Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Ultimate Reference of Merit

The December 2007 issue of The New Criterion magazine features a special section on Art. It includes an essay by Marco Grassi, a "private paintings conservator and dealer in New York". The essay, entitled "The Great Collectors" proposes that "one way to understand the history of art is through a history of collecting." Grassi writes, "We can divide the last century into four periods, each exemplifying certain attitudes toward art collecting". He goes on to describe those periods in a very well written and informative way.

Grassi is not happy about the last period, which he describes as "the postmodern". In this period, typified by the Saatchi brothers, the norm is "the exploitation of art for speculative and headline-grabbng self-aggrandizement . . . Museums, rather than being final destinations for lifelong collecting endeavors, have all too often become useful marketing stopovers for lender-entrepreneurs who exercise droit de signeur over the holdings . . . "

Grassi cites the yearly Miami-Basel "kermesse" as an example of the culmination of the postmodern malaise. He writes:

Drawing a line, in this time frame [of the past century], from Frick [the "imperial" phase, 1880-1920] through Kress [partnered with the Continis] and Simon [the "modern"], and ending with Saatchi, one sees all too clearly how these collectors embody the aspirations, myths, an ideals of each period; and how - in an ascending curve - the function of money has played an ever-increasing role. Wealth, of course, has always been important, but now it has become, finally, the only protagonist - the ultimate reference of merit, quality, content, and meaning.

I certainly cannot second guess Grasso on his history, but I can affirm the idea that money seems to have become "the ultimate reference of merit, quality, content, and meaning" in so many endeavors, including the law. But is this new or is this simply God versus mammon, an eternal struggle, although one with which our country seems to be having particular difficulty?

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