Occupy Art

By Felix Salmon
November 19, 2012

In the art world, the courtiers are revolting:

Dave Hickey, a curator, professor and author known for a passionate defence of beauty in his collection of essays The Invisible Dragon and his wide-ranging cultural criticism, is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

“They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” he told the Observer. “Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.” …

Hickey is adamant he wants out of the business. “What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.”

Hickey is only the highest-profile member of a pretty large group: people who are sick of playing bit parts in a game which has become entirely about money and ego, with the beauty and power of art having become just another commodity to be bought and sold. Art critic Jerry Saltz is another:

I still can’t stand it. How a handful of very very rich people with penises likes buying the work of a handful of artists with penises for very very high prices in public, in front of other people with penises and some very tall thin blond people with great shoes and no penises. Really.

The doyenne of art-market reporters, Sarah Thornton, has quit writing about the economics of art. She says there are a hundred reasons for doing so, including the fact that “tightknit cabals of dealers and speculative collectors count on the fact that you will report record prices without being able to reveal the collusion behind how they were achieved”, and that “it implies that money is the most important thing about art.”

Charlie Finch, too, smells the irrelevance of a world which has become irredeemably decadent in all the worst meanings of the word — to the point, this summer, at which he convinced himself that even the plutocrats would notice, and that the art market would be crashing hard, right about now. Obviously, that didn’t happen: it’s almost impossible to underestimate the obliviousness of the art-collecting elite, who are of course constantly surrounded by precisely the kind of courtiers — consultants, gallerists, even artists — who constantly tell them how perspicacious and important they are. Look no further than former commodity broker Jeff Koons, whose Tulips just sold for $33,682,500 at Christie’s: the last time I saw him he was in Davos, palling around with a Ukrainian oligarch, and generally solidifying his reputation among the people who really matter. Insofar, of course, that the people who really matter are the people you want to continue to funnel millions of dollars in your direction.

No, Charlie, the art market oligopoly system isn’t going anywhere: if anything, it’s more entrenched than ever. But the people without millions of dollars, the people who try to talk about art but find all conversations ultimately being about money — those people are, finally, getting fed up.

There’s long been a disconnect between critical acclaim and high prices, but so long as the art market pumped money into the broader art ecosystem, no one really minded that. Rather, what seems to have changed is that art — art itself, divorced from commerce — has been drowned in the flood of money. Even the most highbrow museums, these days, only devote major shows to artists who have proved themselves winners in the great game of selling to plutocrats.

This critique, of course, is not a new one, and the Occupy Museums website puts it well:

Museums must be held accountable to the public. They help create our historical narratives and common symbols. They wield enormous power within our culture and over the entire art market. We occupy museums because museums have failed us. Like our government, which no longer represents the people, museums have sold out to the highest bidder.

What’s new, I think, is the way in which such sentiments have started infecting much of the public face of the art world. Not everywhere, to be sure. Where there are markets, there will always be cheerleaders and outlets like Art Market Monitor serve the auction houses in much the same way that CNBC serves the NYSE. But now we have Jerry Saltz half-seriously proposing that all art just be sold at a flat price, and we have Sarah Thornton complaining about how tax evasion has become endemic in the market, and we have Larry Gagosian, in his latest court deposition, squirming when asked how a painting which was consigned to a New York gallery, and which was sold to a US resident, somehow managed to get sold out of London. How did the London gallery manage to acquire the work? “I don’t know the answer to that,” replies Gagosian.

Or to put it another way, the art market has stopped being a source of fascination and crazy numbers, and has started to be a source of sheer disgust. The auction records will probably continue to fall: the small group of ultra-high-end art collectors cannot easily be chastened. But I’m beginning to see the stirrings of something else: a more supportive and democratic art world, taken seriously by respected gatekeepers, which increasingly views the twice-yearly shenanigans at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as an obscene sideshow rather than as a true gauge of value. The shiny art selling for tens of millions of dollars is so dumb, and the caricatures who would emulate its success are so debased, that a lot of really talented artists and critics and curators and even collectors don’t even want in any more.

If you look back and forth between art collectors and rapacious venture capitalists, you rapidly come to the conclusion that if you compare the two groups, the art collectors come out so much worse. They’re similar in many ways: you have the “angel” early-stage investors who go bargain-shopping among the unknowns, all the way through to the big-money late-stage investors who make a fortune by investing in established names. And of course you have the majority of investors who don’t actually make any money at all. But at least there’s something honest about the VCs, and at least you can say that they sometimes create value.

The world of high-end art collectors, by contrast, has reached a level of obscenity that the art world more generally can no longer ignore. It’s been clear to the more politically-minded for a while, but now we’re seeing the mainstreaming of attitudes which used to be found only on the far left. Enough of living in a world where an artwork without resale value is worthless. Enough of feeling jealous when some idiot starts selling for ridiculous sums. Enough of a world where the levels of inequality make Nigeria seem positively egalitarian. Yes, artists need to make money, and yes, big collectors shower ridiculous sums onto the art world. But that money isn’t trickling down, and it certainly isn’t respectable. Here’s Thornton:

I have no problem with rich people. (Some of my best friends are high net worth individuals!) But amongst the biggest spenders in the art market right now are people who have made their money in non-democracies with horrendous human rights records. Their expertise in rising to the top of a corrupt system gives punch to the term “filthy lucre.”

Remember, this is no bedraggled Occupy activist writing these words; this is Sarah Thornton, who spent an entire chapter of her art-world book swimming laps at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice. Similarly, Dave Hickey was an art dealer himself, once, and has devoted his entire career to helping young artists become commercially successful. These people made their peace with the art market decades ago — but now, they are saying, it has gone too far.

One of the reasons why auctions attract so much fascination is that they’re pretty much the only place where you can see millionaires and billionaires competing, in real time, to see who can spend the most money on a given object. It’s quite a spectacle — but it has very little to do with art. Or at least, it has very little to do with whatever it is that most art lovers love. It’s fine to commercialize art, to sell it, to make money off it. Indeed, I wish that many more fine artists could do so. But let’s do so on a human scale. Because today’s art market is so much less than that.

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