Prior to Friday night, I’d considered myself to be an art afficionado in a broad sense of the term. I’ve always loved art museums and galleries, and I go through periods of making visual art of various sorts. At one time, interior design school attracted me. At another point, I thought about art school for painting. I decided on a BA in English and ultimately earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, focus on poetry, but I enjoyed art history as elective study. I deeply admire artists of various genres – visual artists of all persuasions, dancers, musicians, actors, film-makers, poets and writers. Over the years, I’ve supported my talented artist friends by purchasing their work, attending their events and making personal donations from time to time. And, of course, I happen to be married to a professional visual artist.
So it was an odd sensation when, at a gallery opening on Friday night, I found myself questioning my perception of myself as a “true” art lover. It happened when my eyes fell upon a porcelain dinner plate. It was white or cream-colored with a pale bluish-green design around the border, if I’m remembering correctly. It was cracked, and the artist had affixed to it a few strands of human hair. It wasn’t the piece itself that really caught my eye, though. It was the price sticker next to it, which read $4,000.00. I looked twice to verify the number of zeros.
Obviously, I’m missing something here, I thought to myself in disbelief. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered a piece of art that whizzed so high over my head that I could barely recognize it. I know… art is subjective. I know. But I was mystified by the idea that there were people who could make sense of the $4,000.00 price tag. What are they seeing that I’m not? It was a peculiar take on the feeling of being left out of a joke. I was more perplexed than anything. Do you have to be a special kind of visionary or hold a certain minimum IQ to recognize an aesthetic appeal worth $4,000.00 in such an object?
Believe me, I tried. I closed my eyes and tried to envision where in my house I would want to put a cracked plate with a few strands of hair on it. I couldn’t.
Probably the person who buys the plate will set it inside a cabinet with glass doors, where it will sit under display lighting in the company of other unusual objets d’art. It’s a “conversation piece,” they’ll say. Okay… I get that. I get the coolness factor of having a conversation piece. But who has $4,000.00 lying around to spend for the purpose of starting conversations? The hipsters who comprised 90% of the opening’s attendance? (Well, maybe the answer is in the question.)
Callaghan, my professional visual artist husband, wasn’t grasping it, either. Neither was the friend who accompanied us, himself an art-loving designer. And we weren’t the only ones… we overheard others musing about the prices out loud to each other. One thing is for sure – the plate does function well as a conversation piece! It provoked discussion as the three of us tried to fathom how the artist could justify charging $4,000.00 for it, as it provoked this post that I’m writing.
That I wasn’t alone in my confusion reassured me, but I still felt somewhat dismayed when we left the gallery. Art that makes me feel like an idiot! That must mean it’s really good art, and I’m not cool enough, worldly enough, educated enough or perceptive enough to “get” it.
The next day, I went online to investigate. According to the gallery’s website, the current exhibit showcases “complex sculptural work that uses hair and hair products as their medium” by three artists. I went on to read the artists’ statements about their exhibit pieces. While this helped me to understand and appreciate the intent of the plate artist (who is neither local nor an established artist), I still couldn’t reconcile the piece with the monetary value attached to it. The plate piece is described by the gallery as a “memory assemblage,” meaning, it’s exactly what it appears to be: strands of hair affixed to a broken plate (not sculpted by the artist) to create the “complex sculptural work.”
Apparently, what we’re talking about here is putting a price on memories. The work is deeply personal to the artist – the plate is a “family heirloom,” and the hairs on it are from her own head – so understandably, the artist sees beauty in it. But how can she expect strangers to connect to those personal memories of hers to the tune of $4,000.00? If the justification is that the dinner plate is a family heirloom, what does that mean… that the name of the family in question is “Kennedy” and the artist procured it from the White House? Or that the porcelain plate is an ancient Chinese hand-painted piece from the Ming Dynasty? Is the plate gilt in 14K gold, or otherwise valuable in some material way?
Along with the price, its designation as a “complex sculptural work” confounds me.
I can think of another example of real hair being used in art: horsehair pottery. Native American artists overlay pieces such as vases with horse hair during the firing process. The works are often then hand-etched and decorated with materials such as turquoise nuggets, leather and feathers to exquisite effect. The making of these pieces involves extensive talent, skill, intuitive craftsmanship, precise training, precious materials and hours of work. Since they are handmade every step of the way, the pieces are unique – no two are alike. I bought one for Callaghan when we were dating. Lovely and vibrant with the tradition of its cultural heritage, the item cost less than $50.00. Granted, I found it at an outdoor arts fair when I lived in Arizona; shopping in my own backyard maybe made it easier to get it for a good price, but you can go online and find similar pieces for comparable prices.
Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com
I’m cognizant of the distinction between art created for the masses as a trade versus art made for a gallery exhibit with a specific intellectual psychological/philosophical theme as its impetus. My point is that creating a piece such as the horsehair vase involves much more of a “complex” creative process than sticking some hair to a pre-existing plate.
Let’s be clear: I am not questioning whether the plate we saw in this gallery qualifies as art. That old debate is not what this is about. Glue your own hair to Grandma’s plate and call it art all day long (but please don’t go so far as to call the “memory assemblage” a “complex sculptural work,” because it is not. As Callaghan pointed out, to call it that is an insult to artists who actually do create complex sculptural works. I personally can’t imagine gluing my hair to a plate and telling a Navajo artist that it’s a “complex sculptural work” worth thousands of dollars). I’m not going to argue the matter, regardless of my opinion.
What I can’t comprehend is the price. I understand that the piece carries great sentimental value for the artist, but why would anyone want to pay $4,000.00 for someone else’s memories?