“Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or a great amusement; it is a great matter.” – Leo Tolstoy
So says the guy who wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina—two rather great matters, I can attest, at pages pegged at over a thousand (at least, in my paperback versions) and thus too heavy for my school bag. That gave me no pleasure, solace, or amusement. (And that was before tackling the term paper.) Great matter indeed.
Kidding aside, why is art a “great matter?” The question has been posed in thousands of permutations probably as long as art has existed. And as time accelerated from one era to another, with industry and commerce growing with great magnitude, it still matters in the present. The question now seems more pertinent. Immediacy, commerce, numbers, concrete value. Let’s be honest, these days, get those right in any given combination and something can be catapulted into instant relevance.
On those terms, does art qualify as relevant? How is art a great matter in this age of information when an online platform can be more powerful than a position in government? When e-currency is meant to suggest more security than Central Bank-backed money? When language is more often than not translated in pixels than in paint? And when immediacy seems more important than careful consideration? What place has art, something meant to be experienced—in the most esoteric definition of the term—these days?
Here’s the rub: determining relevance is quite tricky, as it is, like art, subjective. Standards of relevance can be unique to an individual and in any given era. For argument’s sake, a quick look at the numbers may give us some insight. According to the European Fine Art Foundation, art, last year, was a US$65-billion industry. It was an industry high, with the growth rate at eight percent year-per-year. The number of the works of art sold has decreased, which means that less works are being sold but exchanged at exponentially higher prices. Relevant? In these terms, you bet.
The trouble is that it is difficult to quantify the value of art, no matter how much a work is pegged on the market. Trying to make financial sense of art is not only a vain attempt at an impossible solution but also misses the point entirely—with market values inflating and deflating all the time. Simply put, market values for works of art are founded on criteria that, in themselves, can be quite tenuous.
The value of meaning, however, remains invaluable—as romantic as that may sound. And that is just the point. Art has a language, a medium to communicate what its purpose is. Visual art is meant to say something, and the really brilliant ones have something to say beyond what the artist thinks. It doesn’t depend on spoken language—at least, not always.
Something about the image talks to the viewer in a language that transcends words. These are valued in ways unique to each person and for unquantifiable reasons, regardless of how it is valued in the art market. And as long as there is something to be said—whether a truth or criticism or an invitation to look at beauty, ugliness, and violence—art will always remain important. It may not provide the answers, but it does fuel the dialogue. It might sound corny, but sometimes the world—unbeknownst to itself sometimes—has a hunger that art can satisfy.
That art is communicating something is quite key to why the digital age has actually contributed to the cause of art, instead of rendering it obsolete or irrelevant. The times have provided the most powerful tool to date for art: a medium for accessibility to the great matter of art.
It feels so fulfilling to know that art has a medium to be so freely exchanged. Thanks to the advances of this age, so much of art in its many forms are available online, accessible and available to anyone. An obvious example is that anyone with Internet access can look up any significant art piece by simply keying it into Google. And while we’re on the topic, there’s the breathtaking Google Art Project that let’s anyone with ‘net connection to “walk the museums” and visit art collections around the world. And that is only one site.
The debate about whether the experience of art is different when one sees it in person versus a computer screen is a different and long discussion altogether. While I personally understand that there may be a difference, it is not so big as to invalidate the online experience.
Going back to the art market’s financial reports of 2013, eight percent of $65 billion was through online sales, a feature singularly contributed by the digital age. That is a little over $5 billion of online transactions. That may not be much compared to other industries that have made that jump to selling online, but for an industry that has made its foray into the world of the online sales market only recently (and in spite of art’s online movement’s staunch critics), it is still quite impressive.
But a more significant facet is that even without the option of purchasing art online, the websites of galleries big and small have become imperative to their operations. These institutions with its pulse on contemporary art are making available to site visitors the fully uploaded exhibition collections, installation views, catalogues, and literature at the click of a button. Aside from the wealth of information on the art of previous centuries, browsers now have access to contemporary art and contemporary points of view, all in a millisecond.
Decades ago, it may have seemed that part of art’s appeal was that it was brazenly not democratic—probably a façade created more by the players than by the artists themselves. Nowadays, the digital age has democratized just about anything, including art. And the art world has come to recognize that as a wonderful coup and an advantageous phenomenon. I still marvel that I can find myself sleepless at two in the morning, stumbling upon sites and viewing art that’s exhibiting in Washington, D.C. or reading the profile of an artist based in Hungary from his self-built website. It’s nothing short of a luxury. Trust the digital age to turn the meaning of luxury on its head!
The ownership of a work of art may be limited to a few, but the profound experience from viewing a work of art is possible for anyone. How simple and elegant that art’s relevance is further propagated by this age and via the powerful medium that has resulted from it. That’s a pretty great matter in itself.