General 12-20-2004

Consumer Follies

Suzanne Szucs joins our columnists, writing on the intersection between politics, art, and popular culture.

Suzanne Szucs

Ah, it’s time for the holiday art sale. ‘Tis the season for artists to work furiously at making saleable work. They put aside their truer visions and spend their time constructing easier-to-swallow, impulse-shopper-quality art trinkets, all for the opportunity of luring Christmas shoppers to buy, Buy, BUY – a necessary evil to lend financial support to what they will be doing for the other eleven months of the year.

To be fair, many artists spend those other months gearing up for this season. They’ll do anything to be able to practice art, using the holiday buying obsession as a way to support their habit. Having learned to decipher public desire, they throw themselves into the cauldron of production, a space in which the luxury of critical thought does not exist. Art as stocking stuffer isn’t too hard to imagine in a kitschloving culture, but what effect does it have on the artists who stop their work, change their direction, and spend their time trying to figure out how to please the public?

It’s not all fun and games making multiples; it can be a labor of desperation. Artists will sell their work for dirtcheap prices, corrupting their market for the rest of the year. They’ll make bargains, paste ribbons and bows where none should go, and, like Covent Garden buskers, shout out, “Who will buy!”while standing in the midst of your shopping mall experience.

We are a society of collectors, but self-absorbed ones. We like to collect reminders of where we have been, like badges of honor. Who hasn’t stopped in the gift shop on the way out of the museum? After the titillation and lure of the Picassos, the store offers more fulfilling activity: hunting for the art bargain. Some folks are so distracted in the museum galleries, salivating for the sport of the gift shop, that they miss the art entirely and probably should have gone straight to the buyable stockpile. Take it home, try it on, hang Impressionist ornaments on your tree. ‘Tis the season when museum membership owners will be receiving holiday art shop catalogues. Delicious. We devour them – fine art as fine chocolate.

It’s no surprise that every major museum has a jewelry counter to rival Neiman Marcus. Certainly at the Walker, you can slip into the gift store without setting foot into the museum proper and you’ll always find a few knockoffs from what ever show you might be heading to see. It’s a little preview to get you in the mood, multiples on a grand scale. Miro pendants, Calder earrings, Alice Neel belt buckles (okay, I made that one up). It’s the museum’s Faustian bargain. They, too, need to finance their exhibitions and with lackluster to near non-existent federal support, the gift shop is the best bet. Since we live in a stuff culture as opposed to a charitable one, the museum is right-on in manipulating our buying mood. Let’s admit it, we don’t like to give something for nothing, but we do like a bargain and we love brand names.

When I was very young and working for a nonprofit in Boston, I was charged by the director to get a farewell present for a colleague. It was decided to give her a Georgia O’Keefe print from the local art poster store. Given my budget, and before the era of cell phones, I trundled down to the store and spent an hour agonizing over which print to purchase. I finally settled on two small, framed prints that fit nicely into the budget and had the benefit of being the only ones I could find that had no museum name splashed across the bottom, something that I find a gross distraction from the image. Proud of my purchase, I hurried back to the office, but when I showed them to the boss, he was livid. Why, oh why, had I not gotten one that proclaimed Metropolitan Museum of Art? How was my departing colleague going to appreciate the picture without knowing where it came from? I had misunderstood: the gift was about status, not art. I didn’t last long at that organization, but for better or worse, I did go to art school the next year.

For the average American shopping is a spiritual experience. Malls are designed like cathedrals, with glorious rotundas and abutting chapels where passions are fed. So what if at Christmas time we visit Santa instead of Christ, whose birthday was extracted from the pagan solstice festival? In the Northland we don’t celebrate the rebirth of the Sun until March or April anyhow. Like it or not, our holiday god is that jollied-up ‘ole Saint Nick. He truly understands our consumptive desires.

So here we are again. The tree is trimmed downtown and the holiday shopping season has officially commenced. Christmas will soon be here and there are a plethora of shopping opportunities. You can buy more crap than you could ever imagine, but why not spend your dollars in a more worthy place? When you’re out there tasking your shopping list, think about stopping by one of those holiday art sales not because you need to get that stocking stuffer for little Timmy, but because you like the work and you want to support the arts. Why not gallery hop for “real art” with a distinctive flair? Soo VAC is a good place to start… Or check your local arts weekly for a holiday buying guide.

So much that artists do all year round enhances our lives, and they rarely reap the financial returns that really make it affordable. For most artists it takes years, nay decades, for artmaking to pay the bills. Most of us do it out of love and a compulsion to share with an audience – job satisfaction, indeed, but at a price. So often, our culture allows us to forget how important this is, how desperately we need to have vibrant, versatile artistic expression as part of our everyday lives. So as you are out there spreading that holiday cheer, share the joy with those artists. Give ‘em some love right back. Buy local art, it makes you feel good.

Suzanne Szucs

Suzanne E. Szucs is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Rochester, MN. A recipient of numerous grants and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Individual Fellowship and two Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grants, she has shown her work widely. Szucs has a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes critical articles for Afterimage and has recently lectured about her work at SPE, College Art …   read more