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.


Comments are closed.