We’re all poorer when art is locked up
Collectors who keep great works of art hidden away harm the reputation of the artists whose work they own
By Nigel Warbuton. Comment, Issue 252, December 2013
Published online: 12 December 2013
The “Messiah” is one of the finest violins ever made. Since it left Antonio Stradivari’s workshop in 1716 many virtuosi have played it, including Yehudi Menhuin. Yet now it sits in a glass case. Silent. It was given to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on condition that it would not be played again.
There is something sad and wrong about this. Although in a public collection, it has been transformed into an object to be admired and marvelled at. But that is not what it was made for. In a sense it is no longer a musical instrument. A similar fate can befall some works of visual art.
The most interesting paintings, drawings and sculptures are unique or in very short supply. This rarity fuels the art market. Even with prints and photographs, which are intrinsically reproducible, rarity is sometimes increased by artificial devices such as limited editions that arbitrarily restrict the numbers of authenticated images in circulation.
Books, poems, recorded musical performances and movies are different. Although I own a copy of Tristram Shandy, my ownership has no effect on other people’s ability to access the novel for themselves. Digital technology has opened up access to such books via the internet, but even before computing, an individual’s ownership of a copy of a book didn’t hinder other people reading that work too.
If you happen to own a unique and important painting by Francis Bacon, or happen to be the buyer of the artist’s triptych portrait of Lucian Freud, which sold for a record $142.4m at Christie’s in New York last month, then your decisions about what you are going to do with it affect my potential to enjoy that work.
Just as violins are designed to be played, so works of visual art are intended to be viewed. We are not rivals for ownership, since a Bacon is well beyond my means, but we are rivals for spending time with the painting. If you choose to restrict access to it, this doesn’t just prevent my appreciation of your painting, but can affect my appreciation of other related works by the artist, since we typically understand an artist’s particular choices against our understanding of their entire oeuvre, or at least against a subset of the most significant works.
If photographic reproductions are in circulation, I may be able to appreciate some aspects of your painting indirectly. But paintings are not photographs. There are visual aspects of the original object that will be lost even in a large-scale facsimile. And even if superb copies could be made using digital techniques, they would still lack the unique aura of the original: they would not have been painted by Bacon, he would not have stood in front of them, they would not have had the history of ownership and cultural significance of the original.
Even with art that is not overtly conceptual there is more to it than meets the eyeball: works of art carry additional meaning through their relationship to artists.
This difference between unique works of visual art and copies of, say, a novel has important consequences. It is relatively easy to make works of literature available to large numbers of people simultaneously. But unique works of art always have a particular location and history as material things.
That is part of what makes art collecting so competitive: it is essentially rivalrous. It also explains why museums of art are so varied since originals can’t exist in more than one place at the same time. Contrast these with the great libraries of the world with holdings that overlap significantly.
Those who own paintings or sculptures that are both unique and of art-historical significance have special responsibilities since they have the power to exclude ordinary viewers. Your Bacon can be kept in a private house and only shown to family and close friends. Your Rothko can be stored in a bank vault. This is legal. But is it moral? I suspect not. Not when the artist is significant and the work is more than minor.
Artists’ ability to communicate to contemporaries and subsequent generations presupposes some direct public access to a range of their best work. If we had to base our appreciation of Bacon, Rothko and Cy Twombly only on photographs rather than original objects, or only on their least successful output, we would have an impoverished sense of their achievements. Those who love art surely want the artists they revere to be able to communicate their vision.
To lock an iconic work of art in a private apartment with restricted access, then, is as a opposed to artistic expression as stipulating that a Stradivarius violin should never be played. This is the kind of fate that an artist might wish on the work of an enemy.
It’s no good claiming that the reason you collect great works of art is that you love art if you then sequester them away from general view. Many collectors, of course, appreciate this and lend or donate key works to museums, some even stipulating that the bequest or loan is dependent on continuing free access. Let’s acknowledge and praise their generosity and contribution to culture. But those who remove significant paintings from public access harm not just us, but also the reputations of the artists whose work they acquire.
The writer is an author, philosopher and lecturer
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