On art, crisis and education

Macarea Ventosa. Director of the Bachelor in Art History, IE School of Arts & Humanities

9 March 2009

Art is in danger of being buried by the art industry, which is currently suffering the effects of the crisis, leaving the true value of humanities in bankruptcy.

What is the true value of art?

Should we measure it in numbers or in its capacity to make us feel and reflect on a world that is currently changing and becoming increasingly richer and more complex?

This type of question has not aroused much interest in art headlines so far in 2009. The current burning debate is the crisis and its impact on fairs, auctions and museums.

- With the opening of ARCO Madrid, there is talk of gallery cancellations, down from 295 to 238 in comparison with last year, and the anticipated reduction in investment by the traditionally most important buyers: public institutions.

- The recent auction at Sotheby´s in London expected a figure of £40 million, but it only just scraped past the 30 million mark. Even so, one private Asian collector helped Degas break a new record with the purchase of the bronze ballerina. There has also been general talk about the works that have not been sold, staff cuts and merging of departments to reduce costs.

- In the museum world, the news focuses on budget cuts, reorganisation and even the closure of the Rose Art Museum in Massachusetts, with the sale of its 6,000 works of art.

If we make a detailed analysis of the arguments put forward here, we see how they all use the same language of numbers, profits and losses, the economy and the press. It is also common to find the term "art" replaced by "the culture industry", complete with the boom in the contemporary art market and long queues for exhibitions, like the ones for "Picasso and The Masters" in Paris. Although it must be said that a return to return to the idea of art being for a privileged few would be unacceptable, and thanks to the industry that has made it fashionable, possibilities have also opened up for young people to combine a vocational career with a great number of professional options.

However, there has to be a happy medium: we must remember that we are not talking about material assets and sales, but rather about art. And so we come back to the question asked at the beginning: what is its true value?
It is interesting to see how the closure of the Rose Art Museum has had no repercussions outside the United States. It is an art museum that belongs to the Brandais University, whose board has decided to sell the collection to help with the university´s financial difficulties. It is very common for a museum to be associated with a university over there and is also logical. After all, when studying art in towns that are not major cities, it is essential to have the opportunity to see original works of art and not only reproductions.
It has not been in the news because it is not related to spectacular figures or names.

This brings us to the main issues that have a direct effect on education and culture:

What sort of student will want to register at that university, knowing that it values art as a material asset?

What will happen vis-a-vis other members of the general public, such as schoolchildren or the local population, who have learnt from and enjoy seeing those 6,000 works of art?

This is a case of the crisis hitting a population where it hurts and even more so in the case of students that represent the future. Let’s be honest, in a society that is often superficial and fast-moving, the teaching of the humanities must be considered an essential long-term option, not based on the profits or losses it makes in the short term.

Without the opportunities to enjoy and reflect on the art world, and if culture is not offered to all members of the general public by universities and museums as members of the public rather than consumers, our ethical grounding will not be the same.

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