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Book Reviews Fry on Commerce in Art Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art, Selected Writings. Craufurd D. Goodwin, ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. xii + 222 pp. $39.50 WHEN $27.9 million was paid recently at Sotheby's for Degas's Dancer in Repose, a pastel and gouache from 1879, analysts explained the unusually high valuation as an instance of demand exceeding supply . At a time when money flows freely, art of high quality and impeccable provenance is scarce; the anonymous buyer of the Degas doubtless felt secure in his investment. Money was not so freely available in March 1918 when Duncan Grant learned that the contents of Degas's studio in Paris were to be sold. Grant persuaded his Bloomsbury friend Maynard Keynes to approach the Chancellor of the Exchequer for funds. Keynes's request was successful in the amount of £20,000, and finding time from his work with the Inter-Ally Council, he attended the Degas sale, accompanied by Sir Charles Holmes, Keeper of the National Gallery. "Prices were depressed," Robert Skidelsky writes in his biography of Keynes (1986), "as the German bombardment could be heard fifty miles away." Holmes bought for the nation a Corot, a Gauguin, and several works by Delacroix, Ingres, and Manet—and still fell short of Bonar Law's subvention by £5,000. Keynes bought a Cézanne still life (for all of £327), two paintings by Delacroix, and an Ingres drawing; this was the beginning of his career as a serious collector of art. This episode, in its combination of idealism and opportunism, and in the evidence it provides of Bloomsbury's influence in the public sphere, may serve as entrée to a consideration of Craufurd D. Goodwin's stimulating Art and the Market, a book that comprises sixteen pieces by Roger Fry, most of which were out of print or unpublished, and a sixty-five page "Interpretation" by the editor. As Goodwin (who is James B. Duke Professor of Economics at Duke University) shows, Fry had a lifelong interest in the economics of art and a particular interest in the prices art works command at auction. "What is the principle," Fry asks in "A Sale at Christie's" (1926), "which governs this mysterious picture tariff?" Does posterity get it right in the end, "it" being a correspondence between true aesthetic merit and sales price? The posthumous promi83 ELT 43 : 1 2000 nence of Rembrandt and Cézanne, as well as the demise in the sale room of Alma-Tadema and Leighton, suggests the answer may be yes. The high prices paid for second-rate paintings by Raeburn, Romney, and Stuart, however, give Fry pause. Factors other than aesthetic merit (such as "amenity") evidently play a part in exempting a Raeburn from the snobbish taboo placed (in 1926) on Alma-Tadema. Fry's ambivalence here is characteristic: he trusts that true art will win out in the end, its merit being affirmed by the auction price it commands, but he also recognizes that the art market is a commercial exchange in which speculators , attuned to the opinions of experts and alert to changes in fashion, make decisions not on the grounds of aesthetic preference but of social prestige and future profit. Though Goodwin shows little interest in exploring the ambivalence of Fry's views, he is good at describing the ways in which Fry heroically tried to bring integrity to the art market. Aware from his reading of Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) that humans seek to establish social position through the conspicuous consumption of goods, including art objects, Fry sought to cleanse both the creation and the appreciation of art from snobbish impurities. In a Hogarth Press pamphlet, Art and Commerce (1926), Fry coined the terms "opificer" and "opifact": an opificer produced works intended to gratify the purchaser's need for ostentation; opifacts are advertisements of social power in England of the twentieth century no less than in Ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome. It is the critic's task to discriminate the true artist, who may well be a rebellious individualist, from the opificer who caters to current...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 83-89
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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