Paintings are for use

Old Auditorium

As a painter, it seems to me that our civilization takes an attitude toward painting that might charitably be described as “wacko”. Ultimately I think the problem can be traced back to economics.

On the one hand, you have a relatively smallish number of works that are worth an absolute fortune. Private collectors tend to lock them away in bank vaults, it would cost too much to insure them otherwise. Public collections tend to display them all the time. They’re the crown jewels, and they tend to eclipse most of the other work in the collection.

Next down the line are a much larger number of works that are not worth quite as much money and whose significance is considered to be more “regional.” I suspect this has more to do with who collects them than with their ultimate worth, if indeed such a thing could ever be judged objectively (it can’t). This class of work is more likely to hang in the homes of collectors but be relegated to storage in public collections, and there are far more of these works than there are in the top tier.

Ultimately this whole dynamic results in an impoverished public realm, as far as painting goes. We’ve got heaps of public wall space to hang these things on, if you count things like government buildings, university campuses, hospitals, community centres, and public libraries. But for the most part, we don’t hang them, we stash them in storage. They have some cultural significance so we want them to last forever. But yet they’re not so valuable that we’ll build climate-controlled galleries to house them all, so we wind up preserving things most of us will never have the opportunity to see.

How should it work instead? I think we should treat paintings more like we treat buildings. We need to be more accepting of the fact that paintings are physical objects that have a finite lifespan. They were made to be looked at, not to be hidden away in a gallery basement. Some really important ones we’ll want to preserve forever, just as we do now. But most won’t last, and that’s OK.

There are lots of painters; we can always make more.

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