At the third Oklahoma Christian University Brew Talks Oct. 4, professor of art and design David Crismon spoke about “The Expensive Controversy: Art in the Age of Social Media and Economic Disparity.”
Crimson said he chose the topic because when he talks about art, the conversation usually evolves into money or controversy, so he wanted to cover both topics. Beginning with controversy, Crismon shared how an artist can get in trouble for their art by referencing “George Washington,” a sculpture by Horatio Greenough.
“The piece was designed to be in the rotunda of our nation’s capital in Washington D.C.,” Crismon said. “Immediately, it had a very divided reaction. It got nicknamed ‘George Jupiter Washington,’ because Greenhough put him in a Roman toga. This is what people began to dislike and have controversy with the piece. This sculpture was actually trying to tie into history and be very classical, but that’s the thing that got it into trouble.”
This sculpture, according to Crismon, is a great example of an “expensive controversy,” because it cost a lot to make and was immediately covered in controversy. When the sculpture was completed, it was moved to the Smithsonian Castle in 1908 and then the National Museum of American History in 1964.
Another example Crismon shared was a sculpture of a young, nude Turkish woman by Hiriam Powers called “Greek Slave,” which received opposite reactions from the public.
“The attempt here was to show a young girl entirely undressed, and this is going to set off a public outcry,” Crismon said. “There was some but, for the most part, it became wildly popular and was even endorsed by the church. The bottom line is the 19th century would have had a problem with this being a nude statue, number one—you didn’t show skin, you didn’t show cleavage. Here’s a fully unclothed woman in her prime, why is this not setting off alarms? Because it was mimicking something very old, it wasn’t considered modern. Also, to further diffuse this tension, she is also seen holding a cross.”
Crismon said when he proposed the idea of the Brew Talk initially, an image came to mind of a crowd of people viewing the Mona Lisa through the screens of their smartphones.
“Generations now relate to the art differently, the scandals get propagated differently and there’s a lot of [people on their phones],” Crismon said. “It’s amazing. I watch people go through museums who won’t look at the work with their eyes but will look at the art through the camera or their phone. Even when it’s there and there’s not a crowd—it’s a strange thing.”
The price for art pieces can skyrocket when controversy surrounds the work, as when some trusted individual corners the market for an artist and increases the value of the works, according to Crismon. An example Crismon shared was Damien Hirst’s sculpture “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
Charles Saatchi commissioned the work, which features a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a tank, for $100,000 in 1991. Then, the piece was auctioned to Steven Cohen for $12 million in 2004. According to Crismon, the auction house received a portion of the $12 million for their services and the rest of the money went to Cohen, leaving nothing for the artist.
“Saatchi, the multi-millionaire who already had money, is the one who made the killing off the piece, not the artist,” Crismon said. “People overlook this.”
According to Crismon, students live in a culture which says art “is not a real job” even when the contemporary art industry was worth $63.7 billion last year.
“I don’t know what planet they’re on,” Crismon said. “That’s a huge chunk of money. There’s room for us somewhere in this $63.7 billion of business, in my opinion. So, if there’s this much money going through it, why do we sit and say this stuff is irrelevant or it doesn’t matter?”