PITTSFIELD — What is the value of art? A many-layered question that cannot be answered without unpacking those layers.
The deepest layer is that art is at the foundation of what it means to be human beings able to conceive of objects that have never existed in material form; to bring the inner experience of those objects out from the heart and into the world for others to share. This is at the root of art, art as verb, the art-ing by the maker of the art, the artist.
What is the value of the art object to the artist? It is many things, the personal synthesis of intellection, emotions, media, and influences. No matter the shape and substance of the object, whether painting, sculpture, jewels, pottery, weaving, architecture, writing and so on, it is the significant expression of an inner thought, concept, and image bent on an externalized sharing. It is language at its most primitive and more expressive form; the artist, sometimes without intention, revealing a view of the world that never existed previously, illuminating it for the artist and the artist's community. It is an irrepressible birthing of a new way to "speak." The world watches and listens.
This private effort of artists inspires in the deepest sense, a taking into oneself, of a new idea, a new understanding of one's own internal and external environs. Great art does this magnificently; minor art to a lesser, but no less valuable a degree.
We stand before an art object, open-mouthed in wonder at the artist's vision, and we join in that artist's experience, feeling the light beneath ancient trees in a Bierstadt, or admiring the graceful shape and delicate blue glaze of a Chinese vase, or sensing a warm breath in a marble statue. When an artist has manifested this, we stand in awe, we are moved, we are changed. And in that engagement with the art, we develop a sense of personal possession; we begin to hold the art as our very own.
It is this exposure to the experience of art that brings a society to its most civilized level, and that is the next layer of the value of art. A society that disregards the value of art or is bereft of its art becomes less civilized. One only has to think of the recent destruction of ancient art that accompanied the severe loss of life, the world encountered due to ISIS, to understand that the monsters of ISIS knew that, to murder a society, it is not only necessary to murder those who think differently, but a requirement to destroy their historical place in the world, represented by their art. To a much lesser, and, of course, less devastating degree, though of equal import, is the diminishing of support for the arts in our country, our states, our cities, and our schools. Remove the societal junction of its art, and countries, communities, and cities, lose their identity, their life.
An immeasurable loss
In the Berkshires, a community that has historically and contemporaneously been dense with the arts and artists, we are at this point. Our museum, The Berkshire Museum of Art, History and Science, we have come to love as our own, is being taken apart. Its art is being diminished by the removal and likely sale to entities unknown. Artworks that we have loved and treasured, artworks that have inspired many thousands of visitors since it was first established, may never again be seen publicly. It is impossible to place a true value on what these artworks represent to us since that value is not what an auction house or a private collector might place on them. How do we place a value on the pieces of our damaged hearts, on the treasured beauty that is disappearing from our collective view, on what the museum has represented for so many decades?
There are those of who have fought this loss for the better part of a year, to no avail. The disregard of this community effort, within the confines of the museum administration, has been muscular, and their efforts to destroy the value of the museum have been effective and within their rights. However, simply because the right exists to dismantle the art collection by selling off the most precious objects does not mean it is the right thing to do. Judicial approval does not necessarily lead to judicious action. There are those who have described the efforts to save the art as the actions of a few elitists, but these actions have been the result of a grassroots movement that involved over a thousand members of the community, artists, art historians, writers, and other residents who joined in and supported the effort.
On a national scale, the value of art, due to the precedent set by the Berkshire Museum and the courts of our Commonwealth, has been reduced to its monetary value. The personal loss and the loss to Berkshire community, is many layers deep, and the grieving will persist without end. The loss at a national level is immeasurable, as museums, libraries, and historical societies across the nation are encouraged to monetize their collections and, given permission by what has happened here, begin to dismantle those collections by selling them. The benefit will accrue to private collectors only. What will remain will be a barren terrain indeed.
Linda Kaye-Moses is an occasional Eagle contributor.