it.

It is true that there are more wealthier younger artists than before, and perhaps most of these artist will not stand the test of time, but I wonder if their motives are significantly different from the ones of artists centuries ago. I know people just love the starving artist stereotype... how Michelangelo had to write letters saying he was broke, how Poussin asked a patron if he would be so kind as to commission a small work because he needed the money, how Sorolla described the difficult times he was going through when he was a young painter, or the ever-popular Van Gogh sob story. We could say that the difference is that the artists used to work for the sake of their art and not for money... maybe so, but that doesn't mean that there were no wealthy artists. Velazquez, Rubens, Van Dyck, even Rembrandt who squandered all his money, were very, very wealthy at some point. In Rembrandt's case, lets not forget that one of his works is not known for its title, but for it's marketing merit- the Hundred Guilder Print. So lets not hurriedly state that the way art was viewed before the 1960's was untouched by the art market.

What does hurt, is that Art is becoming solely about money. The market, which was once an after the fact extension of a work of art, has quickly become an unavoidable conditional in the execution of a work of art. Hirst, which would've been born if Koons and Greed had had a baby, states his view of the Art world with one simple statement - If you were given the chance to own the Mona Lisa or the Mona Lisa's reproduction rights, which would you own? Obviously he would've been banking on the t-shirts immediately.

Hughes, again in the documentary, says an absolutely wonderful line when referring to Hirst's Virgin Mother - "isn't it a miracle what so much money  and so little ability can produce (...)" . Just wonderful. But again, I wonder if artists before Hirst were not selfish. I mean, if we believe in l'art pour l'art then there is no other reason but selfish reasons for creating art. Whatever they may be, how ever pure or unpure they may be, they are selfish in the sense that an artist does a work of art only to satisfy himself. Now, this is obviously understanding that a vast majority of works of Art were created under some sort of directing patronage. But regardless of the fact that an artist may have worked within parameters, he or she always found a way to self-express within those limitations. It almost made for a more gallant effort in pursue of selfishness.

So I wonder... so what if those selfish needs involve money? What if those self-serving desires, when coupled with money, produce a wonderful work of art? Should we despise it for its intentions? I guess when it comes down to it, the decision to succumb to the tempting money gods, rests inside every artist. What I can't accept, is an artist who repeatedly betrays his or her creative desire to say what he or she wants to say, by constantly tainting the process of creating art with some pecuniary whim. It's even sadder when the attempt to create a commercial piece fails even at that.

I can understand that a lot of us, if not all of us, will be faced at some point with tough decisions in terms of how much we decide that our economic needs will affect our work. And I'm sure many of us will make work that we're not entirely proud of... the important thing is to remember, at least from time to time, is that Art is selfish... a good selfish if you will.

So what good is egoistic Art? Who the hell knows... Art just poses questions. Sometimes even questions that don't need to be answered. To think that Art is good for something, makes you think there's a preset goal when creating it, and that you're trying to achieve it efficiently. And I'm sorry but Art is not meant to be efficient... it's even at its worse when it's pretentious and pedantic.

So there you go... Art is selfish and useless. And those two things are the reasons I can't live without it.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, without money it becomes very difficult to function not only as an artist, but as a person in the society we live in. I am pretty sure just about everyone wants their artwork to be lucrative in some way. I mean, the mere fact that your artwork can sell gives that feedback and makes you feel like, "Someone gets me, someone gets my work." (even if they don't get it and just thinks it is just a pretty picture).
Ever since I was a kid, I always dreamed of making it big in the art world and even as an art student at 18 year old I still think I can make that dream a reality. I know what I like to look at and I know what I like to paint. I am pretty sure that will change over time. I hope I don't have to change my vision to make a profit.
Your post really made me think about a lot of things art wise. To respond to your initial question, I think a lot of art has purpose. We just have to give it purpose.

Nicolás Uribe said...

Van Gogh is a perfect example (even though it's more of a cliche) of art functioning, as you put it, without the aid of an excessive amount of money. Edwin Dickinson struggled his whole life and yet he was capable of making wonderful paintings. Perhaps it seems unfair, but it doesn't mean it's impossible to make art while not being commercially successful.

And yes, I agree with you, people can give purpose to art as much as they can give purpose to absolutely anything else. I just question that initial goal that the artist has in mind... are we painting to educate or enlighten, or inspire future generations??? If so, I think that's horribly pretentious. I feel better off by stating that we paint because we want to.

Mary Emily Davidson said...

I absolutely love your post about this. It is awesome to say the least. I graduated with a BFA (concentration in painting) and it is a relief to hear someone as talented and innovative as you are, to say that art is "selfish and useless". I am applauding right now. I just wanted to hear someone else, besides myself, to admit this. It is. I love art. I love painting. But it is the truth. The question of WHY we do the things we do, and what their purpose is...is like finding the holy grail.

If everything were up to purpose, then art wouldn't exist. Simple as that. I think if we can embrace our creative DNA, and accept ourselves as artists, our art, our concepts, ideas (as bad as they may be sometimes) and what we create, (regardless of it's purpose or price tag you may not be able to attach to match your clientel) then the art world would not have such transitional art.....but more innovative and original work. xoxo!

Sharon Knettell said...


So you feel you cannot draw as well as these guys. T'ant pis! I do not agree.

I have been absolutely bored out of my mind with the atelier painters for the most part.I hate those frigging rehashes of the 19th century. YAWN! I have always pointed you out as an example of what to do with the realistic idiom in the 21st century.

I have ALWAYS painted or made some kind of picture because I wanted to- however- I think it has to have a point of view that informs the work.

Most contemporary artists are too afraid of aesthetics in art- that old search for absolute beauty for fear of being called sissy boys or "God Forbid" hopelessly irrelevant. They would rather paint their neuroses and mental garbage for the world to see.

Sharon Knettell said...


I should have said- boo hoo on your riff about your shortcomings.

Painting is how an artist communicates.

You like a dog. You paint a dog. You like a flower you paint a flower. You like shit. You paint shit.

Painters like Manet, Monet and Van Gogh (among others) are the flowers of mankind. If you think what they did was worthless- then you are following down the sad path of 20th century nihilsm with the rest of the pack of spineless lemmings.

Nicolás Uribe said...


I don't know where you interpreted that I think people like Manet or Degas are worthless. If anything, the way I draw and paint, inherently shows off my respect for not only these painters but many, many others.

And when acknowledging my limitations, trust me, I'm not looking for sympathy or an affectionate pat on the back. I'm not the type. I do however question why is it that some of these works bring up a feeling of guilt. Like I said, self-imposed. But I'm not looking for people to "cheer me on"...

I feel those limitations, and by limitations I'm referring to formal ones, are what ultimately differentiate us from other artists. Assimilating the things we are good at, and embracing the ones we are not, are key when making paintings. MY paintings at least. Perhaps it's not about showcasing those deficiencies, but painting, at least for me, is not about showing off you're capabilities. I find that terribly pedantic. And it may sound weird, because one would assume that the objective is to show how "good" a painter one can be, but I feel honesty is far more compelling than talent.

Sharon Knettell said...

Sorry, Nicholas,

I was rather replying to TWO of your posts leaving my meaning unclear.

Th paragraph about Manet etc. was meant to reply to the " What Good is it', not your take on these artists but the prevailing nihilsm on the 20th century. It was worded poorly. I did not think you would not admire them.

I do think you are a compelling artist- your honesty is refreshing.

However-to refrase- I IMMENSELY PREFER YOUR WORK to the atelier trained artists. I point to your work as a premier example as to WHAT can be done with 20/21century realism and NOT to the current crop of classically trained artists. I think many of them simply rehash the 19th century and wished they lived there.I find them boring- skillful rendering has it limits.

I have a slighly different take on painting- if you will- it is showing the love you have for something and praying your abilities live up to it.

Art"As to Hughes article "What Good is it-
Hughes does not need to paint- he can just blow hot air about it.

I have never had to find a reason to paint or give it purpose. It is something that exists within.

Souren Melikian had a good explanatory article in the NYT recently which is his take on 20th century art.

The last paragraph was particulaly telling.


The 20th-century visual arts paralleled the multiplicity of ideologies that reflected conflicting conceptions of society and man’s place in it. The rudderless world that exploded in self-destruction from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 also tore itself apart in the images it conceived. It desperately tried everything and believed in nothing. The wild aimlessness goes on minus the craftsmanship.

Many, Many years ago- I heard a compelling talk by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpochce- a controvertial Tibetan Lama referring to 20th century art called " Art is Abused"

A quote if his

“A work of art is created because there is basic sacredness, independent of the artist’s particular religious faith or trust. Sacredness from that point of view is the discovery of goodness, which is independent of personal, social, or physical restrictions.” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Pg. 130, in True Perception

Michelle said...

Those are lovely. I can't say so much but owe. Don't worry too much on the trials because eventually they will just go away if you are determined to do your best.

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