Art in the Free Market

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Anyone who believes the free market allocates resources most efficiently needs to stay in an Atlantic City hotel and casino for a while. The waste is staggering. And I'm not some tree-hugging Al Gore-loving granola-eating ecoweenie, either. But as an engineer by training and a fan of Bucky Fuller I find any waste upsetting. It always seems to me we should be doing a lot better. I keep thinking, is this really the best we can manage? Isn't there some way to channel some of this money off to people who could really use it for something?

Amongst that waste -- with the electricity running all those empty slot machines and the heat keeping warm all those long desolate hallways and various other unoccupied nook and crannies -- there's a lot of artistic effort wasted, too. I was heading into the bathroom by the pool when I noticed the vestibule was decorated -- colorful cars by the men's, fashion sketches of dresses by the women's, natch -- with actual hand-pulled prints. Down in the corner was penciled in: "1/1". I'm not sure of the exact process, but it looked like something where the artist paints on a plate which is then pressed onto the paper. Very colorful. These particular ones weren't great art or even good art, but quality is not what I was thinking about.

Paying a little more attention as I moved around the hotel showed me that the place was positively crawling with artwork, both originals and limited editions of one kind or another. And a few photos.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was at an opening for a group show where I ended up in a conversation with two of the artists talking about commissions with international hotel chains. One had been asked to do 40 paintings in about as many days for about as many thousands of dollars. "Not a good payday," he noted, although personally for that kind of opportunity I'd maim a grandmother. The other chimed in that he'd been offered a commission to do about a hundred paintings for the lobby and some suites of a Manhattan hotel, but the hotel company wanted to get the reproduction rights to the works too, and run off prints to fill in the rest of the rooms. He didn't think it'd reflect well on him or his work.

And not too long before that I noticed that my online art friend Harold Hollingsworth was reporting that some of his latest series of paintings, which my wife really fell in love with on his site, are going to decorate a Nordstrom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Since he’s out on the west coast I wouldn’t get to see his work, but when the store opens in March I’ll be able to zip on down and check it out.

I've often thought -- not to pick on Harold, for whom I am nothing but happy and whose paintings really do look great -- I've often thought when looking at department store or hotel hallway art, that those niches seem like they'd be some kind of art purgatory. Like playing in a professional cover band. You know, where it's got all the motions of the real thing but is somehow ersatz, somehow less. I also wonder, at the same time, if I'm not being unnecessarily dismissive. And now I'm also pondering: How much of the art world is subsidized by hotels? How many artists surreptitiously sell work to the various chains -- good lord, they're accepting money from Paris Hilton! -- and don't mention it on their resumes?

Personally I think we'd be better off leaving the hotel walls empty and just letting hotels send checks to artists: That saves on shipping costs and we wouldn't have to look at mediocre prints outside the bathroom. But then, judging by my yearly budget, I'm clearly unfit for deciding the most efficient allocation of resources.

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