“Strange Bedfellows!” lamented the title of a recent letter to Museum News, in which a certain Harriet Sherman excoriated the National Gallery of Art in Washington for its handling of tickets to the much-ballyhooed “Van Gogh’s van Goghs” exhibit. A huge proportion of the 200,000 free tickets were snatched up by homeless opportunists in the dead of winter, who then scalped those tickets at $85 apiece to less hardy connoisseurs.

Yet, Sherman’s bedfellows are far from strange. Art, despite its religious and magical origins, very soon became a commercial venture. From bourgeois patrons funding art they barely understood in order to share their protegee’s prestige, to museum curators stage-managing the cult of artists in order to enhance the market value of museum holdings, entrepreneurs have found validation and profit in big-name art. Speculators, thieves, and promoters long ago created and fed a market where cultural icons could be traded like commodities.

This trend toward commodification of high-brow art took an ominous, if predictable, turn in the 1980s during the Japanese “bubble economy.” At a time when Japanese share prices more than doubled, individual tycoons and industrial giants alike invested record amounts in some of the West’s greatest masterpieces. Ryoei Saito, for example, purchased van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet for a record-breaking $82.5 million. The work, then on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, suddenly vanished from the public domain. Later learning that he owed the Japanese government $24 million in taxes, Saito remarked that he would have the paining cremated with him to spare his heirs the inheritance tax. This statement, which he later dismissed as a joke, alarmed and enraged many. A representative of the Van Gogh museum, conceding that he had no legal redress, made an ethical appeal to Mr. Saito, asserting, “a work of art remains the possession of the world at large.”

Ethical appeals notwithstanding, great art will increasingly devolve into big business. Firstly, great art can only be certified by its market value. Moreover, the “world at large” hasn’t the means of acquisition. Only one museum currently has the funding to contend for the best pieces–the J. Paul Getty Museum, founded by the billionaire oilman. The art may disappear into private hands, but its transfer will disseminate once static fortunes into the hands of various investors, collectors, and occasionally the artist.

 

Questions

 

  1. Which of the following would be the most appropriate title for the passage?
  • Art of Art’s Sake: A Japanese Ideal
  • Van Gogh: Breaking New Ground
  • Museums and the Press: Strange Bedfellows
  • Money vs. Art: An Ethical Mismatch
  • Great Art: Business as Usual

 

2. It can be inferred from the passage that Harriet Sherman would be most likely to agree with which of the following statements regarding admission to museum exhibits?

  • Tickets should be available on a first-come-first-served basis.
  • Those with a genuine interest in art should not have to pay inflated prices.
  • Museums need the income from ticket sales in order to buy great art.
  • Tickets should be distributed without prior announcement.
  • No one should be able to purchase more than one or two tickets.

3. The passage supplies information for answering which of the following questions?

  • Who owned van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachetprior to its purchase by Saito?
  • Where did Saito exhibit van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet?
  • Which museum proposed to purchase van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachetfrom Saito?
  • Did the Van Gogh Museum threaten legal action in response to reports that Saito intended to destroy van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet?
  • Did Saito actually intend to destroy van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet?

 

Answers and analysis

Question 1.

Correct Answer:E: Great Art: Business as Usual

A good title should sum up the theme and content of the passage as a whole. If you see a question asking you to choose a title for a passage, you should look at the passage as a whole, to help find your answer.

You are looking for a choice that represents the author’s view that art and business are closely connected. Option A is a distortion of the topic. The issue of “art of art’s sake” does underlie the passage, and there is some attention to an incident involving a Japanese businessperson, but there is no suggestion that the ideal is particularly Japanese. Option B focuses on the artist van Gogh, who is mentioned in two paragraphs; however, van Gogh is not the topic of the passage, and there is no discussion of his innovations. Option C distorts the topic of the first paragraph. In fact, that paragraph discussed a letter published in a magazine, but it did not discuss the press per se. The passage does not actually state who the “strange bedfellows” were, but the implication is that Sherman was referring to either the scalpers and the art aficionados who were vying for tickets, or to art and (illegal) business. Option D is actually a reversal of the author’s theme, which is that money and are art quite often intimately linked; the first sentence of paragraph 4 dismisses the ethical concerns. Option E becomes the right answer which states that art is a business.

Question 2.

Correct Answer:B : Those with a genuine interest in art should not have to pay inflated prices.

This is an inference question. It’s clear from the word ‘inferred’, of course, but the phrase ‘most likely to agree with’ is also a powerful indicator of an Inference question. Look for an answer choice that is directly supported by the passage.

In order to answer this Inference question, locate where Sherman’s argument was presented – in the first paragraph. Sherman was angry because people with a genuine interest in art were forced to pay very high prices for tickets that were supposed to be free. Option A is a 180-degree reversal of her point: it was the first-come-first-served rule that allowed homeless people to get so many tickets. Option B is a strong choice, and is supported by the fact that Sherman was angry that those with a genuine interest in art had to pay high ticket prices. Option C may be true, but it is beyond the scope of this passage. Options D and E represent possible solutions to the problem raised by Sherman, but there is no support in the passage that either Sherman of the author would find them satisfactory. Option B thus becomes your answer.

 

Question 3.

Correct Answer:D : Did the Van Gogh Museum threaten legal action in response to reports that Saito intended to destroy van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet?

This is another inference question. To answer such questions, find the appropriate paragraph to find the relevant details, then go back and research each answer choice to avoid distortions.

To answer this open-ended inference question, examine each choice. However, you will realize after a quick reading that you can limit your research of all five options to Paragraph 3.

Option A: do you know who owned van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet prior to its purchase by Saito? No, you are only told that it was on loan to a museum. You are told nothing about Saito’s exhibiting the portrait; in fact, it is implied that he did not exhibit it at all. Therefore, option B is wrong. Option C is incorrect because there is no mention of anyone proposing to purchase the portrait from Saito. Option D is the correct answer. You are told that the representative of the Van Gogh Museum admitted that “he had no legal redress”; this means that no legal action could be threatened. The passage offers us no information that would answer the question posed in option E: the author reports both the threat to destroy the portrait, and Saito’s dismissal of that threat as a “joke,” but the author does not tell you what to believe about this point.