By Patrick Appel
I've was rifling through old articles on the art market, and stumbled across this 1994 TNR article (doc) by Michael Lewis. It explains art's belief structure as well as anything I've encountered. A choice paragraph:
The religion of art has been appropriated from artists by collectors and dealers. How and when I do not know; but at some point the idealist and the consumer began to walk hand in hand. The idea that works of art confer nobility upon those who trade them is simply an extension of the notion that works of art are a repository of terminal values. And the comical pretensions of the art market are simply a response to the idealists' prejudice that things done for their own sake are more noble or "fine" than things done for a concrete purpose (say, money or prestige).
While the art world is decidedly secular (sometimes fiercely so), there are obvious parallels between art and religion. Forgotten artists, made famous after death, are esteemed in a manner similar to religious martyrs. The artworks themselves are often revered in the same way holy objects are revered; ostensibly worthless art, such as Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings, are made valuable by their connection to art history in much the same way communion wafers are made meaningful by their connection to scripture. Art's belief structure is part of why Damien Hirst could sell a formaldehyded shark for a cool $12 million. While such a purchase might not make sense to ordinary person, to an art affectionado the price is affirmed by a belief in the nobility and near sacredness of art-making.
(Image by Flickr user Kecko)