The future of art history

More people than ever are buying contemporary art, and chances are that most of it is historically insignificant. It may be personally meaningful, intelligent, even edifying, but in the long term many of these collections will end up looking like the tattered silks of an age gone by or the archaeological remains of an ancient garbage heap. They won’t be definitive or influential. They will not have changed the way we look at art.  (from Seven Days in the Art World, p. 99)

This is one of the most provocative passages that I came across while reading Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World. I find it explodes with unsubstatiated claims about the past, present and future of art. Thornton twists around varying justifications for art collection from a simple compulsion (shopaholic, what?) to portfolio diversification. And I wonder why.

Really. Why? What does it matter why people collect?

The last line — Thornton’s assertion that these works “won’t be definitive or influential…will not have changed the way we look at art” — immediately looks ahead to the art history of the future. It is as if to suggest that in an art history class in the year 2109 will suggest that in the first few decades of the millenium there was no art made worth mentioning. I find that to be a ridculous assumption, as I am sure the future descendents of current collectors would agree.

It is the same as suggesting that the ancient paintings found on cavern walls are merely childish, thoughtless scrawlings instead of the basis of language and art as we now know it. I doubt the creators of the cave paintings, artists in their time, looked at their works and thought them worthless crap that would never be mentioned again. Granted, the names, dates, and times of that generation are lost — but the work lives on.

Thornton’s suggestion that contemporary art can only have value now if has value later is preposterous. What this passage does is place a valuation on art based on its collectability. Now, maybe to some that’s a totally reasonable thing to do. Novice though I may be, I think that the ‘value’ of art inherently transcends its market price, its collectibility, its saleability.

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