The Work of Art in the Age of Free Market

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If you happen to have visited IKEA lately in need of new modernly branded, mass-produced, ultra-ordinary futon, kitchenware or office and bedroom furniture, because, let’s face it, they are cheap and cheerful, you might have have noticed that paintings and prints are being featured more and more at every stage of your long walk.

And the journey does not stop there, just when you think you have bought everything you need and much more, you will come to a whole new section dedicated solely to Art by the exit and you think to yourself: why not just buy that framed print of Matisse to go with my new curtain and duvet? He was a master after all, and for that price who would fault you for being tempted?

Ever watched Antique Roadshow, where countless everyday people find out their impulse purchase at an auction house or some internet site is worth thousands of dollars when they were under the impression it was worthless. Ever hurried to your laptop and searched ebay for similar unsuspecting individuals who thought the signature on a painting is “Plexi” while you read it as “Picasso”, and you buy it to discover later on it was a reproduction made in China?

Is your home now full of valueless prints and reproductions, and your better half so upset with your naïve attempts to find a gem in a coalfield that they threaten to put everything in the trash, and you disparaged, dwarfed and hopeless revaluate your life and come to the conclusion that you could have spent the money on something far more important?

Well, if your answers to those questions have been no, then you are by far much wiser, stronger, market savvy person than I am; because I, dedicated fool, penniless and broke financially and morally, have been in search of a treasure for so long that I have left the realm of sanity and common sense, and all I have to show for it is the ability to distinguish between a Chinese machine made reproduction and a run-of-the-mill Walmart print.

Reproduction is not a new process, it is in fact so old and common that gallons of ink have been spilt writing about them by art historians alone, not to mention for the prints themselves. With the advance of industrialization a romantic view of machine made reproduction took hold of the critics and thinkers, most important of who was one Walter Benjamin. In his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin, influenced by Marxism, saw the process as a way of diminishing the superficial divine nature of the original and the aura that surrounds it, replacing it with a more human, interactive quality which was to bring art to the masses and allow them to think and appreciate it differently.

However, as luck would have it, the free market based world that emerged had different ideas as to what reproductions are made for, and so we are either left with tricksters, fraudsters and scallywags trying to unload the new fake Rembrandt, Monet and Banksy; or we have businesses and major stores framing prints of famous artists to match the couch we just bought from them, just to make that extra dollar.

You might say this is a good thing, and more people are becoming interested in art, more people are enjoying art for cheap, surely reproducing great artwork would only enhance the power of art in general. And you are right, never in our history have we taken so much interest in art as we do today, but the problem is that we are being told what to look at, what to buy, what is good art by the market. We are being force-fed popular art and popular artists because they are the ones that are more commercially valuable. This in turn in reflected in the reproductions that are sold by the stores.

Sure IKEA is selling Matisse, but it is not The Red Studio which inspired a whole generation of Abstract artists and essentially was the reason Mark Rothko became the painter he wanted to be. They are selling the one that goes with your toilet brush.

Money is dictating what is revered as good art, and that is not what Walter Benjamin had in mind. We have access to a world of creativity but what good does that do if we are being misled as what to look for? Why do I have to go to university and study Art History to be able to say Manet was a greater visionary and revolutionary than Monet? Why is that not common knowledge?

Because Monet’s Water Lilies have been sold by the truckload and now features in every condo as a testament to market’s desire for making more money, whilst at the same time giving the uninformed public something pretty to look at.

So when people go to Paris they ignore the dark, murky, real images of Parisians for the sake of gaudy, colourful, prosaic images of flower fields and people in boats. Consequently the vicious cycle continues and more people go for what is pleasing to the eye rather than what is beautiful to the soul.  What do those cunning businesses do? Well they do what they have always done: supplying the demand they created in the first place.

Manet? Don’t you mean Monet? Yes, yes, we have a print of Monet in our foyer and it just makes me feel so at ease with everything.

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