Vincent Price: Bringing Art to the People
A large part of what drives the asinine blight of the contemporary establishment art world is a strange creed of status seeking. The current power brokers, through their strangleholds on government, the media, academia, and the arts, demonstrate that status is dependent on slavish conformity to their imposed hierarchies. Anyone not willing to submit to their dictates and priorities is outside the tribe, and therefore deserves only contempt and demonization.
Following the implied commands and encouragement from this would-be ruling class, the witch hunt and the lynch mob are becoming an increasingly common activity in our society. The news is full of stories of hateful hordes swarming to crush anyone who dissents from the precepts of our current corrupt establishment.
There’s nothing new about this educated New Class assault on those who aren’t properly awed in the presence of their betters. Modern era intellectuals used the term Middlebrow to deride “ordinary” people who enjoyed advanced cultural experiences. How dare they go directly to art without relying on a superior priestly class to translate, and inform them how they are supposed to feel and respond?
There’s a big pile of snobbery effervescing at the core of the establishment art world. And now that the information age has made culture so accessible, the so-called elites have had to go full Doublethink to maintain their separate, and therefore in their minds elevated, caste status. The current domination of Conceptual art is a tool of oppression, meant to degrade standards and reinforce the control by establishment cronyism as the only arbiter of accomplishment.
It wasn’t always this way. And despite the concerted efforts to declare that history is over, and the current winners and losers will be frozen in place forever, the world continues to change. The story of the twenty first century will be about the destruction of centralized power. This toppling of mighty strongholds can be informed by visiting noble ideas and actions from the past.
Vincent Price could be seen as a kind of middlebrow icon. True, he was a wealthy celebrity, but he was a character actor known mainly for low budget horror movies. He even appeared on The Brady Bunch, for goodness sake. How gauche.
However, Price was also a passionate connoisseur and advocate of fine art. He wrote, “Art is excitement which if we can’t create ourselves, we can at least, through love of it, make available to others.”
Price also seemed to have a pretty salty visceral response to art as well. He noted, “I’m extremely profane, unconsciously so, when I see something great for the first time; I don’t know why, but beauty and profanity are related to me in the same way. It may be that I want to think of art in the vernacular, but I have no control over what comes out of my mouth when my eyes take in great beauty…it might just be the reason I avoid going to museums with elderly ladies.”
When the department store Sears, that bedrock American success story of middleclass capitalism, wanted to expand into fine art, they asked Price to guide their efforts. In 1962, The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art was born.
The Sears archives describe the program in detail:
“…company executives observed that except for a few major cities, fine art was virtually inaccessible to the general public. Sears set out to end this isolation by merchandising art throughout the country, in a presentation from which pictures could be readily purchased to enrich American homes. Vincent Price was approached to take charge of this program. Price, although well-known by the public as an actor, was also known in the international art world as a collector, lecturer, former gallery-owner and connoisseur who spent a dozen years studying art at Yale, the University of London and other art centers abroad.
“Price was given complete authority to acquire any works he considered worthy of selection. He searched throughout the world for fine art to offer through Sears. He bought whole collections and even commissioned artists, including Salvador Dali, to do works specifically for this program…
“On October 6, 1962, the first exhibit and sale of ‘The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art’ took place in a Sears store in Denver, Colo. Original works of the great masters – Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso, Whistler and more – as well as those of the best contemporary artists at the time were offered for sale in this first exhibit and throughout the program’s existence.
“Items ranged in selling price from $10 to $3,000. Sears customers could also purchase items on an installment plan for as little as $5 down and $5 a month. Each work in the program was guaranteed as an original work of quality, just as Sears offered quality guarantees on its lawnmowers and TVs. The program was an instant success. So many pictures were snatched up the first day that an emergency shipment had to be flown in lest the walls be bare the next day.
The program expanded in the weeks that followed, adding exhibits in 10 additional Sears stores including Hartford, Conn., Harrisburg, Penn., San Diego, Calif., Evansville, Ind., Madison, Wis., and Oklahoma City, Okla. After the successful exhibition and sale of these first 1,500 pieces, the program was expanded nationwide to all of Sears stores throughout the country, bringing original works of fine art to the American public in unprecedented quantity and quality…By 1971, when the program ended, more than 50,000 pieces of fine art passed through a constantly changing collection into American homes and offices.”
Sears catalog page. Far out, man
The online magazine Toccoa Catholics produced an article on Vincent Price rich in biographical information on his love of art:
“Although his stage and film career brought Price fame and some fortune, it was only his career. His true love was always art, and began at a young age, lasting his whole life. He bought his first work of art from a local dealer in St. Louis when he was twelve and paid for it in installments. But it was a good buy: a Rembrandt etching.
“During his Hollywood days, Price ran an art gallery and eventually donated his collection to East Los Angeles College, which is now home to the Vincent Price Gallery. He dedicated himself to promoting a wider popular appreciation of art. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s he traveled all around the country giving lectures on art, wrote a syndicated column on art, and worked with Sears-Roebuck to acquire original art for purchase by the common men and women who shopped for power tools and washing machines.
“He was utterly unpretentious about a subject that is usually prone to pretentiousness. (‘I never could afford to buy what other people said I should like.’) He looked at art ‘wide-eyed and openmouthed,’ but his observations were astute. He said, for instance, that a sketch can capture what the camera cannot. Both are immediate, but the sketch ‘has so much more humanity’ because ‘life is quicker than the eye.’
“He was an avid collector and promoter of native and folk art, and defended these artists against their highbrow critics with a line worthy of Chesterton: ‘At least they haven’t lost the ability to see directly in their own directions.’
“When he looked at the work of great artists, he realized that God-given talent was one of the things that make it easy to believe in God. ‘I had always felt that art and religion were inextricably tied together…'”
Price was also an unapologetic partisan for American art. Informed by his appreciation of this country, he wrote of the “…the unquenchable thirst of our artists and people for cultural achievement.” He saw our native sense of invention as an asset that leads to discoveries: “It may be said that, in this land that lacked the facilities for formal training, the untutored artist was forced to devise a style, almost a shorthand of his own invention, to make up his personal language of art.” He did not agree with the tiresome leveling effect of global art world dogma, understanding how regional identity strengthens artistic character and accomplishment: “To those who say art is international, I must say yes, in its enjoyment, but it has always been highly nationalistic in its convictions, if not its inspiration.”
It’s interesting how a B movie portrayer of madmen and monsters communicates more love and respect for both art and his fellow citizens than creative class pretenders have for decades. Our existing cultural institutions may be irreparably tainted, but the positive and healthy ideas about art Price represented are not lost to us. We are having to start over, but that’s a great place to be. The natural environment of the American is the frontier. The power of Remodernism is ordinary people acting as explorers and inventors and finding their individual vision. Vincent would approve.
The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art Sales Training Film