Art history communism

December 13 2013

There's a daft article in The Art Newspaper on the 'art belongs to everyone' theory. Philosopher Nigel Warburton writes:

If you happen to own a unique and important painting by Francis Bacon, or happen to be the buyer of the artist’s triptych portrait of Lucian Freud, which sold for a record $142.4m at Christie’s in New York last month, then your decisions about what you are going to do with it affect my potential to enjoy that work. 

Just as violins are designed to be played, so works of visual art are intended to be viewed. We are not rivals for ownership, since a Bacon is well beyond my means, but we are rivals for spending time with the painting. If you choose to restrict access to it, this doesn’t just prevent my appreciation of your painting, but can affect my appreciation of other related works by the artist, since we typically understand an artist’s particular choices against our understanding of their entire oeuvre, or at least against a subset of the most significant works. [...]

Those who own paintings or sculptures that are both unique and of art-historical significance have special responsibilities since they have the power to exclude ordinary viewers. Your Bacon can be kept in a private house and only shown to family and close friends. Your Rothko can be stored in a bank vault. This is legal. But is it moral? I suspect not. Not when the artist is significant and the work is more than minor.

Marvel at this philosophical communism. Why should art 'belong to everyone', but not, say, houses? Is it right for Mr Warburton to deny me access to his house? You never know, he might have a particularly fine Adam fireplace that I'd like to study, and of course a photograph of it would not do. The point is, why should the private ownership of something be deemed less private, just because it happens to be 'art'? Why is it be immoral to own a 'great' work of art and hang it in your house, but not a minor one? Where is the distinction - who decides? And where does Mr Warburton think art history would be if there were no private patrons to support arists, and commission works which they invariably hung in their house? Rembrandt was a capitalist. They all were. If anyone can think of a great Old Master who ever said, 'no, I will not sell you my painting, Mr evil immoral collector, to hang in your house where nobody can see it, I will instead put it on public display for free, and starve instead' (or something like it), I'll give them a tenner.

Update - a reader writes:

This comes to the basic moral principal of ownership of private property.  The public can't enjoy the unique view from your hilltop cottage or the unique pleasures you receive from other goods that society allows you to own.  In point of fact art has always in socialist as well as capitalist societies had restricted access.  The right to access comes with ownership.  A benevolent and generous owner makes his art available to the public periodically, which may increase its value as well.

Keeping art in vaults, unviewable and only as a financial asset is reprehensible as are some other permitted activities in a free society. 

If the society wants to make a painting or sculpture available to the public it can always tax the public and apply the tax revenues to its purchase, even in a forced sale at market as in France.  And then who decides what is bought.

I think that the author wants to appropriate both the right to view the art and the funds to own it from its owner.

Update II - another reader takes the case to extremes:

Philosophical communism?

Does the owner of an important painting have the moral right to burn it?

Does the state have the moral right to prevent an owner taking a painting to their home in another country?

Does an institutional owner have the moral right to sell works of art to raise money?

Update III - a reader points us to another gem:

The Nigel Warburton article is bad, but not as bad as this one in New Republic, which argues that the prices themselves (along with a lack of ‘embarrassment’ about them) ruin art for the rest of us!

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