Art and Literature

Director of Cantor Arts Center on "Why the arts matter"

Two years ago, Bill Gates famously proclaimed that he didn’t understand how anyone could donate money “to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness.” Such frivolity, he suggested, was morally equivalent to blinding one percent of the museum visitors. That same month, a triptych by the Irish artist Francis Bacon sold for $142.2 million—the most expensive piece of artwork ever sold at an auction.

These events, says Connie Wolf, highlight the paradoxical position of arts in modern society: In some ways, art is endangered by declining public support. But from the perspective of art prices and museum attendance, it is thriving more than ever. Wolf, the director of Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, used these two stories to begin her talk at the Clayman Institute's spring artist's salon.

As a scholar and curator of art, she centered her discussion around visual images.  When she mentioned Bill Gates, for example, she showed a portrait of the Gates couple commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, representing him in artistic form.  This clever irony reflected the theme of Wolf’s talk. Art, she says, is both threatened and prized.

Nude men, "Piss Christ," and the decline in public support for the arts

Wolf looked back to a time, earlier in the twentieth century, when art was publicly funded. For example, both Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Margaret Bourke-White’s “American Way” were supported by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration.

Public funding was jeopardized in the 1980s, when social conservatives became angry that the National Endowment for the Arts was funding works like Robert Mapplethorpe’s racially and sexually tense photos of nude men and Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine—images Wolf shared during her talk.

Support for art also declined in our educational institutions, said Wolf. Standardized testing in public schools in the 2000s has eaten away at time for the arts, and college students gravitate toward majors they perceive as lucrative in a struggling economy.

But Wolf’s next images highlighted the paradox: even as the public denigrates art, we value it. To make this point, Wolf showed a photograph of hundreds of people standing in line in the Guggenheim.  Hundreds more standing outside MoMA in New York City.  A sea of people holding up their phones and cameras in front of the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre.

“You can get a great picture of the ‘Mona Lisa,’” Wolf said with a laugh.  “But these people want to prove that they’ve seen it themselves.”

"There’s the sun, the sky, and the Calder"

Finally, Wolf reminded her listeners that the value of art might not be immediately apparent. When Wolf was growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her city got its first public work of art—an abstract metal sculpture by Alexander Calder.  Huge and bright red, it resembles arches, wings, or a four-legged animal. 

Initially, “nobody could understand it; everyone wanted it removed,” Wolf said.  “They were furious that it wasn’t a man on a horse like they were used to.”

But—again, the paradox—after a few years, the sculpture because a symbol of the city.  On city logos, there was “the sun, the sky, and the Calder,” Wolf said.  It even appeared on municipal garbage trucks.

Pieces like the Calder, Wolf said, show us “things are not what you think they are when you first see them.  You have to live with them for a while and be challenged.”

“Art is not always about beauty,” she said, “but about keeping the mind alive.”

Even if people decry art as subversive or frivolous, Wolf said, they flock to museums in droves because on some level, they recognize that art challenges them to empathize with other people and other ways of seeing the world.  In that sense, art is not at odds with improving the human condition, as Bill Gates suggested, but crucial for understanding it.