Why Should Rich People Have All the Art?
Jesse Richards - April 9, 1999

Say its name, and you know The Mall at Short Hills — never just “The Short Hills Mall” — is a mall like no other. Its most striking features include a battalion of espresso shops, classy restaurants, beautiful architecture, valet parking, and a Hilton across the street. It claims over 175 stores, with names like Tiffany’s, Nieman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue — any one of which would greatly raise the prestige of any shopping center. There’s even a silent dress code that makes many a Drew student feel conspicuously out of place in sweat pants and a T-shirt. No outlet shops, gangs of sloppily-dressed high-schoolers, or even drug stores here. No, every detail of this huge complex screams out one thing: “Helloooooo, money!” Even the art.

Especially the art. Yes, there is art in this mall — lots of it. Towering metallic sculptures guard outside entrances to department stores. Beautiful prints line the lobby, dressing rooms, and hallway walls. Intricate modern fountains meld seamlessly with the water that flows over and through them. And it all fits perfectly with the entire look of the mall.

The stores have gone all out with their design and architecture. One dress shop has such huge metal gates in place of its doors that you’d think St. Peter would ring up your purchase. The music store has a rugged rock floor instead of the standard mall-tile. The mall boasts an FAO Schwarz, the famous toy store, with a larger-than-life talking tree greeting customers. Natural Wonders has a wooden trellis running along its ceiling with vines and hanging plants. All of the stores have been uniquely designed, with site-specific architecture created just to appeal to the upper-crust of mall-goers. Even if a store interior looks rather standard, the entranceway is invariably exciting. Caswell Massey is a good example — a large vaulted archway covers the entrance, evoking images of a looming European cathedral. And even the stores that are common mall fare have added unique touches to their Short Hills branch. The educational toy store Learningsmith, for example, has a gigantic rotating clock set between its sign over the entrance.

Beautiful fountains, well-groomed plants, and an exciting layout all contribute to help make the mall constantly crowded and a popular destination for non-New Jerseyans. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get art, architecture, and design lessons at every mall? So why can’t we? Why is this mall so unique? Do Short Hillsians have some preternatural appreciation for art?

No - but they do have money. Walking through the mall makes that clear. And they’d have to, since the fancy art in the mall is very expensive. Huge sculptures cost thousands of dollars to make, let alone what they sell for. And this is indicative of a long-standing truism of the art world: small amounts of expensive art are made instead of large amounts of cheap art. Real art is for the rich.

From ancient Roman rulers clamoring for more copies of Greek statues to line their hallways, to Michelangelo’s work for the Medici family, the wealthy have always been patrons of art. In fact, without their support, much of the history of art that we’re familiar with wouldn’t exist. Since the Renaissance, the demand for art has shifted from kings and rulers to include private wealthy citizens, but it’s still an interest of the very few. Even when the nexus of the art world shifted from France to New York in the early part of this century, the galleries still catered to the more affluent.

Now it’s changed a little bit. Museums and galleries are open to anyone who wants to enjoy them, and large museums are often free, encouraging everyone to take a look. But buying art and touring elite galleries is still the domain of the upper-class. “Appreciating art” as a hobby is still considered quite elite, even used as a test of elitism.

But with the advent of the middle class in America, lots of people have enough money to buy art, especially if the prices were lowered. So why does the art world continue its narrow focus, targeting the rich? It’s because the system is self-perpetuating, and there’s still a wide gap between classes in this country.

But it’s time for the art world to expand its horizons. With the elimination of much government financial support for artists, they should be searching for money from anyone. If that means “lowering” themselves to mass-producing art and merchandise, well, why not?

With modern techniques, art is easily reproducible. Instead of being scared that this will take away art’s unique character, artists and galleries should be glad that technology gives them the potential to reach a lot of people. More galleries should be online, with prints of work or small castings of sculptures available. Come on, they merchandise the heck out of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism — and there’s a Metropolitan Museum of Art store in The Mall at Short Hills to prove it. Why can’t college students have posters of current artists hanging in their dorm rooms? Why is art’s popularity among the public a century behind? Why are Monet and Van Gogh prints and Rodin sculptures the only art world merchandise?

We, as the middle class, need to start taking an interest in art. It’s the only way for the art world to catch on. Isn’t it odd that we can all name a hundred current pop/rock music stars, but no currently working artists? Art should be popular: it’s a proud tradition, an intellectual experience, and a fun hobby in just the same way popular music is. The trend of elitism in the art world is not set in stone — it’ll change eventually. To speed it along, people need to get themselves and their children interested in current artists and cool museum exhibits. The art world is broad in terms of subject matter. There is something for everybody already, but no one knows it. Most Americans don’t follow art not because they’re not “elite,” but simply because they aren’t aware of how accessible it really is. If there’s an interest among a large segment of American consumers, maybe art can soon appear in every mall, instead of just one.

Short Hills Mall fountain