Art and Politics–the Politics of Collecting Art

Big subject…with lots of pitfalls…I’ll tread lightly and would appreciate anyone’s comments or insights on the subject as it evolves…

The print shown on the left is by a Czech artist, Jiri Anderle, and it’s been in our collection for nearly 25 years. Right now it hangs just above the desk and looking at it daily made me think about politics and art/the politics of collecting art. Anderle toiled for many years under the strict totalitarianism of the Communist state and his art reflects that fact, sometimes blatantly and other times with great subtlety. (Anderle is currently featured in a one-man exhibition, Illusion and Reality, at the Cincinnati Museum of Art (read a review by clicking here.) His appropriation of Caravaggio’s Baroque masterpiece, Bacchus, is a telling conceit–by reversing the image, stilling the drunkeness of the youth (note the liquid in Anderle’s glass is not shimmering with movement), draining the luxuriousness from it and subtly inserting a cruel line of a skull to the left of the Bacchus’ head–he has made his political point. Exquisite dry-point work (Anderle is a master draftsman) combined with the flush of aqua-tint points out the futility of life in a politically repressed society.

Okay, yes artists have used their medium to take governments to task throughout the centuries and in fact, there is some thought that Caravaggio’s Bacchus (shown above,) is a subtle jab at the lifestyle of his first major patron, Cardinal Francesco del Monte (although thematically it also is a reflection of the artist’s own debauched life–that is hardly the face and attitude of a demi-god after all, humanistic philosophies aside. The art critic Robert Hughes memorably described Caravaggio’s boys as “over-ripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths
and hair like black ice cream.”)
Europe was in political and moral turmoil during the life of Caravaggio–the Counter-Reformation was in full tilt–northern Protestant Europe aligned against the southern Catholics–amongst the Catholic countries the Inquisition was rooting out and destroying the lives of those deemed not sufficiently pious (Galileo anyone?) And in the midst of this bloodshed and moral upheaval arises the dynamic painter Caravaggio who unwittingly leads the artistic charge against the formalities of the Italian Mannerists and establishes the Baroque with his thinly veiled eroticism, deep chiaroscuro and brilliant, evocative symbolism.

Here is Anderle’s Bacco, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, the juxtaposition of their life experiences and I began to wonder about the politics of collecting–is collecting a political action? Cardinal del Monte certainly had an agenda to promote (humanism) and Caravaggio was able to assist in the promotion of that agenda by providing paintings of subjects that symbolically underscore the humanist platform of philosophies (brilliantly and without peer, I might add.) Did Caravaggio enhance del Monte’s political capital? Was he a political asset?

I feel that this is where the id, the ego and the superego (Freud has taken a hit lately, but let’s at least agree to borrow some of his terminology) all start to play a part in the act of collecting art. For many of us, economics are politics. We are not Simons, Huntingtons, Gettys, Morgans or Broads. Our collecting activity will not enhance our political standing. But how does it for those wealthy individuals? How does art add to their political capital?

Let’s take Eli Broad for example. His foundation has offered 30 million dollars to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) to bail it out of its financial death spiral. A political move on Broad’s part? It seems so altruistic, but at heart, is it really? If it were purely altruistic, wouldn’t it have been better to donate anonymously? Ego, not id drives decisions such as this. Public legacy building seems a suspect activity of the true collector (or is that only true for those of us whose economic situation prohibits it?) Before this ‘save’ by Broad I had thought he and his wife had a true appreciation for contemporary art and for collecting aided by immense wealth. What else is left for them? Just a museum with their name on it…but wait they have that at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; but wait that’s only a building…and so on. Is Broad the del Monte of our time?


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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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