Jan 30, 2007

Can anybody own a masterpiece?


It may be possible according to a special article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by associate professor Alan Saxe at the University of Texas, Arlington. Like most things, you just have to invest before the works get too popular. It's a quirky little story. Apparently, this frugal young professor started buying great works by Chagall, Matisse, Norman Rockwell, Henry Moore, and others in 1965. He entered into a monthly credit plan, and he started buying these works before their value started to skyrocket into the millions. This Chagall work,"I and the village" is on display at MoMA in New York. It was not part of the works purchased by Saxe, but can you imagine a work of this quality hanging in what Saxe calls a "tiny domicile leased for $99 a month completely furnished -- one bedroom, bathroom, mini-kitchen and "living" merged together." Saxe says that as his collection grew, he started to grow uneasy about the possibility of theft or damage. He eventually donated them to art museums.

That is the nature of art I suppose. One day it's just a painting, and as time passes it becomes worth millions. Only in rare circumstances do paintings become masterpieces immediately. There is a period of scholarship and connoisseurship which starts to raise the profile of works of fine art; Art is, of course, subjective. I'm not an expert in art history by any means. But what makes a work a masterpiece? Nations of the world have cobbled together massive and cumbersome regulatory devices to protect and regulate them. Perhaps that is because by default, these works are going to go up in value. Picasso, Chagall, and Da Vinci aren't painting any more. But might instead we focus our resources on creating new art, and fostering appreciation of more living artists. I get frustrated from time to time when I read about cultural policy, because it assumes in many cases that beauty is a finite resource. I'm not convinced of that. Though it would undoubtedly be a travesty, if all the world's paintings were lost we would still find a way to create beautiful images wouldn't we? New masterpieces would take their place. There is a value in allowing a humble academic or a "ordinary" person to own works of art. Art isn't just for the super-rich in my view.
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