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There is Art, and Then There is Art

Last Sunday’s New York Times juxtaposed two interesting and seemingly contradictory pieces on art, money, and modern culture.  The apparent decline of music for music’s sake is lamented, but few stand in the way of the evolution.  The loss of art for art’s sake is more stridently resisted.  These are similar but not identical issues; they receive very different treatments.

In “Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan,” pop music critic Jon Pareles laments the demise of music for music’s sake, as licensing deals move to the forefront of musicians’ concerns with getting paid:

And as music becomes a means to an end — pushing a separate product, whether it’s a concert ticket or a clothing line, a movie scene or a Web ad — a tectonic shift is under way. Record sales channeled the taste of the broad, volatile public into a performer’s paycheck. As music sales dwindle, licensers become a far more influential target audience. Unlike nonprofessional music fans who might immerse themselves in a song or album they love, music licensers want a track that’s attractive but not too distracting — just a tease, not a revelation.

It’s almost enough to make someone miss those former villains of philistinism, the recording companies. Labels had an interest in music that would hold listeners on its own terms; selling it was their meal ticket. Labels, and to some extent radio stations and music television, also had a stake in nurturing stars who would keep fans returning to find out what happened next, allowing their catalogs to be perennially rediscovered. By contrast, licensers have no interest beyond the immediate effect of a certain song, and can save money by dealing with unknowns.

Elsewhere in the art world, traditional intermediaries continue to exert more authority, though financial pressures are challenging their role, too.  In “Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?,” Jori Finkel wrote about the bashlash in the (fine) art world against museums that sell parts of their permanent collections in order to pay the bills and stay open — rather than to buy additional works, as has been the traditional understanding.

The sale of artwork from a museum’s permanent collection, known as deaccessioning, is not illegal in the United States, provided that any terms accompanying the original donation of artwork are respected. In Europe, by contrast, many museums are state-financed and prevented by national law from deaccessioning.

But under the code of ethics of the American Association of Museums, the proceeds should be “used only for the acquisition, preservation, protection or care of collections.” The code of the Association of Art Museum Directors is even stricter, specifying that funds should not be used “for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the collection.”

Donn Zaretsky, a New York lawyer who specializes in art cases, has sympathized with the National Academy at theartlawblog.blogspot.com, asking why a museum can sell art to buy more art but not to cover overhead costs or a much-needed education center. “Why should we automatically assume that buying art always justifies a deaccessioning, but that no other use of proceeds — no matter how important to an institution’s mission — ever can?” he wrote.

Michael O’Hare, a cultural policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has also broached the issue on samefacts.com, said in a telephone interview, “I see no reason for strict rules about deaccessioning, other than telling the truth to the public and not selling to international trafficking mafias.

“The National Academy is absolutely within their right to say, ‘We’re going to go broke or we’re going to sell off two paintings, what do you think?’ ”

Even Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago known for her strong stance on protecting cultural patrimony, said her position had softened over the years. “If it’s really a life-or-death situation, if it’s a choice between selling a Rauschenberg and keeping the museum doors open, I think there’s some justification for selling the painting,” she said.

But several directors drew a much harder line, noting that museums get tax-deductible donations of art and cash to safeguard art collections for the public. Selling off any holdings for profit would thus betray that trust, they say, not to mention rob a community of art, so no exceptions for financial hardships should be allowed.

Dan Monroe, a board member of the directors’ group and the director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., said that almost any museum can claim financial hardship, especially now that endowments are suffering. “It’s wrong to look at the situation from the standpoint of a single institution,” he said. “You have to look at what would happen if every institution went this route.