Art for Profit’s Sake

  It's become the biggest art controversy since Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photos. This week, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives threatened to withhold federal funds from New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art unless it cancels a controversial exhibit of shock art, which includes a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. But amidst all the rhetoric about free speech and artistic expression, a dirty little secret of the art world has emerged: It turns out the controversy is less about artistic freedom than it is about cold, hard cash. The exhibit is entitled "Sensations," and last week New York Mayor Rudolph Giulliani labeled it "sick." He threatened to withhold public funds if the museum didn't shut down the show. But the museum fired back with a lawsuit, accusing Giulliani of violating the museum's First Amendment rights. Undeterred, Guilliani is now charging that the exhibit is not about art, but commerce. You see, "[Art] dealers, collectors and auction houses routinely pressure museums to hold shows or include [certain] works," explained the Wall Street Journal in a recent article. "The unstated reason, understood by all involved," says the Journal, "is to boost the price of an artwork, and the value of the artists' overall works." Sam Merrin, the president of a New York art gallery, told the Journal that having a piece in a museum collection increases its value by up to 50 percent—a phenomenon called "the exhibition effect." We should not be surprised, then, that one of the sponsors of the "Sensation" exhibit is the prestigious auction house, Christie's. It turns out Christie's has sold other works by the owner of the "Sensation" collection, Arthur Saatchi. Any increase in the value of the works in "Sensation" means bigger commissions for Christie's when the works are sold. It's a blatant conflict of interest. And of course, the controversy raging around the Brooklyn exhibit will increase the collection's value even more. All of this probably comes as a surprise to the general public. Most of us think works are chosen for exhibition on the basis of artistic merit alone. This belief is probably why most New Yorkers side with the Brooklyn Museum against the mayor. They've been told the kerfaffle is a case of artistic freedom versus censorship. Not so. It's really about a cynical attempt to make a buck. The art "community" delights in calling Giuliani and his supporters "philistines." But it turns out THEY are the real philistines. They're debasing art by treating it as a commodity—using high-sounding rhetoric to mask their true motives. What's going on in Brooklyn illustrates how far we've descended from the Christian view of art. The church has historically viewed art as something enobling, and beauty as something objectively good—a reflection of God's goodness in creation. If those philistine labels get thrown at you, help your neighbors understand who the REAL philistines are: It's not Christians, with their high view of art. It's the folks in Brooklyn, who are turning the public's love of art into just another get-rich-quick scheme.


Chuck Colson


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