Early this summer, Sotheby’s, the famed auction house that brokered the sale of such iconic works as Vincent van Gogh’s Irises and Edvard Munch’s The Scream, announced that a version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine will be sold at auction in November. Proserpine is, according to one assessment, “one of the most internationally recognisable images of the nineteenth century,” and the estimated price of this variant done in colored chalk is $1.8-2.7 million. You’ve seen this image before; Rossetti’s “Proserpine” has appeared on postcards and posters as well as in textbooks, works of literary criticism and art history, genealogies of artistic movements, biographies, and—of course—museums, and even more importantly perhaps, their gift shops. Nonetheless, my first reaction was simply shock—“You mean you can buy that?!” Perhaps naively, I had thought that Art-with-a-capital-A can’t be bought, sold, or owned.
Even before the age of mechanical reproduction brought us easy access to images of unique works of art, Proserpine existed in multiple forms. There are chalk and ink and pencil drafts, and the Rossetti Archive composition history reports that Rossetti began eight separate copies of this painting. In a letter to his brother early in the process of producing these multiple renderings, Rossetti wrote: “The Proserpine I am selling him is a second one I have begun. The first did not quite please me, but will sell as a separate thing by cutting out the head which is done. The second is very well started, and I fully expect to finish it soon and beg the tin” (qtd in rossettiarchive.org). This piece of art, which represents a turning point in British aesthetic history, as well as a statement about the nature of art, is and has always been first and foremost FOR SALE. Rossetti’s plans to “beg the tin” for his work links art to business, a connection that the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy explores in its title and mission.
But since Rossetti’s time public perceptions of art and its role in society have shifted, driving a wedge between enterprise and art. On the one hand, beauty and the arts are perceived as above and beyond market value, so art that defines part of a nation’s cultural heritage is beyond price and should not be sequestered from public view in a private collection. This perception of art has a history interestingly entwined with that of the Aesthetic Movement, a movement that is partially Rossetti’s cultural legacy. On the other hand, art is perceived as irrelevant or antagonistic to market values; from this perspective, the arts are not economically productive, and therefore education in the arts is impractical and lacks real-world applications. (See Steven Tepper’s response to Kyle Thetford’s “Does Art Help the Economy,” posted July 17, for more on this view.)
Here at the Curb Center part of our work is to insist that creativity, artistic endeavor, and entrepreneurship exist in a positive feedback loop, rather than in opposition. This core belief is the link to my field of Victorian studies—in the Victorian period, artists, industrialists, inventors, scientists, and writers all participated in a lively creative economy. Rossetti’s leadership of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood transformed the visual arts in Britain, but Rossetti’s innovations as an entrepreneur of his own art have been just as important as the aesthetic movements he influenced. The intertwining of arts, sciences, innovation, and enterprise is now, as it was in the nineteenth century, a driving force of social transformation.