BY PETER LYON TO draw a parallel between boxing promotion and art promotion may seem a little unfair. Those who are familiar with the world of art dealing may point out that there are no Queensberry Rules in art. There are how- ever many points of comparison. Too many artists have been taken young and encouraged to work beyond their capacity; exhausting their potential strength in producing a profusion of trivial work to be sold at a low price for quick returns. It is not surprising that many of the contenders in the Bond Street ring are punch-drunk before reaching maturity.
The dealers have found that they can arouse interest in a gimmick more easily than they can in the necessarily slow development of the more profound painter or sculptor. One sculptor has discovered flatness; such simple and easily recognisable trade-marks provide convenient handles for steering sculpture through cocktail party conversations. The value of publicity is as great in art as in any other field and, as any public relations officer will tell you, nothing carries so much punch as a gimmick. The difficulty is to escape from it 'once the name has been made. There are many artists clinging desperately to the style that first brought them notice, for the dealer prefers branded goods.
The dealer has much of the responsibility for this situation. In his capacity of an agent his position is perfectly justified.
On the grounds that the artist is always a poor man of business it is reasonable to suppose that he needs an agent to act on his behalf. (Whether this theory of the artist as a bad business man is romanticism or not is open to some dispute. There are some professional artists whose business acumen would startle a'merchant banker.) Where the dealer's activities are open to criticism is in his function of an entrepreneur and broker of art. There has been a tendency in recent years for the dealer to establish and dominate a clearing-house between the artist and the rest of the society. On the grounds that it is more sensible to get your tea from the grocer instead of direct from Ceylon, the public have accepted the principle of the art shop. However, the two commodities are not comparable.
Paintings and sculptures do not lend themselves to being graded and put into economically priced packets like tea. The dealer attempts to do this. Like any other retailer, he prefers goods of a uniform and measurable quality. The mistakes, the changes of approach, the repetitions which invariably accom- pany a genuine search for a truth tend to make the artist with the greatest integrity the least desirable wholesaler.
In the world that the dealer has helped to create there is no place for the minor artist. Before the discovery of the word `Art,' with a capital 'A,' there were painters and carvers, and occasionally one of them became an artist. And when this did happen, he was someone who had risen, quite naturally, from being a minor artist to being a major one. His work had acquired that spark that the others did not have. He had achieved a quality but not a trick. The present society has no room for the minor artist. The preference is for the tenth- rate genius rather than a first-rate craftsman. The question is, can genius be rated in this way? The demand being of this kind, the temptation to any young artist is to plunge direct into the chilly realms of pure imagination.. Realms where it is true that the greatest achievements have been made but where any but the truly great are bound to flounder. A general impression of much contemporary work is that if it was any good it would be brilliant.
It is important to realise that the dealer is more concerned with the interest aroused in contemporary work than he is in its final fulfilment. Patronage of living artists is not great and prices are not high. The bulk of most dealers' business is the resale of fragments of dead artists' work with an occasional big deal when an important old master changes hands. The real money in dealing is to be made after the market has steadied and the commercial worth of an artist's work has been established—usually not until after his death. Often the main function of a living artist's exhibition is to draw those members of the public who are interested in art into the shop. They come to talk of the contemporary artist but can be more easily persuaded to buy a safe picture which has a certain investment value. The living artist represents the prestige advertising for the backroom sales. Under these circumstances there is an incentive to the dealer to create artist personalities who possess consistent and readily recog- nisable techniques rather than real worth, the artistic equiva- lents of the TV personality.
Because of the strong position that the dealer now holds he is becoming increasingly an arbiter of taste; well versed in the jargon of art criticism, he also has a wide knowledge of the history of art. In the dedicated atmosphere of the Bond Street gallery, with its fitted carpets, concealed lights and hushed voices, the dealer becomes a formidable sales- man. The dealer has been greatly helped in this creation of a market in the temple by the largely agnostic intelligent middle class who derive a certain comfort from having deity in reserve in the form of taste cum art.
In the present society the artist has been reduced in stature.
The traditional association between the painter, the sculptor and the architect has beep broken. The artist has become a source of specialised intellectual excitement to a very limited audience. It would be absurd to place the responsibility for this situation on the dealer alone, for there have been many factors that have contributed, but his entrenchment as the accepted liaison between the artist and the customer has tended to block the hoped-for transference of patronage from the individual to the public. The dealer has capitalised during the .time that private patronage has dwindled and has assisted in the building-up of a mysterious professionalism that now surrounds the artist. It is this professionalism that is increasing the gap between the artist and the rest of society. Much could be gained if the artist and the public could meet out- side the shop, even if it is only on the pavement.