When plutocrats collect artists

By Felix Salmon
February 3, 2011

The 4th Davos Philanthropic Roundtable, held in Davos during the World Economic Forum, was one of the more surreal events to happen last week. Sponsored by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, it ostensibly served to examine the role of art in social transformation, both in theory and in practice. But the real message of the panel was that if you get a bunch of art-world types to sit on a panel and intone vapidly, you will produce no light and precious little heat.

The real fun was happening in the corridor outside the panel, where Damien Hirst and his assistants were helping make spin paintings for anybody who wanted one. (I’ve got two sitting by my desk — a heart that I made, and a skull my wife made.) The process was streamlined and effective:

And while insights into philanthropy were hard to find, insights into the psychology of the art market abounded. I finally got an answer, for instance, to the question of why someone like Pinchuk would go around spending hundreds of millions of dollars on shiny, evanescent art.

It’s all part of the same drive which brought Pinchuk to Davos in the first place, and which got him onto the boards of the IIE or the Global Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS—the desire for international recognition and respect. Buying art gets you some small measure of that, and the more expensive the art, the more respect you get, in the art world at least. But the art world is small, while the number of people who admire philanthropic ventures is higher—so Pinchuk is trying to combine the two, as improbable as that might sound. He even commissioned an utterly bizarre video laying out his vision of art changing the world.

The Davos lunch was an impressive demonstration of the power of money and patronage. Pinchuk held his own shindig on the sidelines of the WEF and rivalled it for star power: Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons even turned up in town just for this event, without any WEF credentials at all. And it goes to show how the art market has evolved since the war, from a realm of connoisseurship surrounding dead painters of brown portraits to one of living brand names who can be schmoozed and dined and even flown up an alp.

On the flight back from Davos I read Art of the Deal , a new book by Noah Horowitz taking a deep look at the art market in general and art funds in particular. It’s definitely not for a general audience — Horowitz writes, for instance, about “desubjectivization as a challenge to the ‘capitalist character of aesthetic relationships’ and networks as an anticommodification avant-gardist strategy,” and that’s only a little bit of a single sentence — but he did help me think more about the way in which the art market has become less and less about art, and ever more about people. That’s why and how artists can make good money from careers which are spent making virtually uncollectible art, like cooking Thai food or getting kids to stop gallery-goers and ask them questions.

In a world where plutocrats collect artists rather than art—where Pinchuk can show off Hirst like he might a new Rolex, or where Dakis Joannou can get Jeff Koons to do his yacht-painting for him—the aesthetic content of the art doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fame of the artist, and the degree to which the art is instantly recognizable.

Once upon a time, artists painted in schools, and it took a certain amount of education and taste just to be able to distinguish one artist’s work from another’s. Those days are long gone: all the most successful contemporary artists have their own unique schtick, and could never be mistaken for anybody else. It’s a necessary condition for success in the art world today: you need to do something no one else has done, and which can be recognized as being your work and nobody else’s in a fraction of a second. It’s not sophisticated, but it’s effective. And it has helped drive the art market to the point at which Koons editions are selling for vastly more money than old master paintings he’s buying for himself. It’s unsustainable, but it’s fun while it lasts.

5 comments

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But Hirst doesn’t have his own style any more: he rarely, if ever, even touches “his” works.

Posted by DrFuManchu | Report as abusive

…”it’s fun while it lasts.” What’s the fun, exactly? Seeing one absurdly wealthy person fund schlock art (e.g., shiny balloon dogs) “produced” (commissioned, but untouched by) another absurdly wealthy person whom some collection of wealthy people have decided is an artist? I don’t see the fun in watching the super-wealthy play stupid games with each other.

There are a ton of talented people out there producing real art, real music, etc. – producing something of real value, and not just by ripping other people off (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_v._K oons). Very few of them ride the bubble to the wealth stratosphere, but what they do is much more interesting and meaningful to many more people than all the Koonses and Hirsts. Why spend so much time attending to these phonies? It’s an up-market version of what’s in the pages of People.

Posted by FosterBoondog | Report as abusive

Ha. Felix loves every minute of this silliness because he got to go to Davos.

OMG! Spin painting. Just like common people!

Posted by petertemplar | Report as abusive

If you pine for the days when artists did more public works, you should check out the work of an organization called RxArt. Through RxArt, artists design and install art in hospitals throughout the country. And, yes, Jeff Koons (or his assistants) did his part by painting a CT scanner and room at a children’s hospital near Chicago.

Posted by framed | Report as abusive

Lets face it: art, as well as all other investments, are at least, partly, about marketing. In the investment business, itself, about 99% of the people are marketers, from brokers to securities analysts. In the art world, dealers and critics are the marketers, and there has been a lot of art that I personally believe people have been snookered into appreciating over the last century: it’s just a variation on: “The Emperor has New Clothes”.

The general investment market has proven over and over again that fools can easily be parted from their money. The “new” art market just gives them another place to be fooled.

Posted by LeonaCraig | Report as abusive