You Can’t “Elevate” Art

Food for Thought

This particular painting caught my eye at the Met. Unlike most still-life paintings of the era, it felt more down-to-earth, an everyday scene, like someone’s real lunch, original food blogging.

I generally don’t like museums, and I rarely visit them because the idea of “elevating” art bothers me. Since I studied fine arts, I’m familiar with how the vast majority of artists get started. Very few of them come from wealthy families. The moneyed environments in which artworks are typically presented, like museums, galleries, and corporate lobbies, are entirely foreign to most artists, especially when they produced their seminal work.

Even for food, when people talk about “elevating,” it typically means, “Let’s throw a lot of money at it,” but what relevance does the substance of art have to money?

The problem with “elevating” art in this way is that it attracts the wrong audience. Billionaire executives and financiers who would not have touched the same artists with a ten-foot pole when they were still poor and unknown suddenly are flocking to them in hopes that some of their prestige can rub off on them.

Even tourists who know nothing about art are attracted to museums in order to feel cultured and sophisticated. On social media, posting selfies with sophisticated artworks in the background does rub some of that prestige off on them.

Not just people but corporations too want some of that prestige, and they wait in line to donate money and sponsor exhibits in order to enhance their brands.

Throwing money at artworks doesn’t actually elevate anything; if anything, it cheapens them. The physical environment might be elevated, but the social environment is downgraded as a result. Printing Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on gold leaves wouldn’t change the substance of his work, but it would certainly draw the attention of thieves.

If these prestigious institutions of art didn’t exist, artists would be better off, as the audience would then have to make a real effort to find art that they truly love, not for any dubious ulterior motives.