There is bad art
and bad art
, and some of it is much worse than others. What makes Tacky Art so bad? It's best explained by what it is not.
For one thing, it is not quite lowbrow art, with its three themes of Religion, Cuteness, and Sin. Neither is it badly executed art, in general: most Tacky artists show at least a workmanlike devotion to their craft, and there are a few real exemplars of great technique among them. It is generally tasteful, if only in the inoffensive manner of soft rock stations and cheap office furniture. Many of the best-known Tacky artists are, well, very well-known artists. So what is it?
What sets Tacky Art from all these is marketing. Tacky Art is a feature of upscale shopping malls, casino gift shops, airport duty-free arcades, and the like, where it's often shown in elegantly lit, darkly plush galleries that breathe Posh. Friendly, attractive, staff will gladly compliment you on making a wonderful choice and talk sagely about the investment value of the lovely "limited edition fine art print with full certificate of authenticity and authorized signature" that you've just selected, and quote examples of how the artist's work has appreciated in price over the last few years. What the hey, they'll even throw in a nice frame. For the armchair shopper's convenience, ads for Tacky Art are found in such places as the Robb Report, nicely illustrated, with taglines "Nagel- Nieman- Erte- Rockwell- Max- Dali- Warhol" right beside the ads for Rolexes and Gulfstream V's. In such company, with such prestigious names on the roster, the prospective buyer feels confident that their purchase is going to be just as well-thought-of.
What they don't tell you is that you've just bought a poster, with a printed-on signature and the resale value of a Tamagotchi, all for $1500 or better. The appreciation of value quoted by the salesperson is based on original works, not prints, and the only thing limited is that particular printing, which can be repeated ad infinitum -- the numbers in the corner of the picture are meaningless. The certificate will tell you as much, somewhere in the fine print right above the fancy gold star sticker on the imitation parchment. And no, you can't return it.
Why do people fall for these scams? Partly because most contemporary art is well, difficult. It gets shown in depressing and/or frightening (either too rich or too poor) parts of town, by people who are even more scary. Instead of the posh atmosphere of the mall, you're confronted with an overlit barn of a place with no place to sit, no complimentary champagne, and no carpeting. Most of the time, there's little to tell you what you're seeing, and most times, the girl behind the desk makes you feel stupid for asking questions. If you aren't used to abstracts, it seems unreal that someone's asking $300 for a small piece of paper with a few random scribbles. If it's representational, it's usually some snidely intellectual progressivist/ deconstructionist comment on America, or something else that seems like a joke on the viewer. At the same time, almost everyone's heard of the stories about nice young couples on vacation in Paris, or some other exotic spot, buying, oh, a cheap little sketch, a child's drawing, almost, for just a few dollars, and finding out later that it's a Blue Period Picasso, and hence worth millions, or some old-money Mr. Gottrox grandly donating his private collection (for an appropriate tax write-off) worth untold amounts of money to a museum, and the prospective art collector begins to think that the only way to go is to buy only trusted, tried-and-true name brands that will only increase in value.
Buying an actual painting by, say, an Impressionist, is way outside their price range, and getting an Impressionist-style original oil painting means that you're buying art by someone that you (and casual guests of yours) has never heard of before, which doesn't exactly give you the same bragging rights as say, a "Thomas Kinkade", even if the only connection to the artist is a licencing deal. Saying you've gotten a painting by Foonly sounds like an invitation for someone to say "Who's Foonly?" or "Ah, yes, Foonly. Quite under par, Foonly is. You were really taken on that. Hardly better than finger painting, you'll never make a penny on him."
Dig it. Only one artwork out of a hundred contemporary works will ever appreciate in value during the lifetime of their first owners...as a matter of fact, most artworks depreciate in value 50% the second they're taken out of the gallery. Does this sound like a scam? Only if you're seeking to invest in art, not collect it. And it's a lot less of a scam than the poster racket, where you'll most likely lose all of your money if you get tired of your Nieman, and want a Warhol instead. So, don't think of value-as-status when you think of buying art.
Instead, think of intimacy, localization. Chances are, if you buy the work of a local artist, you can get to meet them, and hear from the source what this painting (print, drawing, etc.) means to them. Contemporary local art is like local produce, as opposed to Tacky Art's commercialization: you aren't getting stale canned art that everyone has, you're getting something fresh and unique. What the heck, you might even become friends with that artist. Then, instead of "Who's Foonly?" you can reply "George. George Foonly. And you should see what he's working on now." And to the wannabee snob, you can say, "Hey, I think George might want to hear that -- he's always interested in comments. He's right over there. And that landscape, buddy, is our house, and it's worth a mint to me." And then you can gloat.
Which, when you think of it, is what it's all about.