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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dramaturgy | The Art of High Society

by Kristin Idaszak, Dramaturg

“Who said when artists dream they dream of money? I must be such an artist.” – Ouisa Kittredge, Six Degrees of Separation

In the nineteenth century, a new school of artists called Impressionists became the mockery of the art world. Ironically, a century later, these same artists—eg Degas, Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh—who lived in squalor and oppressive poverty during their lifetimes (often having to barter their artwork for food and art supplies) were now so sought-after that their paintings were drawing in tens of millions of dollars. By the 1980s fine art merged with big business as the nouveau riche desired to be seen as cultured and sophisticated, and by 1983 the New York art market was a $2 billion industry. The auction house Southeby’s exacerbated this phenomenon, employing attractive young women to cultivate potential clients and extending credit for the first time ever so that buyers no longer needed to be able to pay for a painting upfront.

Six Degrees of Separation's protagonist Flan Kittredge is one of these new art dealers, a businessman and art connoisseur buying and selling paintings for more money than the artists whose work he handles could have imagined. These paintings had become part art, part commodity, and more than anything what Flan deals in is social status. In his book American Culture in the 1980s, Graham Thompson points out that art became a marker of social status in an unprecedented way: “What marked the American art world of the 1980s was the degree to which late-nineteenth and twentieth-century art now attracted such sums and the fact that money, business and art became so intimately entwined that the buying and selling of art was as much of a story as the art itself.”

He continues: “Given the close links between art and business during the 1980s, it seems fitting that just as the corporate world of takeovers, mergers and stock dealing which so dominated the shifts in corporate and business structures during the 1980s was dominated by Wall Street and other Manhattan financial institutions, so the art market and the art scene was dominated by Manhattan…Art became one of the places in which the new money unleashed by economic growth in the 1980s revealed itself through conspicuous consumption.”

Art dealers became critical liaisons between artists and the entire world of high finance. The cutthroat industry became increasingly less about artistic integrity and increasingly more about money and status. Southeby’s owner said about the industry, “Selling art has much in common with selling root beer. People don’t need root beer and they don’t need to buy a painting either. We provide them with a sense that it will provide a happier existence.” But some dealers, like Flan, disparaged this viewpoint as well as the larger phenomenon of high art’s commodification, even though it was inescapable. These were the men and women who remembered Vasily Kandinsky’s mandate that “the artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”

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