The ineluctability of sentimental value.
Sebastián, El Caballito, 1992; Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma.
One of the most interesting books on the subject of sentimental value was published in 1981, authored by Mihalyi Cszikszentmihalyi and Eugene Halton and titled “The Meaning of Things”. The book is a study based on interviews with 80 families in Chicago on their household possessions. The Meaning of Things is an influential work on the subject of American materialism, but perhaps most important on what it helps reveal about how people’s sense of self is intertwined in the objects they own. In the interviews, Cszikszentmihalyi and Halton show how the objects that families collect become important because they gave meaning to their family narrative, not because they had any inherent artistic, historic, or commercial value.
In terms of art, we might own a painting by a relative that might not be extraordinary, but we will keep it because it belongs to that person. This is not anything new. However, what I further find interesting about the way sentimental value operates in art is twofold: first, that there appears to be a social sentimental value that is primarily focused on one person and filters into the perception of this person’s art works, and secondly, that this sentimental value can be collective if the impact of the person within the community is positive. In other words: emotional relationships sometimes get aesthetically entangled.
To illustrate these points I will tell two brief anecdotes.
When I still was a student in art school, I became close friends with Eddier Martinez— a fellow student and Cuban performance artist with a theater background. We both had come to embrace performance art in a very intense manner and would spend endless nights at the performance space of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago experimenting with lighting, sound, and projections. Eddier was a hard-core minimalist: his performances were utterly rigorous and ambitiously durational (some of them would be up to 7 hours long, and years later he did a 7-day long play with artist and collaborator Mathew Wilson). Elegantly designed with minimal action in them, they generated a small cult at the school. My performances, in contrast, could not have been more different: they were maximalist, narrative, operatic, absurdist at times, borderline romantic. Eddier was very radical in his aesthetic positions and highly critical of what he termed “confessional” performance (the term today would be “oversharing”), which was very much en vogue at the time (performance pieces with monologues à la Spalding Gray, mainly based on autobiographical material).
One day someone asked Eddier why he would not include my (to be honest, autobiographical) work in his criticisms. He replied that I was an exception to his rules, explaining that my work was different and giving his reasons (I don’t remember the reasons, but I know he meant it). I always wondered why he did not consider my work problematic in the way he saw others— it did not make sense to me. But the explanation was probably very simple: we were very good friends. And that proximity, due to circumstances around our personal friendship made it difficult for him to outright dismiss my work. It is not that he was afraid of criticizing it or hurting me; he simply did not seem to find fault in it.
The idea that we don’t appreciate enough the things that are closest to us, or at least we take them for granted is one of the oldest adages (“familiarity breeds contempt”). But it is also true that familiarity can bring along with it the inability to look at something with any kind of critical perspective, which prevents one from seeing both its positive and negative aspects. And it does not only happen in individuals, but among entire communities. Which brings me to the second anecdote.
In the early 2000s I was invited to do an artist residency in a small American rural town (which shall remain unnamed). The residency was in a small, picturesque house and studio founded after the passing of its owner— the most important artist of the town, who had been a painter in the 50s and 60s and had gained some local prominence during that period. This artist is not in any major museum collection: most of his works remain in that small town.
Looking at the pieces I could immediately tell why: they were standard modern art works, using commonplace derivative forms of the period. In truth they were not too different from paintings one might find today at, say, a Salvation Army. The best thing one could say is that they were like many works of that time, replicating some modern themes and techniques, but solidly in the realm of the forgettable.
But that is not how these works were seen by the local community. They were admired and treasured, and they took loving care of them. Many of them had known the artist in person and spoke about his passion and generosity. He had clearly left an indelible mark in the town.
The fact that this artist’s name never appeared in any art history books was of no importance to the local community, nor did that diminish in any way the reverence that they had for him and his legacy. He represented, in a way, the town itself —this small rural community. In other words, what they saw in those works was nothing what I or any outsider could ever see in them. They clearly evoked something powerful to them. In some way, these works were instances of collective sentimental value.
The problem with sentimental value in art works is that our emotional connections to them get entangled with our ideas about art; in this, they are different from random objects. I can understand, for example, why no one but me would possibly care about, say, an old Christmas ornament that belonged to my mother when she was a child – to others, it is just an average-looking, old Christmas ornament, while for me it has deep family meaning. In the case of art works, this specificity of emotional relations gets confused as art is supposed to be universal, and it might be harder for us to identify the instances where our personal/emotional valuation of the object lies and where the objective aspects of the work might be relevant to an external audience without any emotional history with that object. In kantian terms, this involvement might get entangled with a key feature of the judgement of taste: disinterestedness— meaning that we enjoy something because we think it is beautiful, rather than thinking of it beautiful because it gives us pleasure ( many things in life give us pleasure, but we don’t consider all those things art). Furthermore, as philosopher Eric Hayot explains regarding Kant’s descriptions of how we construct the beautiful, we don’t simply say “something is beautiful for me” but we universalize that judgment, expressing that belief that what we find beautiful is, or at least should be, beautiful for everyone. So we judge art works using a rational process that makes us conclude that we are in the presence of something worth admiring and also, in our judgment, we tend to universalize that personal opinion, thinking that others should also feel like us. But with sentimental value as an added ingredient, our disinterestedness might become somewhat compromised.
As art professionals we don’t even think that we could ever be victims of sentimental value. After all, we feel we have assimilated all the critical mechanisms necessary to have a dispassionate and objective look at art making in its many forms. However, if we were to conduct a bit of self-examination, wouldn’t we on some occasions might have been in the place of that rural community that loved their local artist, or in the place of my friend Eddier and how benevolent he was with my own work thanks to our friendship? I certainly have often felt, at times, impeded by my own personal history with certain people to be able to provide a meaningful, or objective, critique of their work. I often think in these terms of past professors and mentors that I had throughout my career. Because of the great affection I have for them it is difficult for me to look at their work with the required objective manner that I have been trained to apply.
Similarly, it seems to me that sentimental value infiltrates into our philosophical principles as well, by the emotional association we have with others. This might explain the uncompromising positions even amongst the most radical leading artists and thinkers. This is not to mean that the motivation behind their principles is unfounded or unjustified; it means that their personal backgrounds, their social and emotional ties to them might have shaped their worldview in such ways that they might not even be entirely conscious of it. We rationalize our ideas, our work, and our behavior through current and endorsed theories, but part of the construction of that perspective might have been partly shaped by our personal relationship with the people, circumstances or events that impacted us. I can’t entirely disassociate myself with my past, and even the rejection of that past is a form of engaging with it.
Lastly, I often wonder about how sentimental values get indirectly attached to art works, even those that we openly dislike.
A case I often think about concerns Sebastián— a Mexican sculptor known for his monumental public works. Similar to the American artist I mentioned prior, Sebastián has barely, if ever, been recognized by the mainstream art world, but has been very successful instead at creating gigantic sculptures in urban spaces in Mexico and elsewhere. One of his most famous ones, “El Caballito” was installed in 1992 in Paseo de la Reforma, close to Mexico City’s downtown. It was never embraced by the local art scene— and it even was the object of ridicule at first— but it didn’t matter: it is now part of the urban fabric of the city. At some point these sculptures cease to be art works and then they start being something else in our minds, even if we still think they are art (or bad art for that matter). They become the signifiers of a period, of a place where important things have occurred in our lives. In the end it doesn’t matter if we love them or hate them: they simply exist, populating our world and becoming part of our context.
The Sebastián sculpture thus has become a container of collective sentimental value, perhaps in a way like an arranged marriage: most Mexicans did not pick this object to exist in their lives, yet they are destined to see it all the time, whether in their daily commute or simply as part of the urban landscape. Artist and E-Flux founder Anton Vidokle, who in the early 2000s was making several works reflecting on Mexican modernism, at some point commissioned a giant cake of El Caballito to La Ideal, a famous bakery in downtown Mexico City. Once I asked Anton why he had ordered that massive cake. His response was something in the order of “I am not sure, but somehow the best response to a work like this was just that, this cake.” Somehow El Caballito had become a hilarious reference for the local art world, but a reference, nonetheless. And this collective love for hating it amongst the art community made it ubiquitous.
His case reminds me to my favorite historic character, Florence Foster Jenkins: someone who became so famous for being ridiculed for being a poor singer that in the end she became a celebrity nonetheless, while other much more capable sopranos of her generation have been forgotten. Shortly after her passing, writer Daniel Dixon wrote about her: “She became the comic symbol of the longing for grace and beauty that is in some way shared by everyone who is clumsy and shy and ill-favored. In the end, after all the laughter, Madame Jenkins was more than a joke. She was also an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage.”
Maybe not as a singer, but as a proto-performance artist, Florence Foster Jenkins achieved the distinction of attaining collective sentimental value. That is, perhaps, after all, one way to enter art history.