My friend Shaan is in town for a few days and staying with me. Last night he invited me to an opening for a new gallery that he was recently commissioned to do some work for (even though his work was not among those hanging for the opening). The gallery is called RH Contemporary, and it is apparently a new venture from the people behind Restoration Hardware, and as the name would imply run by some branch of their company and tied in with their branding. The opening was very “VIP”, and felt like an opulent NYC dance club opening with velvet rope and carpet, guest lists, pretty young women in cocktail dresses checking people in and pointing them to stairs and bathrooms and such. On entry, there were a row of model-handsome men standing erect and holding platters of frou-frou cocktails, and many cater-waiters carrying around blocky trays with upscale snacks on them. The gallery is five floors, each one reserved for a different artist, we took an elevator to the top and made our way down the stairs, floor by floor. I was impressed by how slick the event was but something was bugging me a bit about all this. The more I examined their concept, the more it made me question the value (and more importantly the purpose) of the art. For one thing, all of the work in the gallery is commissioned by them, with some rather strict rules about how many and what type of pieces they were looking for. They really seem to strive for an alike purity from each artist, and all their selections had a quality about them that would work very well in a certain type of home decor. The work was all rather minimalist, monotone or duotone, and devoid of any obvious political or social content or criticism. The website itself is perfectly designed to convey the gallery space, and is an e-commerce site where one can shop for a piece of art, add it to one’s basket, and check out as with any shopping site. The only difference is that instead of a gaudy “buy” button, one has a tasteful “acquire” link, and instead of “basket”, one has a “collection”. The other difference with a traditional shop is that these are all “one of a kind” items (and have price tags in the many thousands). The purpose for RH seems rather clear: define a new (and lucrative) market segment for decorative stuff. What it does to (the idea of) art and artists is a little less generous I think. And it points to the long (and sometimes tiresome) debate about art and commerce, and what the purpose of art is, and what can even claim the title of art. Depending on who you are and what you believe, art should or can offer a critique of the dominant culture, be a purely formal exploration, examine and reflect on the artist’s psyche, or it can serve a decorative purpose (as is very much the case here). Which of those categories one allows as “art” is up to the viewer and (in our very consumer society) purchaser.