Being the civic-minded person that I am, I serve on the Board of Directors of a non-profit humanitarian organization here in Little rock. Like most non-profits, we are forced to host frequent social events in order to raise money. Well, "forced" is too strong a word. One of the reasons we do these deals is because they are popular. Most people wouldn't attend just for the cause itself. They like to get out and throw their money around, maybe pick up a couple of adult beverages. If they can assist their fellow man in the process, so much the better.
We have an inordinate number of artistic types on our Board and so we do art shows at a local restaurant about once every 6 months or so. We did one last Thursday, and being the Patron of the Arts that I am, I dutifully attended.
My companion and I got our food and drinks and sat looking at the paintings on the wall as we ate. The first thing I noticed about the paintings was that they were for the most part huge and that they were all surrounded by gilt-edged, ornate frames more suitable for a museum piece than for the average stuff we sell at our fund-raisers.
The second thing I noticed was that, well, none of them were very good.
Now, I do not have a critical eye. My level of erudition, while not especially trustworthy, is at least more sophisticated than " I don't know art but I know what I like." Neither am I apt to burst out laughing while exclaiming " You call that art? My 9 year old nephew can paint better than that!" But that doesn't exactly make me the second coming of Vincent Price. (In addition to starring in numerous creepy movies, Vincent Price was a highly regarded art critic and collector. You didn't know that, did you?)
Since I don't trust my eye, and since I consider myself to be a fair minded person of manifest good will, I leaned over and asked J, " Is it just me? Or is this stuff really bad?"
" No." she said. " You're right. This stuff is awful. Look at the piece behind you."
I turned and found myself regarding an oil painting depicting the launch of the Space Shuttle. I kid you not.
" What is wrong with that painting?" she whispered.
" Other than the fact that it exists?"
" Yes. Look at the sky. It's dark. Do they launch the Space Shuttle at night?"
Sure enough, the artist had the damn thing bravely piercing a horizon of purple and black. I mean, that's just stupid.
"What does she want for this?" I asked.
" Oh Lord." she gasped, looking at the price list. " That one goes for $6500."
" What?!?!?!" I exclaimed in a voice loud enough to cause heads to turn my direction.
She just shrugged and handed me the list. The prices went from the $6500 nocturnal depiction of the Space Shuttle (perhaps priced thusly for patriotic reasons) to relatively reasonable pieces that went for around $400.
But I wouldn't have given you 5 bucks for any of them. The color scheme for anything other than the Southwestern landscapes was primarily pastels, mostly blue. After 30 minutes, I kept fighting the urge to go home and see if there was a UCLA game on TV. The perspectives were all blown. There was a dreadful painting of an American Indian on a horse. The mountain range behind the subject was rendered so incompetently it looked as if he could lean up against it. One's view of a landscape in another piece was distracted by the fact that the legs of the arch you looked through were not the same size. It was if one side had acquired polio during construction.
And on and on. It was just the worst stuff you could ever see. I wouldn't put this junk in a Motel 6. And she wanted top dollar!
While I was standing there with my mouth open, my phone buzzed. It was PM checking in from the West Coast.
"How's your event?" he asked.
" Let me get outside so I can talk." I whispered by way of reply.
" Uh-oh." he said laughing.
" This is the worst goddamn art I have ever seen." I said once I stepped outside. " My nephew can paint better than this."
OK. So I said it. But he can.
" You know, " he said. "You seem to see that a lot at these affairs. I wonder why that is?"
There is a an art gallery down the street from my house here in the People's Republic of Hillcrest. I stopped by yesterday to see if there was the artistic equivalent of a sex-offender registry. I felt that I duty to report what I had seen.
" Oh, you see this all the time." said D, the co-owner. " My theory is that some of these folks are basically in it to launder money."
All at once the light bulb in my head came on. He went on.
"Most of these artists are women who stay at home while their husbands work. They tend to have their own little network of bad artists. Here's how I think it works.
When one of the husbands comes into some money that he doesn't want to pay taxes on, they buy a piece of art from someone in the network. Once the money has cooled off, the purchaser of the piece of art buys a piece from the other guy's wife. And there they go, buying and selling this junk, mostly to each other.
They also do these charitable things where they invite the network to attend along with the general public. The network either buys a few pieces or runs the bidding up. They put these big honking prices on them because the higher the price the bigger the charitable donation they can write off."
OK. So that would explain the $6500 dollar piece that couldn't fetch a "B" grade from a 7th grade art teacher. But why the expensive frames? They must've cost a fortune.
" Nah. When you got bad art, the rule of thumb is: either you make it red or you put it in a fancy frame." D said. " You can buy frames for next to nothing in Mexico or off of the Internet if you know where to look. So you get your fancy faux frame, you stick your faux painting in there, you place a price tag on it only an idiot would pay and-poof!-you're an artist. Happens all the time. Now, that's only my theory. I can't prove any of this. But there has to be some reason other than the art that drives the economics. This is a crazy business but it's not that crazy."
I've heard crazier explanations for phenomena before. Wife gets to stay home and justify the inordinate amount of time she devotes to her hobby. Husband gets a way to cool off the money he won betting the NFL or the cash he made on the side doing an off-the-books radiator job.
Now I don't know if last week's artist is in a network of hacks like D was talking about or not. Hell, for all I know she may be an important regional artist and I am a complete Philistine. I have no reason to believe that there was anything going on the other night that wasn't on the up and up.
However, I do know that you can learn something new every day if you are open to the prospect. I also know that there are reasons for phenomena and then there are real reasons.
And I am pretty sure that none of those paintings got sold, charity or no.