Claiming the Blacklist
Craig Robins’s lawsuit against the New York gallery of David Zwirner is the new Skin Fruit. It is exposing some of the more unseemly connections between money and influence that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all knew were there, except that this time the concerns of artists, collectors, and private dealers take the place of institutional realpolitik. The artworld blogosphere has done an excellent job covering the fray, with Sarah Douglas, Hrag Vartanian, Greg Allen, and Ed Winkleman providing news and insight.
The legal proceedings and the question of whether or not there has been a breach of contract between the parties is less interesting to me than the sensationalizing idea of a blacklist. Blacklists have an ugly history, almost exclusively of the wealthy and powerful exercising their influence to exclude and marginalize people who thought to challenge their standing or interests. Blacklists have been a brutal exercise of top-down power, and it is easy to see why cultural critics would recoil from them; those who are historically aware know how easily they might suffer under similar constraints.
In this case though, the blacklist is that of the artist Marlene Dumas. Like any other blacklist, hers is about control; she aims to influence how her work moves through the marketplace and into institutions. She prefers that prominent collectors hold her works for a long time and has blacklisted collectors who speculate in her work and flip the paintings on the secondary market for a large profit. This turns the normal power structure of the blacklist on its head, with the wielder of money and power finding himself shut out and unable to find purchase.
A blacklist is a blunt tool, and certainly some of the questions asked about Ms. Dumas’s motives or the lengths she will go to are valid. Hrag Vartanian asked on Twitter “What if she were refusing to sell to minorities?” and Charlie Finch certainly finds the mere existence of a blacklist condemnable. But despite the history of the blacklist, I can’t really find any great fault with Ms. Dumas’s employment of it. She will not see any of the profits on the resale of her work, and she sees value in securing her legacy; if that means that she limits her market and tries to sell her work to people who will eventually donate it to a public collection, I don’t see why (or how) she should (or could) be forced to sell her work to either the first or the highest bidder. In the end it is her right to do as she sees fit with her work, whereas the collectors she is denying have no inherent right to purchase it. Ms. Dumas could possibly harm her market by continued capricious action, but she has probably accrued enough power and influence of her own to make this outcome unlikely. Indeed, from where I sit, that is progress.