Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why Can't More Artists Paint Like Andrews? (or, Philip Hensher Goes Off the Deep End)

British journalist, critic and author Philip Hensher has raised a few eyebrows by suggesting that the art market needs a good old-fashioned "devastating crash" to fix what ails it. Actually, he suggests the market needs a crash in order to fix what ails art. From the Guardian:

The monstrous figures now being achieved are all very well, but in the end they are anti-art, based largely on ideas of what will hold its value best. It not only fetishises art beyond all reason, but effectively shifts art back into the private realm, since no museum can justify paying such prices. It also damagingly squashes one of the most vital factors in the development of taste, superficial trends and fashions, by insisting that all signed art is potentially good, because - look at the index - it outperforms any other investment. A small but devastating crash would, in the long run, do the world of good.
Lord knows, I hate to dispel such a passionate rant, but, alas, someone has to do the heavy lifting here since Hensher apparently didn't take the time in between polishing his hyperbole to check his logic (or his bias). Let's look a bit more closely at Mr. Hensher's thesis:
When even the most monstrous works of art cost millions, it's time for a price crash
Philip Hensher
The great London auction houses have been having rather a good week. One of Chaim Soutine's celebrated paintings of a flayed beef carcass sold at Christie's for £7.8m. At the same house, later in the week, two Francis Bacons went for around £5m each. Down the road, at Sotheby's, a private collection of Edvard Munch exceeded predictions dramatically. Eight of Fred Olsen's Munchs proved very strong; one - a perfectly hideous Summer Day - went for £6.2m. A major Gauguin went for £12.3m at the same sale. Later in the week, Lucian Freud's well-known portrait of Bruce Bernard fetched £3.5m. Perhaps more tellingly, Sotheby's sold an Anthony Caro steel sculpture on the same evening for £1.3m. That may now sound like small change. But it's worth pointing out that the previous auction-house record for an Anthony Caro, an artist with a huge international reputation and a long-running career, was £77,675.
OK, so from the title and this cherry-picking of works from different auctions (and different auction houses, no less) it's clear Hensher feels that now that even "monstrous" art (e.g., Soutines, Bacons, Munchs) are doing well at auction, clearly the market is out of control. It's fair enough that he, personally, may not like such works, but a quick browse through the auction records demonstrates that he could have chosen any number of perfectly pleasant works to illustrate the point that the market is historically strong. But why waste the opportunity to bloviate against art you resent when it's simple enough to disguise your prose as a commentary on the market? Think I'm overstating my case? Read on...
Of course, this is not a universal phenomenon. It was surprising to learn that, at one of these extraordinary events, a painter as splendid and celebrated as Michael Andrews broke a record for his work at the relatively modest amount of £176,000.

OK, so what Philip Hensher doesn't mention here is that he wrote on Michael Andrews in an issue of Modern Painters (Vol 15 no 2). Still, its' clear enough that he resents the fact that "monstrous" works by Soutine or Bacon earn so much more than so those by his favorite artists. Further, what the Guardian article also doesn't tell you, but Hensher's bio does, is that he wrote his doctorate at Cambridge on 18th Century English painting, suggesting he's not exactly an unbiased judge of contemporary art.

Now, here's the thing. I don't necessarily disagree that the market could use a correction (I shudder at the thought that it would affect my business, but I do understand enough to know it's a bit over-active at the moment), but I really can't endorse the sort of lapse in logic whereby one concludes that because works he finds unappealling are doing well that a "devastating crash" is the remedy. I mean it's not like artists are going to conclude they should return to pastoral landscapes and the like anytime soon, even if a crash comes to pass.


Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Edward,

Nobody enjoys raking rich white folk over the coals for their Hummer spending habits like I do, but from the perspective of a film-based photographer who just witnessed the first photograph cross the million dollar mark at auction last year, and who has also seen his prices more than triple in the last couple of years, it's rather problematic to complain too much these days! This boon has been terrific for photographers. But what goes up must come down, so I'm having my brother in Mississippi teach me how to whittle Smokey Mountain black bears...so I can quickly tap into a postmodern crash of the contemporary art market and be strategically poised to take advantange of the resurgence of the sidewalk tourist Southern crafts movement that will no doubt be based in Gatlinburg and cheered on by one of the crafts movement's greatest collectors, Dolly Parton. :)


2/14/2006 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

You seem to have made an apt criticism on one aspect of Hensher's argument, that he's carping in self interest. But What do you think of

"It not only fetishises art beyond all reason, but effectively shifts art back into the private realm, since no museum can justify paying such prices. It also damagingly squashes one of the most vital factors in the development of taste, superficial trends and fashions..."

These observations seem pretty acute. He's actually complaining that the hot market suppresses vital, innovative contemporary art and hurts museums.

2/14/2006 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Take a close look at the demographic that is driving the wild contemporary art market, and then take a close look at the demographic of the collectors who are cultivated (and recruited for board membership) of the major museums. These demographics are worlds apart. Museums have done a very poor job of cultivating young rich collectors. That lack of cultivation and inclusion results in no cultural brakes being applied to the obsession among the young and rich to collect the superficial and trendy. Some of these collectors need a mom and dad to say, "Hey, just because we've given you an allowance that allows you to buy all the candy in the store doesn't mean we will let you because it is not good for you." The influence of young collectors being seriously cultivated by museums would bring about major corrections in the market in my opinion.


2/14/2006 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

He's actually complaining that the hot market suppresses vital, innovative contemporary art and hurts museums.

I'm not in total disagreement, but I don't think a devastating crash is required to fix that. A slight cooling off or, here's an idea, a return to common sense, would do wonders. It's mostly Hensher's hyperbolic approach that got under my skin...no offense to Andrews, who is rightfully beloved, but Bacon totally kicks ass and just because Hensher can't see that, doesn't mean some apocaplytic washing away of all that ails the art world is the cure.

2/14/2006 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

One bio called Andrews a painfully slow painter, is that a British thing? That's a beautiful image you use, I'm looking for more.

2/14/2006 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I'm defintely going to paint some 18th century pieces, just to be safe. I was thinking about whittling some black bears too, but it sounds like James has already cornered the market.

2/14/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I have been thinking about the economics of the current art market for some time now. I wrote up the first part of this today here

2/14/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

Edward said, " I don't think a devastating crash is required to fix" the art market.

Well, jeez, call me self-centered, but I personally don't want a crash or a correction. I want a continued art boom, one so thorough and sweeping and huge that it brings peace, democracy, and Christianity to the Middle East.

But seriously, although I don't want the boom to end, something about it gnaws. I guess I feel unwholesomely addicted to the trickle-down effect. Big capital's attention will be drawn elsewhere, away from art, and then it will be back to eating sardines and living in cardboard boxes, so to speak.

2/14/2006 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Bunny Smedley said...

Hensher is a card-carrying moron.

The reason the UK art market is booming is that ... (you'll never guess this) ... the UK economy is booming! There were big bonuses for bankers etc over last Christmas and we are seeing the results of that now. House prices are up. All sorts of ther prices are up. Honestly, I reckon that if you combed eBay.co.uk for price comparisons, you'd find that the price for pretty much everything was edging up a little. It's just that it's that marginal bit more obvious if you look at reasonably decent Bacons.

So, what Hensher seems to want is a recession that will throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work, cause them to default on mortgages, put them into lasting debt, and otherwise wreck their hopes and aspiration - all to make the price of pictures what he thinks it ought to be. Well, that's a good sense of proportion, isn't it?

The 'art world' never irritates me more than when it thinks it matters more than the apparently alternative 'real' one. And Hensher, and the rubbishy paper for which he writes, are prime symptoms of that.

2/14/2006 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

perfectly pleasant

But, you know, I'm told that art "can be so much more" ;)

PS. Right On Bunny! You GO Hare!

2/14/2006 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

have to second Crionna...Bunny you Rule!!!

2/14/2006 03:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Bunny Smedley said...

Um, should I be detecting irony? I'm scared now!

For a pre-modern, irony-free moment, though, do let me say how very much I admire and enjoy this blog.

2/14/2006 03:34:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Bunny Smedley,

Amen to that!

This art market that we're talking about ain't being driven by people buying $300 prints - it's being driven by some extremely wealthy collectors who can easily drop 1-50 million or more at a single auction with less stress than most people have anteing up the extra quarter for the super-size popcorn at the theater.

What's always been amusing to me at an almost comical level about these conversations is that people who don't have the bucks (and will never have the bucks) want to talk about what art people with an unlimited supply of dead presidents should be buying and why with their disposable income.

There's a class issue with this topic that never gets discussed. DYSKE is one of the few that I know who has attempted to do so:

Beyond "Upper" art - http://dyske.com/index.php?view_id=818

In addition, the upper class buys art in order to assert their identities. The middle class does the same by collecting books and CDs. Those who lack identities of their own must define them by consuming identities of others. Knowing what books and CDs a person owns is a convenient way to know something subjective about him. The members of the upper class go beyond mass-produced products of art. Instead of asking what books and CDs they own, they ask what fine artists they own.

For those of us in the middle class, it is hard to imagine why anyone would buy a piece of conceptual art that consists of a DVD player and a projector for 10 thousand dollars. But, if your annual household income is 4 million dollars, 10 thousand dollars would be equivalent to 100 dollars of the middle class household income of 40 thousand dollars. It is not difficult to imagine collecting as a hobby something that cost 100 dollars each.

The upper class being the sole supporter of radical contemporary art, the success of artists hinges on whether they succeed in pleasing their taste. In this sense, Fine Arts should be called “upper art” not “high art.” Most artists are in the middle class when they start their careers as artists, but for them to be successful, they must cultivate the taste of the upper class. This means that initially their taste is out of sync with who they are, but as they succeed, their financial status comes in sync with their taste. Filmmakers and musicians have the opposite problem. They must please the taste of the middle class, but as they succeed financially and join the upper class, they must preserve their middle class taste. If they fail to do so, they would alienate their market.


I absolutely agree that I'm not at all in favor of a world-wide financial collapse that trims the excess fat from the art market. I seem to hear this being suggested often (especially by people in the art world who don't have a whole hell of a lot of money, otherwise we'd recognize their names on Fortune Magazine's Top 500 Art Collectors list!), the idea being, I guess, that if only those rotten hedge fund art collectors's business fell into bankruptcy then the art market would right itself. Bullshit! I'm not in favor of putting friends out of work so Saatchi can get a discount on his next purchase!

I believe in cultivating those young Enron-style art collecting criminals NOW, so as to direct the development of their IMPROVED collections toward a donation to a musuem BEFORE their businesses collapse and they're carted off to the pokey where they can work on becoming an ARTIST...kinda like that great ex-politician James Traficant did. (That dude sold out all of his art work before the feds finally shut him down from painting!) :)


2/14/2006 03:35:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

no irony intended Bunny...I totally agree with your assessment...and appreciate the kind words about the blog

2/14/2006 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

"It also damagingly squashes one of the most vital factors in the development of taste, superficial trends and fashions, by insisting that all signed art is potentially good, because - look at the index - it outperforms any other investment."

This guy confuses art with good taste, too. That is usually a mask for a nasty personality trait, narcissism. Just the sort of person that would wish an economic crash on the world in order to see some damage done to work that shows the underside of polite culture.

Sure, he endorses pretty work. Why, then, insist that unpretty work is somehow morally corrupt and not deserving of the attention it receives?

Me thinks he doth protest too much

2/14/2006 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Tim,

"Why, then, insist that unpretty work is somehow morally corrupt and not deserving of the attention it receives?"

Very good point. I believe it's because he (or any other such critic) is incapable of reaching beyond their insular cultural narcissism to embrace (and critically interpret) an alternative culture. For example, it would be like expecting a devout music critic worshipper of Mozart who has never in his life even listened to popular music, let along been to a rave party, to understand, appreciate and critically review a live performance of the Chemical Brothers...without being on MDMA, of course.

Of course, the failure of this premise is that a generous first time sampling of X would most definitely help such a critic to see the light!


2/14/2006 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Should we move to UK?

2/14/2006 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

can't afford the rent, bambino

2/14/2006 04:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...incapable of reaching beyond their insular cultural narcissism"

Is that meant to be ironic self-projecting?

2/14/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Anonymous jd said...

Off topic, but:

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350 pellets, 225 make contact, 200 holes?


2/14/2006 07:33:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Looking at the auction results that Ed linked. Prices seem firm, so who is selling these artwork (rhetorical)

PC paraphrased Henshe with "He's actually complaining that the hot market suppresses vital, innovative contemporary art and hurts museums."

This is an interesting observation which I don't totally discount. One affect of a hot market is that it creates demand for artworks to sell. In particular, for artworks which are "in style", that is, validated by another well known artists artwork, in essence the second and third generation artworks. So in this respect I think Henshe's observation may be partially correct. In contrast, the truly innovative artist will be able to find financial support for their projects and this is beneficial. I suspect the museums end up needing to raise more money but the fat cats should have it. As I commented on my blog, the wealth has increased by 1000 fold but art prices have increased at a much more modest rate so it's not like the patrons are broke.

Finally I agree that a "devastating crash" would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. First of all, the works have to be sold for there to be a crash, if the works don't meet the reserve, they're "withdrawn" so only a true panic where the collectors would sell at any price would constitute a crash. Otherwise, they're just stuck with a nice asset until the market gets better. A true crash has devastating implications for the overall economy, is fairly rare and not something I would wish for

2/14/2006 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

"I suspect the museums end up needing to raise more money but the fat cats should have it."

Problematic with rising art prices. The fat cats in the museum world get cash tapped for sexy capital campaigns, not for donating pennies to the permanent collection purchase fund. Potential wealthy donors will pay to have there name listed in bold letters beneath Gehry's on the lobby donor plaque. But when it comes to art, they would much prefer to buy a painting and then donate it to a museum - that allows them to establish their name in the chain of title, or the provenance. By owning it, they become part of the history of the painting (or at least in their mind they do.) At many museums today the permanent collection purchase fund is pretty much a joke. It's primarily funded by tranfers from other investment accounts, not from private and/or corporate donations. There are more and more multi-million dollar museum projects scheduled to come online that will have no money in the bank on opening day to buy art. Raising money to build a museum is easy compared to cultivating major donations of art work to hang on the walls.


2/14/2006 10:02:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

Not for the first time, I find myself in total agreement with Bunny. While I understand the temptation, I've always been appalled by the idea that it would be a good thing for others to be thrown into distress in order to satisfy someone's aesthetic sensibility. I should mention that last year I saw the much-admired Jerry Saltz edging up to that sentiment, though in a less vicious, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger mode than Hensher. Not that it made it any more palatable.

2/15/2006 06:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Lou Gagnon said...

“The audience greeted her (Roberta Smith) comments about the sorry state of visual literacy in the nation very enthusiastically.” Kriston @ Eye Level

How much of the record sales for art go back into art education? And I don’t mean cultivating the MFA Market.

2/15/2006 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How much of the record sales for art go back into art education?

Very good question! Sounds like a project to me...starting an organization that encourages/shames the big spenders into committing a percentage of their spending to art education. Not sure what the potential roadblocks are there, yet, but it's worth a ponder.

2/15/2006 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...

It is definitely a project. One that requires entrepreneurship and dedicated participants in addition to capital. I will keep you posted on my progress.

2/15/2006 11:25:00 AM  

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