Archive for April 2012
The state of the art market and the fantastic sums of money thrown into it as a part of the economic recovery[i] continue to serve as fodder to trumpet or denounce the direction of contemporary art itself. Breathless claims for art as an asset class are countered with calls that the money involved is irretrievably corrupting any aesthetic value. Add to this mix the Occupy movement casting its eye towards the art world as the only cultural arena where critical judement is almost entirely determined by the super-rich[ii], and the level of discourse gets more and more histrionic (on both sides) at the expense of actually addressing the fundamental issues or offering any possible solutions. There’s a good deal of populist rhetoric but it’s unclear how much of it is actually looking at art. Disturbingly, art is not being judged on the gallery or museum wall, but via the booths found in art fairs.
Most of the artists I know consider fairs a sort of necessary evil. Whether they go or not usually depends on if they can get in for free[iii], and if they go it’s because they can see a phenomenal amount of art in one place at one time; even compared to gallery hopping in Manhattan there’s more to see, but then the viewing is less than optimal (although compared to the free Friday evenings of most major museums in New York City, it can’t be too much worse).
Morley Safer brought out his second supposed dissection of the art world, the first having come not quite twenty years ago. This time he looked at the market through the lens of the Art Basel fair in Miami but his report has little in the way of actual investigation or exposition; there are some tossed off facts and a graph or two, but most of the issues are raised as snark and then left to quietly drop.[iv] While Safer did raise the issue of the amount of money in the art world, all too often he was ingratiating rather than critical. He has to practically beg to talk to Larry Gagosian, and instead of following up on ideas that the art market is completely opaque and unregulated and what this might mean, he spends his time poking fun at art he finds both silly[v] and overpriced. Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Anish Kapoor, and a host of anonymous art join Robert Gober, Christopher Wool, and Robert Ryman for mocking this time. To his credit, he at least goes after big names[vi] as long as they’re not in the same room; when he gets a tour of the Rubell family collection, he lampoons a work that drips honey from a box for participants to catch on bits of bread without noting that the artist in question is the Rubell’s daughter. Instead of exploring the nexus of money and privilege in the creation of art and how that affects broader aesthetic concerns we’re left with art reduced to mere absurdity, which is an easy answer. Drawing a connection with his first report, he wryly mocks Do Ho Suh’s delicate fabric recreations of elements from places he has lived by stripping them of all relation and reference, undercutting any possible meaning or engagement by treating them as ultimately little more than a commercial spot.
Safer notes a few works on view as worthwhile[vii], but the problem with his approach[viii] is the same many make: the conflation of aesthetic value with how much a work of art costs. This is the clear cut issue with art at an art fair; not that personal obsessions are opaque (they are) or that the tussle of the contemporary scene is different than canonization (it is), but that as long as society insists on using money as the primary yardstick of “worth” it will be viewing art through a distorted lens. An art fair is ultimately about art as salable ware in a way that it is not in a museum, or even a gallery; the distortion Safer applies is that people more conversant in art manage a fair according to their own needs, while Safer presents it as the only way art is considered anymore.
Where Safer couches his aesthetic conservativism as a critique of billionaire spending, Charlie Finch seeks to align the problematic points of the art market with the economics of sports. He handles this arguably worse than Safer. For one, he should have a better understanding of the issues within the art market, but he so mangles his opening example[ix] that it’s impossible to take him seriously; it makes me question whether or not he’s ever actually listened to a baseball game[x] and by extension just how much stock to put in the rest of his analysis. He complains that “What’s missing in both narratives is the traditional public interest that used to motivate the whole process”, but when I listen to a baseball game, I always know what the batter did, and so does everyone else. Likewise the only coverage of the fairs that I paid attention to[xi] hardly mentioned sales, but did mention that Michael Riedel’s installation at Zwirner’s booth was great. What is more problematic here is the equation of a singular aesthetic pursuit such as art to popular pastime like professional sports.[xii] To claim that Baseball is only a “construct no longer intended for public entertainment, but merely to justify the exchange of large amounts of capital between the 1% of the 1%” is to both reveal that one has never been a sports fan, but also to say that art should be merely public entertainment.
For me, the strength of art lies in its possibility for finicky, over the top elitism. What great movement in art has not been met with howls of derision and outrage from the general public? It can be the expression of a single individual that is not dependent on larger social or economic structures for its creation. The tricky thing with appealing to the taste of the general populace is while you’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get[xiii], it is safe to say that it isn’t likely to appeal to the contemporary art world. In appealing to the taste of the 99% I don’t think Finch intended to spend much time writing about Thomas Kinkade[xiv] or the latest generic Hollywood romantic comedy. Why should anyone believe a rant about how the influence of the 1% is destroying culture for everyone when the art Charlie Finch endorses would not pass muster with most majorities; aesthetically speaking, he is the 1%[xv] and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best and delusional at worst.
This is not to say that there are not economic inequalities that arise in participating in either the sports or art economy, but they are much more complicated to unpack[xvi], and the issues extend beyond just either arena to issues that affect the broad politics and economics of a city or region. In a sense this complexity is what makes it so easy to stop at just platitudes and economic name calling. The issues (and possible solutions) are less sexy when not looking at just art[xvii], and they also require the 99% to accept some responsibility for how things have turned out. I do not mean to use “responsibility” as the cudgel conservative politicians do, but whatever the problems that have come from a widening gap between rich and poor and a slow dismantling of the social safety net, these were legislated for in a functioning democracy. In such a political system it can’t be accurate to say that this was done to us; the sad truth is that we let this happen to us. Accepting responsibility is the first step towards reconstruction.
I tend to agree with John Powers when he identifies the ever widening disparity of incomes between the haves and have-nots as one of the central economic problems, and points to that providing healthcare and education as a simple leveling mechanism. While I would be quite happy to see the implementation of Scandinavian quasi-socialist economic policies designed to provide for all of the citizenry before (rather than after) splitting up the pie among private interests, I also do not think that any calls to remove art from the functions of basic capitalism and the laws of supply and demand have much credibility. Art cannot stand apart as a separate, somehow pristine economy because at its root it is interconnected with the rest of the global economy[xviii], just as is everything else. This is neither good nor bad; the issue is not working outside of capitalism, but in assessing how art can be produced within such a system.
Accepting the basic agency of supply and demand appears to be the lost key in understanding how the contemporary art market ebbs and flows. Artists tend to focus on the supply of or demand for actual artworks, but in responding to calls that “the game is rigged”[xix] one should turn to the supply and demand for labor. Finch blames the super rich for creating the illusion of opportunity, but when you get right down to it the fact is that being an artist (or at least the idea of it) is incredibly seductive. The reason there is a lot of competition is because so many people look at it as something that would be a great thing to do with their lives. Of course that image often doesn’t show the hard work or luck that underwrites the myth of success, but this is the same in a great many professions. [xx] I have actually often likened starting a career as an artist to trying to play a professional sport[xxi], but where Finch points to the failure rate and cost inherent in the system as an indication of its corruption, I see it as more and more people bringing new ideas to the table, and making art and its discourse stronger through variation and competition, debate and synthesis. Of course this strength also provides a broad labor base for an industry to draw from as new artists look to find work in their chosen field, and that pushes the value of that labor down, but it’s not realistic to expect that the art world is going to be able to support every artist. No industry provides that level of income security, and every artist has always had to work against the giant stereotype of the starving artist blinking annoyingly in the background. Even if artists saw some of their classmates offered solo shows, one would’ve had to blithely ignore the basic math[xxii] (along with most anecdotes from art history about how long it took for artists we care about today to find an audience). I don’t see any way that should be laid at the feet of art or the art market any more than all of cinema should be condemned because there are a bunch of actors waiting tables are disappointed that they didn’t get to have Brad Pitt’s career. We may have been raised to believe that we were all going to movie stars or rock gods, but if we’re pissed off by the fact that we’re not then we really have only ourselves to blame, even if it’s only for believing an advertisement.
Again, the key issue comes back to our unit of measure. Finch’s hypothetical benefit-less adjunct professor for Schlump Community College hasn’t had his work assessed in any way other than via the standing of his bank account. This is where criticism of the art fairs becomes problematic, since their entire raison d’etre is to sell art, and that helps artists (who presumably will get paid for their work). Safer and Finch ultimately get the art world they are looking for rather than the one they want because of the questions they ask. They want the work they like to be financially rewarded, but short of legislating taste perhaps the key to looking at art should be to look directly at the work rather than the price tag off to the side.
[i] Remember when the economic collapse was sure to herald in a new conceptual agenda reminiscent of the halcyon early 1990’s and the market would be corrected to a state subservient to aesthetics?
[ii] Almost any other medium for expression makes its bones on selling multiples, be it identical copies or tickets to a performance. This means that a certain amount of populism is built into the market. Where there is a singular object, that sum total concentrates into the single object, elevating it out of the price range of mere mortals.
[iii] This past round it seems like comps were harder to come by and ticket prices that rival MoMA’s probably kept some of the unwashed (i.e. non-buyers) away; with the next big event being the Frieze fair isolated away on Randall’s island, access does become a more pointed issue.
[iv] Yes, the art market and its participants do sometimes behave as though they are investing in commodities, but that is a problem why exactly? Show your work, Morley…
[v] That some cultural production could be both bad and ridiculously expensive should not exactly be news to Schafer as the same network that broadcasts his story also broadcasts “Two and a Half Men.”
[vi] We can all still agree that he might have a point about Koons though, right?
[vii] Kara Walker being the only artist so named, but pretty much anyone discussed is damned by the association of inclusion. I wonder if Safer’s viewers recognize that the quick insert of a small Picasso or large Frankenthaler are something they’re supposed to know is good.
[viii] From the standpoint of someone interested in art; trying to grab ratings by pandering to middlebrow misunderstanding of contemporary art is probably still a sound broadcasting strategy.
[ix] So let’s break his paragraph down, Finch writes
‘Turn on a televised baseball game, for example, and the announcer will say, “Joe Palooka is coming to bat. Joe is in his walk year, making $15 million, and his agent is rumored to be negotiating for a minimum six-year contract with the Red Sox or maybe the Rockies. Here comes the pitch. Strike One. Whether the Rangers will trade Palooka before the All Star break depends on management’s willingness to eat a big chunk of Joe’s current contract.”’
Just to start with, announcers just don’t talk this way. Being in the entertainment business, it’s generally accepted that too much talk about astronomical sums of money doesn’t really appeal to Joe Six-pack fan. Furthermore agents don’t negotiate with other teams for extended deals during the season. That would be tampering with a player under contract and MLB actually takes that pretty seriously. The player has to file for free agency for anybody to do any negotiating, and that happens in the off-season, not during the season.
Next, the teams are all wrong; the Red Sox don’t really compete with the Rockies for free agent signings (it’s the definition of a large market with lots of money, and a smaller market that can’t compete in spending), and anyways since the Rangers have been very good for the last few years, they wouldn’t be looking to trade away a good player at the deadline. That’s a salary dump and salary dumps are for good players on bad teams, they don’t happen to good players on good teams who are looking to go to the playoffs… but let’s not let facts get in the way of a nice bit of alliteration.
[x] Maybe Finch has only been listening John Sterling all these years, who is legitimately awful and barely does call the game; his pitch calling is non-existent, and he hardly interrupts his monologue to let the listener know that “there’s a strike.”
[xi] Rachael Wetzler writing for Idiom (who I also occasionally write for) and Greg Allen blogging for himself stood out in my feed, but many blogs looked at the art without getting to hung up on the money. Even Tamara Warren, writing in Forbes of all places, spent more time talking about the work than how it sold.
[xii] For the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking Baseball, which is the only sport I follow, although the issues that can be raised via Baseball can also be applied to other sports.
[xiii] As evidenced by all the cat videos on the internet.
[xiv] Although with his recent death perhaps we’ll be treated to an obituary that had all the wit and generosity of his thoughts on Hilton Krammer’s passing.
[xv] And likely so are you, dear reader.
[xvi] Just to start with the economics of having municipalities levy taxes to build stadiums and arenas for private enterprises that are both already very profitable. This trend becomes even more distorted in the face of the funding for the New Yankee Stadium, as the Yankees lack a credible threat to move anywhere else (does anyone really think Jersey is an option?) while at the same time annexing public park land in a poorer section of the city to build upon. The Yankees proposal would have returned said public lands back in trade, but only in a fragmented and less useable fashion, and they haven’t even undertaken to live up to those meager responsibilities. By comparison, funding for oversize art projects (public or private) are the super-rich spending their own money. Even if you argue that their incomes should be taxed at a higher rate, you simply do not see even major museum projects (never mind galleries or projects by single artists) making such a bald claim to privatize public funds. The unpopularity of contemporary art that insulates it as a luxury commodity is also what keeps it from becoming a larger drain on the taxes paid by the 99%. When art accrues value and prices push ever higher, the only people who are paying more and more via auction and private sales are already very, very rich.
[xvii] And thus actions like Occupy Museums have less purchase for grabbing media attention. While such tactics are good for exposing issues that should be debated and starting a dialog with otherwise indignant and closed institutions, they appear to provide less in the way of demands for change or actionable solutions.
[xviii] Money is a very pervasive technology precisely because it is so convenient. Artists, galleries, and museums still must draw on resources of power and utilities, space, transportation, and labor. These are all networked into the general economy in a way that cannot be easily segregated into a separate system based on, say, barter and good will. Any such separate economy would run into limits of scale that art, like most global markets or enterprises has long since surpassed. The genie simply cannot be put back in the bottle.
[xix] Which is a common refrain, echoed by Finch and participants in the Flux Factory Death Match linked to above.
[xx] There are a lot of things to do and ways to make a living that look really interesting, but in the end are not easy to get a foot in the door. An example that goes beyond the arts is my brother’s work to become a full time pilot. He spent his summers flying weather modification in the middle of nowhere, just so he’d have a job flying and could log flight time that he could bring to an application for an airline job. But the air line job he got still gives a great deal of weight to seniority and institutes practices that takes advantage of the fact that there is a very deep pool of labor to draw on.
[xxi] At least in pro-sports the goal of winning a game that has clearly defined rules means that talent will always trump unrelated maters. This is obviously not the case with art, but that is a strength as well as a weakness. With art we can at least define our own goals and goal posts.
[xxii] Take the number of people in an MFA program and use that to extrapolate the number of MFA candidates in all of the grad schools across the country. Then subtract the number of gallery shows available in a single given year and take the square root of that number. If the resulting number is imaginary, then so was the financial planning behind the idea.
My review of the mini-retrospective “Fred Sandback: Decades” at David Zwirner Gallery is up on Idiom.com. The link is http://idiommag.com/2012/04/playing-out-the-string/.