People Had Problems With the Art Market Eighty Years Ago

by Whitney Kimball on March 1, 2012 History

Murdock Pemberton around 1915, New Yorker cover from 1926

Still think the Art Workers Coalition were the first to object publicly to the art market? Nay. Way back in the 1920s, the New Yorker‘s first art critic, Murdock Pemberton, was a vocal opponent of the starving artist ideal. Many of his writings echo those of contemporary critics and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street groups. His granddaughter, Sally Pemberton, has spent the past two years mining his archives and recently published a scrapbook portrait of Pemberton and his peers. The following are pieces from the New Yorker and lecture notes which Ms. Pemberton found in her grandfather’s suitcase in 2009.

[Aside: In addition to these, Ms. Pemberton tells us a story in which a group who called themselves the Realists (including Hopper, Bouche, Kuniyoshi, and Varnum Poor) protested that the Abstract Expressionist boon was threatening their livelihoods. When they asked Murdock for his advice, he told them simply to “Paint better pictures than the other fellow.” Thank. you.

And not entirely related, but take a look at his “tomato soup” line from 1932 (third sentence, below). It’s highly unlikely that Warhol ever heard those words, but Pemberton disliked pop art; he called them “Wart Essoles”, whatever that means.]

From “Artists’ Rights,” Lecture Notes 1932

I have not said much about the artists.  I really don't blame the artist.  It is a lonesome business of starving for an ideal and I cannot blame the young painter if he tries it for a few years and then goes for painting labels on cans of tomato soup.  It might not be as promising as postmortem fame, but it is a good deal more comfortable and easy to live with.  Every now and then some group of artists calls me to talk of the project of organization.  It would take a genius the status of Ghandi to get the artists together enough to agree on any one thing.  The better the artist they are, the more individual they are.  And they are so individual that they have always been reluctant to combine, even after it would be for their own good, and it might be greatly to their own good if they would combine. I doubt if there is any other form of art as ephemeral in its rewards as the business of painting.  Even the dancer receives some applause after he is through, but the artist paints the picture and if he is lucky he sells it for a small amount, and that is the last he sees of it. Song writers write a cheap song.  After it is played over the air in a restaurant, on the piano, the composer receives something in royalties.  It may happen that the artist selling his picture for $30 see that same picture sold 10 years later for $3000.  Yet the artist receives no part of this increment.  It all goes to the dealer or the speculator in art.
Excerpt from “THE ART GALLERIES,” published in the New Yorker
February 27, 1926
…when [the collector] buys a picture, it is to get something that neighbors will gape at, inquire the price of, and not ask the meaning.  He seldom if ever buys a picture that he likes, if there is such a thing.  And only let a dealer whisper in his ear: “I'm glad that you are buying this picture, as the artist is poor, young and struggling,” and the patron will drop it quicker than the proverbial hot potato.
   And they will not learn.  Since Quinn, there has been one man willing to gamble on genius.  He has bought low and sold high through several collections. All of the others buy only in the established fields.  Stieglitz will tell you with tears in his eyes that twenty years ago he could not sell a Cezanne for fifteen dollars apiece.  Try and buy one now for $18,000.  Weyhe will tell you of trying to sell Zorn's etchings for fifteen dollars with no takers.  The same men will now buy Zorn for several hundred and even the same etching.  But they will not buy a Wickey, a Ganso, or any of the many newcomers.  No, these are bought by painters and students of small means.
Click here to read the rest of the piece in the New Yorker‘s archives.
 Excerpt from lecture notes, circa 1932:
Of the many commercial galleries there are two distinct sorts, the kind that rents itself out to anyone that has a rich mother or aunt and wants to show his pictures, and the gallery that discovers, nurtures and tries to exploit the artist they believe in.  As a rule, I have found the most fun in the latter class.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: