Conversation at a cocktail party can take many turns, especially if the party's guests are involved in the arts. It's one thing to talk with writers, artists, musicians, actors... almost always an interesting lot, if occasionally cantankerous. It's another to chat with heiresses.
Recently I was a guest at a reception given by one such, a Marin County woman, for a famous writer acquaintance of hers. It was a very nice affair, at which many other writers were in attendance, as well as various doyens of the Bay Area arts culture. The house was a tribute to minimalist architecture in the style of Bauhaus or Mies van der Rohe, with an unaccountably beautiful view of Mount Tamalpais bathed in the fine yellow-white light of late afternoon.
Our hostess was the kind of heiress who looks upon others — all others, no matter the state of their own wealth — as a bother. She seemed to be distracted, angrily, by everyone in the room, and she treated her guests as though she wanted them as soon as possible to get out. There was a lot of art in the place, almost all of it very contemporary. One of the paintings was a red and orange piece by Brice Marden, notable for the muddiness of the colors and the rambling, arbitrary way in which the red lines, like a poorly coiled garden hose, wandered about the canvas.
"Did you see his show at San Francisco MOMA?" I asked. A major 2007 retrospective of Marden's work. Many, many paintings.
I sensed that she was grumbling, although I couldn't actually hear it. Her dismissal of me could be read in the downturn of her mouth and of her civility.
"Of course not," she replied.
"You don't care for the work?" I asked.
"I'd already seen the show in New York." The same show, offered earlier in the year at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Brice took me through it. . ."
"And what did you think of the paintings?"
She sighed, turning her back to me.
". . . privately, of course," she sniffed.
There is a phenomenon in contemporary art in which art is sold for extraordinary prices to people who don't know what they're buying, because of what is said about it by the dealers, curators and critics. Marketing does matter, and the recent history of art in America is littered with paintings by bad artists who have been put forward by dealers seeking high prices, critics writing oracular self-serving piffle, and museum curators afraid to miss out on some bandwagon that may put them on a better career track. Very frequently the art is very bad, but because of the marketing buzz, an awful lot of people are fearful that they'll be viewed as artistically obtuse if they don't contribute to the buzz themselves. It's a problem because many of these artists become very famous, and major museums often give them enormous shows, causing them to be even further lionized.