Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The return of middlebrow art 

The most interesting thing in Terry Teachout's discussion of Costco offering art for sale on its website is that it was done before, in the 1960s, and the spokesman for Sears in its attempt to sell art in its catalog was Vincent Price.
Vincent Price is now best remembered for his supporting role in the classic 1944 film noir "Laura," but in the '60s he was a full-fledged movie star, albeit one who never got the girl--at least not while she was still alive. An elegantly campy gent who in his later years specialized in playing pardon-me-sir-while-I-cut-off-your-head psychopaths, Price was also one of Hollywood's most passionate art collectors, a former student at the Courtauld Institute of Art who had been well on his way to becoming an art historian when he abruptly changed course, went on the London and Broadway stages and became an overnight success.
I still will put down the remote late at night when I happen to land on a Vincent Price movie. He was doing Elvira before Elvira was cool (though not so much to look at); The Abominable Dr. Phibes is perhaps my favorite of the run of those movies to which Teachout refers.

But. In an era where a grad student's portraits of Alan Greenspan fetch thousands, why wouldn't we see art in middle class homes? If one is selling tickets to an opera, you certainly offer some tickets at high prices to some and at lower prices to others (maybe through a discount service, or rush tickets, or by some coupon.) There is also the matter of the prestige that comes from buying art in a gallery. I once bought rugs in an Egypt carpet factory outside Giza. It was an afternoon affair, with tea, a tour, and a personal display the likes of which I've never experienced since. I most assuredly paid more for these carpets than I would have walking through the Khan al-Khalili, but what I purchased was the experience. (You do wonder, don't you, when did we know I was going to buy, and why didn't I do the tea, tour, etc., and then head off to Carpets 'R' Us? Complex answer, probably having to do with custom, 'face', etc. But there was certainly a point where we both knew I was buying, and the question before us was how much would they extract from my bank account.)

We purchase life experiences when we buy art. Buying art from Costco is a different experience, to be enjoyed who will hang their art and remark "wasn't that much, bought it at Costco." You know these people, the women who compare how little they paid for their clothes versus those who compare how much. (Men do this too; it often gets tied into "Napoleon complex" or "compensation for small you-knows".) As discretionary income expands with an aging baby boom generation that has empty nests and no more pictures of kids in soccer and baseball on the walls, this is to be expected.