Elatia Harris left the text below as a comment to my posting here yesterday. As is often the case with Elatia’s responses to issues I have raised here, this one is too good to not spotlight up front. She identifies concerns that are of significance to all of us who are signed up to ride through life in this creaky, unwieldy culturecraft called art making.

I’ve been highlighting many of these “new world order in the arts” issues on my filter blog Slow Painting, so stop in there and scroll through the last few weeks to find several compelling articles about how this has been playing out, here in the US as well as in the UK. And there is no past tense here—we are watching a slow motion dismantling of a complex armature of reticulated relationships between artists, galleries, collectors, museums, promoters, purveyors, taste makers and the public.

I keep thinking about the devastating fires that ripped through Yellowstone Park a few years ago, taking out millions of trees and beautiful forest vistas. But visiting the Park a few years after the fires had been quelled, I was struck by how quickly the terrain had been claimed by a completely new ecosystem of meadows, wildflowers and sapling trees. What had been dark and arborial was now open and freewheeling. New habitats, complete with a new set of juggles between prey and the preyed upon, was evident. And it was stunningly beautiful, but in a completely different way.

As naturalists have reminded us many times, there are larger arcs at work in the world, larger than our individual life times and wider than our narrowly focused view of things.

Postscript on the closing of the Rose Art Museum, which I have been following closely all week: The Boston Globe reported that Brandeis will close the museum but will not sell off the art collection as previously announced. I should know more once I’ve had a chance to talk to Marty Krauss, Brandeis provost and a friend.

From Elatia Harris:

The general crisis cannot but be reflected in the arts, which have seen enough commoditization to be especially vulnerable. Unfortunately, the art world takes everything crazy about casino capitalism and distills it, so that the backlash against what Damien Hirst and the Chapmans can be seen to stand for may be very harmful across the boards.

At the best of times, fewer than one percent of American college graduates with a BFA or MFA in any discipline under the Fine Arts heading are making a living doing what they studied and got credentialed to do — writers writing, dancers dancing, etc. Fewer than twenty percent of same make a living doing anything associated with their disciplines — painters teaching art, artists doing graphic design, dancers teaching aerobics. Those were not, at the level of public policy, considered troubling statistics when there was prosperity in the land, yet they reflect the devaluation of the arts, and their economic irrelevancy in all but a handful of stellar cases, as accurately as a drastic NEA budget cut for 2009, or the sudden closing of a small museum.

Does it take wide-scale struggle to throw light on how the arts have become a zero-sum game? Not an esteemed part of national life expressing what is unique about ourselves, but a special hellish corner of national life where — even more than elsewhere — there is either obscene reward or extinction.

In 1987, the art market underwent a substantial correction. There had been artists getting, for one painting, “entry level” prices that resembled an annual income, and most of those artists did not survive the correction to enjoy an Act Two. This time around, I hope some of what’s wrong can be addressed at a level above that of discouraging silliness by making sure the ranks of high-earning artists — so offensive they are, in hard times! — are properly winnowed.

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