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Will Gompertz | 17:25 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

What do you think would happen if news people ran a major art museum?

Olga Accoudee (Olga elbowed)


For a start, the captions by the pictures - currently full of "curator-speak" - might become comprehensible. As for the advertising, that would certainly change.

The current modus operandi for museum marketing is to have a poster with a big image of the trophy work from the exhibition and the name of the artist or show writ large across the top. When and where the show is on is generally given parity with the institution's logo and placed politely at the bottom. In tiny type - or excluded altogether - is the ticket price.

Hardly headline-grabbing. Why be so circumspect about money? What about a poster telling like it really is? Roll up, roll up and stand before a billion quid's worth of art. Come see Warhol's record-breaking £100 million painting. Peer at Vermeer: made for pennies, now priceless.

That should do the job. Put a couple of extra staff on the box office, stand back and watch a queue form around the block. After all, it is only the value of the art that interests the public.

At least that's how it appears when art makes the news.

The focus of yesterday's story about the elderly electrician who happened to have 200 Picasso artworks sitting in his house was the value of his collection. Not what these previously unseen artworks told us anew about Picasso, where they fitted into the canon or how on Earth he had them. No, the headline was that it was a "treasure trove" worth £50 million.

Our fascination with art seems inextricably linked to our fascination with money. Financial success in other art forms makes up part of the picture - the movie blockbuster, the best-selling book, the platinum album - but not in the dominant way it does with art. With literature, music, theatre and film we are more interested to know if it is any good than how it fares as a commodity.

It is art's unique quality that leads to its duel existence as both a work of human creativity and an object of value. And it is this duality that Steve Martin tackles in his new novel An Object of Beauty. It tells the story of the ambitious Lacey Yeager who seeks to make her way in the art world, initially as an auctioneer and then an art dealer before eventually becoming a gallery owner.

The book is not good enough to mark Steve Martin out as a true Renaissance man - his genius is for comedy, not semi-satirical prose - but there are some nice lines. One scene finds Lacey sharing a train carriage with an older man. They have a conversation about art during which the man muses that "paintings drift towards money for self-preservation" - that great works of art could perish in a garage without the careful attention of a wealthy owner who has a vested financial interested in keeping them in mint condition.

He attributes the thought to John Updike, not because he said it - he didn't - but as an act of recognition of the prolific author's writings on art.


  • Comment number 1.

    Art for art's sake, money for god's sake - 10cc.

  • Comment number 2.

    We now recognise that some great art was dismissed as fatuous rubbish in the past. It does not follow that all fatuous rubbish must be great art. It would be nice if the museums stopped devoting their huge halls to one pile of junk in the middle of the floor and used the walls to exhibit the hundreds of works from their cellars that the public would actually like to see.


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