Opinion

Felix Salmon

Adam Lindemann and the game of art

By Felix Salmon
April 29, 2011
art

Adam Lindemann has replied to my post on art as a game. He makes a number of points worth responding to:

First, your idea of challenging me to buy a work of art that would have no economic value sounds clever but is in fact naïve from many perspectives. The notion that great art can be of no value, or that one should “buy what you like” even if it is worthless, is an opinion often held by those who have no background in art or willingness to learn and appreciate art in its full context.

There’s a bunch of stuff to unpack here. For starters, there’s more to art than great art. Is it possible for great art to have no value? Maybe not — I can see an argument which says that for art to achieve greatness, intrinsic qualities aren’t enough; it also needs a certain amount of institutional support which in turn guarantees that it will have monetary value. And so I suppose a reasonable (if rather puffed-up) answer to my question might have been “I only buy great art, and great art always has value”. But most collectors buy a lot of art, including art which doesn’t aspire to greatness, or art which hasn’t achieved greatness yet and which is awaiting the institutional support which might confer greatness upon it. (This covers, among other things, just about everything by so-called “emerging artists”.)

And of course people should buy what they like. Buying art you don’t like is something done only by schmucks or by dealers — and the latter will never admit it. So the question is only whether people should buy what they like even if it is worthless.

My view here is very much that they should, and I continue to hold that view even if it’s also held by people with no background in art or willingness to appreciate it in its full context. As I said back in December, when I buy art I tend to want to buy unlimited editions or other work with no resale value. Because the art-as-luxury-object game has become completely disconnected, at this point, from the art-as-art game, and has become little more than a pissing match between oligarchs to see who has the largest bankroll.

So I would say that I buy worthless art precisely because I appreciate the full context of expensive art. And that’s simply not something I want to — literally — buy into.

Lindemann continues:

Economic value is how the world recognizes aesthetic, social or historical value in art. The concept that there is something fresh and undiscovered that you alone you would cherish and that no one else would assign any economic value to if they discovered it, too, is idealized and naïve (an object of personal or sentimental value is another matter).

Economic value is one way that the world recognizes aesthetic, social or historical value in art. It’s far from the only way. Indeed, the fact that masterpieces are frequently described as “priceless” is a good indication that there’s much more to art than economic value. Look at the old masters that Jeff Koons is collecting: all of them are cheaper than many of Koons’s own works. Does that mean that the world has officially recognized that a big Koons sculpture has more aesthetic, social and historical value than the old masters in Koons’s collection? No. But a big Koons sculpture is a much more effective way for an oligarch to flaunt his wealth than a smallish Courbet bull. And so it sells for more.

As for worthlessness, I’m not talking about “something fresh and undiscovered that you alone you would cherish and that no one else would assign any economic value to”. Instead, I’m talking about the natural state of 99% of the art which has ever been produced. Much of it is loved; virtually none of it can be sold, whether or not it has aesthetic, social or historical value. Right now, in fact, my family is grappling with the issue of what to do with the substantial body of work of a now-forgotten artist; LACMA has said they would be interested in a donation of a couple of works, which they wouldn’t do if the pieces didn’t have significant value, but there’s no economic value to these paintings in the sense that there’s any kind of a market for them.

I do agree with Lindemann here:

We are all a product of our cultural surroundings and this process begins from the time the doctor cuts the umbilical cord. So there is no fresh and unbiased view of anything, least of all art. The search for the work of art valuable to you and you alone is futile and pointless, art history is a dialogue.

I’m certainly not looking for a work of art valuable to me and me alone. Indeed, I’ve been known, upon buying a piece, to post it and write about it at length — to share my enthusiasm for it with as many people as possible. I’m just being realistic — in the case of all the artists I know personally, the supply of their work is significantly greater than the demand for it. In that context, anybody wanting to buy their work can and should do so in the primary market. These people are constantly trying to find willing buyers, and they’re not having a huge amount of luck; there’s no reason for me to believe that if I put my own piece up for sale then it would easily catch a bid.

Lindemann, of course, moves in different circles. He buys only the work of artists represented by established galleries — the kind of galleries where there’s an implicit promise to buy the work back if you ever tire of it. That’s fine — but if I choose not to play that game, that doesn’t mean I’m looking for art valuable to me and me alone. It just means that I don’t need to know that there’s a secondary-market bid out there before I buy a piece.

Lindemann then admits that he views collecting art as a business:

Next, regarding your complaint that I treat the art business as a game, well, yes and no. As you’ve noted in your blogs, any business is a game of buying or selling, whether stocks, bonds etc… I am a collector, but I am also a businessman…

I couldn’t be more serious about collecting, and you might not feel art is an investment, but there is a lot of money changing hands.

This is a fair point: if buying and selling art is a game, then buying and selling stocks is a game, too. But that kind of mindset — reducing art collecting to the level of stock-market speculation — is exactly what I find distasteful. There is indeed a lot of money changing hands — and Lindemann is indeed a businessman. But when you look at the art world through the eyes of a businessman, something important is lost; for one thing, you stop thinking about art as something to buy, and start thinking about art as something to invest in. Art moves from being a consumption good to being an investment.

When you buy art, you should be looking for something you love. When you buy an investment, you should be looking for something which is going to increase in value over time. Conflating the two helps to persuade people like Lindemann that spending millions of dollars on art is a sensible thing to do. But it also massively reduces the universe of artworks you can choose from, and exacerbates the star system whereby a handful of artists sell for millions of dollars while most struggle to sell anything at all.

Finally, Lindemann says that I’m “mistaken” when I say he can afford to lose millions investing in art, and that I’m attacking his credibility when I call him a plutocrat. He also asked me, in an email, to go light on the personal stuff in my response. So I’ll leave those objections unanswered; they’re not central to our differences in any case.

The main point here is the difference in the way that each of us buys art, and thinks it should be bought. I like to buy work that I love, ideally directly from the artist, with no eye to ever being able to sell it. Adam prefers to buy work which has garnered so much institutional ratification that it can cost him millions of dollars — and even then has significant economic upside potential. He also sells work, when he can do so at a profit — that’s the game he likes to play. It’s a game which reduces something complex and beautiful to a banal P&L. Which means that even as his pieces are selling for enormous sums, they’re being cheapened at the same time.

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

i love that you agreed with the lamest he thing he said

Posted by zubin | Report as abusive
 

So art appreciation is just a very rarefied form of mark-to-market accounting…

Posted by ORD | Report as abusive
 

For anyone to say that aesthetic is measured by economic value, is an admission by that individual that he/she does not have the personal capacity to develop his/her own aesthetic, or ability to measure the quality of any given art piece.

I am reminded of the socialites who would dress up in their tuxes and fine dresses and show up at the opera house, but fail to enjoy the opera itself, let alone understand or comprehend its composition and interpretation.

And how often was I perplexed by the enthusiastic applause by an audience seemingly deaf to errors of a performance.

But in the end, were it not for their patronage, where would art be? Were it not for the Medici, what would Florentine art and architecture be?

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive
 

Interesting story: When Andy Warhol first showed his Campbell’s Soup Can paintings at Ferus Gallery in L.A., hardly any of them sold, and the dealer, Irving Blum, was later able to chase those down & buy them back; 45 years later, he sold the entire series to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million. Or something along those lines. And of course stories like this are an enduring part of the myth of fine art.

Posted by Quasimodo3000 | Report as abusive
 

Felix,

Sorry for the late comment. The most disturbing element of your video interview with Mr Lindemann was when he disparaged older artists. He appeared to be saying that the economic benefit of art production should go only to the collector. Which is nothing in my opinion but abusive in the extreme. Not to mention contradictory with his own stated views.

If the market values a contemporary Johns painting at $3.5m, then by his own philosophy, he should admit that this is the correct economic value for it. To him, however, it is sour grapes. How dare an artist capture the full economic value of their own work? How dare they try to make money off their own name?

I’m sure you can make a better slaw of Mr Lindemann’s argument than I can. I can only say that it is hypocritical and upsetting in a very disturbing way.

Posted by J.V. | Report as abusive
 

I like buying art at auction by good artists selling for a lot less than it would sell in a gallery. It does have to appeal to me. Most art isn’t a financial investment at least to the person who buys it from a gallery. A lot of times it is treated like used furniture.

Posted by Judgetoo | Report as abusive
 

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