Art for art’s sake
Brussels sprouts are the ultimate passion food. You either love them or hate them. I last gobbled one down 41 years, 2 months 3 weeks and 1 day ago. Condemned to a childhood of Friday night dinners with the accursed things, I eventually developed a technique of swallowing them whole. Since my marriage raw sprouts have only once made it over the threshold but were quickly intercepted thanks to my hyper sense of smell; I managed to grab the pan off the gas in the nick of time just as they were about to go nuclear. Fortunately, my childhood experiences did not leave any mental scars.
While Shakespeare may have thought that music is the food of love, the only one of the fine arts that, in my experience, bears comparison to food is Opera. And the food in question is the Brussels sprout. Opera – you either love it or hate it. Fortunately, as a child, since opera tickets were not on sale for a shilling per pound at the local greengrocer, I was not dragged screaming through the streets to the Royal Opera House . In fact, my only first-hand encounter with this art form was a few years back when my wife persuaded me to attend a performance of La Traviata at the ancient Arena in Verona. Well folks, I made it to the end of the first act at which point I slipped out and spent the rest of the evening admiring an exhibition of vintage Fiat Cinquecentos across the piazza from the amphitheatre. Apart from the inanity of the plot and the fact that , even if you could understand the language in which they were singing, the words were hopelessly unclear, a pair of far-too-old and overweight love-sick opera singers reminded me of two wide-bodied Airbuses making a noise similar to the twin Rolls Royce engines that power them.
Last week the New York Times ran an article about the Geneva Freeport – essentially a bonded warehouse specializing in the storage of luxury items. Vintage wines, expensive cars, gold bars and cigars are among the goods stored. But what caught my eye and ire was the extensive storage of works of art. The article stated that there is a wide belief among art dealers, advisers and insurers that there is enough art there to create one of the world’s great museums. When you take into account that there are a number of other such warehouses in Switzerland as well as Luxembourg, Singapore and Beijing – the mind really boggles. Now, I am no connoisseur of Art but let me loose in the National Gallery , Louvre or Vatican and I (and, indeed, my children) come away feeling enriched. So why do famous works of art get stuck on warehouse shelves while opera singers are allowed to roam the world freely bringing misery to the majority of the population?
The Arts are often (but by no means always) divided into Literature , The Performing Arts and The Visual Arts. Literature has had a wide audience since the advent of the printing press although it took a while for the masses to take advantage of the invention by learning to read and governments to learn that they could not control what the masses read. The Performing Arts, particularly music and theatre (and bloody opera) have always required an audience and with the advent of the phonograph and its successors down to the IPod, not to mention cinema (which, along with photography also smacks of visual art), have reached every corner of the globe. The Visual Arts – insofar as they include painting and sculpture – continue to constitute a particular problem – they cannot be copied and you have to seek them out.
But, at least historically, Art – in the sense of painting and sculpture – has been located in museums or, at least, in private collections that a determined public was often able to visit and admire. Enter the pork belly approach to art. For many wealthy players Art has become a commodity – like gold, an asset to manage risk against an uncertain economy. When faced with import taxes and duties for bringing works of art into their countries of residence many prefer to “bank” them in places like the Geneva Freeport where taxes only apply when the items are removed and either taken into Switzerland or another taxing jurisdiction. Then there are the insurance considerations of keeping artwork at home or on public display – the Geneva Freeport makes life much cheaper.
Now, if they could pack up an Opera Company and put that in a Freeport, I might feel a bit warmer towards the concept, but Opera Companies – like Brussels Sprouts – need tending and that is not suitable in a warehouse concept. Valuable works of art purchased on the open market should be available to the world. That is not to say that a free market in such treasures should not be allowed to exist but, rather, that they should be lent to museums and galleries. To encourage this, governments should institute, or extend existing, exemptions from charges to import taxes and duty on items destined for public display while museums and galleries should cover part of the insurance cost. The end result would be the same for the financial collector of art while replacing a dusty shelf in the Geneva Freeport with a lighted wall or plinth at the Uffizi in Florence or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And if that does not work, international organizations like the UN and OECD should seek ways to enforce public display.
The Geneva Freeport and its sister institutions need not disappear. Perhaps the vacated warehouse space could be converted into a refuge for over-the-hill opera singers who could compete with the foghorns of the ships on Lake Geneva and the engines of incoming planes at Geneva Airport while leaving the rest of us in peace.