Saturday, March 18, 2006

Making Art More Expensive Open Thread

Update: My original title here was misleading (even to the rant below is misguided based on my misreading of a quote). I think the general sense of the post remains valid, but I do want to point out my error and acknowledge the difference it implies. Essentially, Meyer's statement is less disturbing that I originally suggested, but it still raises many of the same issues discussed in the comments, IMO.

There's a don't-miss profile on Tobias Meyer in the March 20th issue of The New Yorker. He's the sauve 43-year-old chief auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby's, and his is the kind of story that makes you feel like a total slacker, even if you already work 80-hour weeks.

The profile is a delightful peek into the methods and high drama behind contemporary art auctions, but Meyer said something that is both admirable (given that he understands his job so clearly) and a bit troublesome (in that it's the sort of thing I can't imagine people saying when I was a kid) that I want to explore a bit here:

Bill Ruprecht, the C.E.O. of Sotheby's, says, "People make the mistake of describing our business as being about objects. It's not. I think we handle the interaction between people and objects. The cliche in the auction world is: 'We bring objects alive.'" Meyer puts it slightly differently. "What I love to do is put people in front of art and make them feel it, make them stop everything else they're doing and experience it, deeply," he says. "That's how I make art expensive. And that's my job, for the company and for my clients. To make art expensive." [emphasis mine]
Indeed, that is his job, and he does it extraordinarily well. And, yes, to some degree, that's my job as well, although I prefer to think of it as "to make art important and then irresistible." The difference for Meyer is he doesn't have to make the "important" argument...what he sells is usually already in the history books. But expensive? Why not "irrresistible" first, and then let the desire of the collectors who can't resist it drive the price to what the market will bear? Why think in terms of highest price first and foremost? There's another passage in the article that illustrates what it is about this that bothers me:
[Cheyenne] Westphal [, charman of contemporary art for Europe] is particularly fond of Meyer's trademark move, when the bidding on a work reaches nine hundred thousand pounds, of glancing at a bidder and casually saying, "Make it a million."
Now I want to be careful not to sound like a Boy Scout, or {gasp} a Socialist, but there are two realities at play here. The reality of the buyer, who will undoubtedly get a bit of extra mileage out of telling his/her friends that they paid "$1 million" for a work of art at auction, and the reality for the other 99% of the world, for whom that extra $100,000 dollars could support their entire family for much longer than that collector will be able to dine out on the drama of caving in to Meyer's seductive charm. And although I get the concept that art is valued at what the market will bear, and unless you push, how do you know what that is, I still find it somewhat disturbing. It seemss such an obscene amount of money to treat so casually.

And, of course, I'm a hypocrite. In addition to selling art, I also love to gamble. I love the thrill of casinos and watching folks piss away sums of cash that could put a talented young, but poor, person through college for four years. And that's all Meyer is doing, providing a similar thrill. If the buyer has the money, why not let them spend it on art. That's one less Hummer they'll buy, isn't it?

Perhaps all I'm offended by is the honesty of his rhetoric. If Meyer had said it's his job "to make art irresistbile" it would essentially mean the same thing in the end. What he is doing is not only fully legal, it's arguably good for the overall economy as well, creating more jobs, increasing the art market, and giving greater opportunities to emerging artists.

So why does it stick in my claw craw?

Your thoughts?


Anonymous Ronald said...

Edward, interesting views, I enjoy reading your blog.

I would truly appreciate feedback on this (fine art photography) work: and

thanks and regards,
Ronald van Weerd, the Netherlands

3/18/2006 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for the kind words about the blog, Ronald, but I won't accept submissions or evaluate work via the blog. It would be entirely all consuming, and despite what it looks like from how much I blather on, I don't have that kind of time I'm afraid. If you're interested in our gallery, in particular, submission guidelines can be found on our website.

Thanks for understanding.

3/18/2006 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Art Soldier said...

So why does it stick in my claw?

Maybe the guilt of being an unabashed capitalist? I had a similar reaction. I think it comes from the way we try to convince ourselves that the existence of art is enabled by a socially-beneficial form of culture production. When we're reminded of the real impetus behind the art trade, it's embarrasing and temporarily ruins our idealistic vision of why art is important to society.

Artists who want to contribute to the cultural, aesthetic, or intellectual conversation of art, but find the propagation of a greed-fueled, unregulated capitalist market abhorrent, are left with the contradiction of being in opposition to the motivations of those (for-profit gallerists) meant to best serve their own artistic aims. Hell, even the motivations for many well-meaning gallerists themselves are in contradiction.

Perhaps a new model is needed.

What he is doing is not only fully legal, it's arguably good for the overall economy as well, creating more jobs, increasing the art market, and giving great opportunities to emerging artists.

Ahhh ... the infamous trickle-down effect. Sure, it creates opportunities for emerging artists, but only for those who grease the wheels of the market. When it happens that the "goal of the market" is in opposition to the "goal of the artist", the market always wins. Thus goes capitalism -- anything not contributing to the tit-for-tat exchange relation is discarded as irrelevant.

3/18/2006 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

"Make it a million."

I'll use that one next time someone asks me how much my work is. I definitely want them to feel good about what they pay.

3/18/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

So why does it stick in my claw?

I'd argue that it isn't natural for us to have our motives so exposed. But I think frank openness is what's needed, as uncomfortable as it makes me.

(Incidentally in the Midwest we used to say "It sticks in my craw," but I am not sure anyone out here knows what a craw is.)

Perhaps a new model is needed.

Well, yes, I agree, but I think for different reasons. I don't have a huge problem with greed; it seems to power many good things, if evil ones as well. I just hate to see uninformed collectors get caught holding the bag. I keep seeing their unfortunate heirs after that future Antiques Roadshow episode, tossing their family's presumed-to-be-valuable-because-purchased-in-Chelsea-decades-ago artwork into a dumpster on the way out of the arena. How can this endless monsoon of collectables entering the market sustain their values for any distance into the future without movements or some kind of a linear sense of art history to vindicate them?

For collectors, the current art market looks like a train wreck in the making to me. It looks to me like the artworks that stand to contribute the most to art's future, and hence to prove out in terms of value, simply aren't coming to light. I suspect that the artworks we're not aware of now are going to ultimately be worth much more than the ones selling in galleries.

3/18/2006 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...


...unless history and the linear development of art no longer matter -- which may be the case.

But then I'd have to ask, what does matter, and what can possibly sustain the value of contemporary art investments?

(Taking it for granted that for collectors who love the work and don't care about its value, it obviously doesn't matter.)

3/18/2006 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Nancy Baker, aka Rebel Belle said...

Ed, it sticks in your "craw" because art and money can be so nasty! Everyone is a little repelled by "filthy lucre"; there are so many different ways to navigate this sticky terrain, and here's a guy who says, "what the fuck!" It's nauseating, it has nothing to do with art, he could be selling million dollar condos, but the art world is so much more GLAMOROUS than real estate! As an artist, it's pretty black and white to me. For all the gallerists out there, trying to be decent, ethical and make some money at the same time, Tobias Meyer is their Bete Noire.

3/18/2006 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

this is probably going to be an unpopular sentiment, but why is money always so nauseating?

Yeah, the Tobias Meyer thing irked me too. But money makes people hot because it's quantifiable. Artistic, conceptual, aesthetic value... this is all very vague for many folks.

I prefer these qualitative values. I'd better, because I certainly am *not* raking in the cash. But I have seen a dollar value act as a bridge to let someone value the other, floofier things about a work of art. Shallow, but true. Why fight it?

3/18/2006 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm always amazed at how totally illiterate I am when all is said and done...of course it's "craw."

3/18/2006 05:05:00 PM  
Blogger Nancy Baker, aka Rebel Belle said...

Oh, Ed, you're usually such a wordsmith. Don't worry about it! Okay. Back to money. Hey, I like money and I would like a lot more of it (are you listening Ed?). But jeez, it seems like this guy Meyer is kinda sleezy. How much money does one person really need? The flaw in this path seems so obvious, so fundamental. What's discomfitting (and yes,this sounds SO excruciating banal)is the stupid race, the game, the desire to possess, to be on top. You know it's an empty quest. I feel so lucky that I could give a crap. Let me spend my days and nights in my studio, because I know that there's nothing at the top, only more unsustainable desire. Yes this guy pisses me off and my fabulous dealer is protecting me from it!

3/18/2006 06:24:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I can't completely agree that he's sleazy. He's doing his job. Corporations like Sotheby's can't survive on government cheese like you and me. They need cashflow. This guy rakes it in hand over fist for them.

3/19/2006 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I realized that I didn't say what I meant earlier. I didn't mean to sound so relatavist. I was thinking about my husband's mother. She's a real estate agent. She's not sleazy or evil. She just needs to know the value of something before she can figure out what to think about it. She needs a money-trellis on which to hang her assesment of art.

I don't think this is rare. I read the Meyer quote and winced, and then realized that this specific act of making art expensive probably expands the market to include more people like my MIL. And once at least a few of these people are secure in their knowledge that it's expensive (or could become expensive), maybe they get in touch with new ways to look.

(just to give the benefit of the doubt...)

3/19/2006 08:45:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I keyed into an interesting metaphor about this and posted it at my own place, so as not to take up more space here. Mr. W, please just blitz this post if you'd prefer I not cross-link like this. Thanks -

3/19/2006 09:23:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

What he is doing is not only fully legal, it's arguably good for the overall economy as well, creating more jobs, increasing the art market, and giving greater opportunities to emerging artists.

I've been thinking about this since you posted it yesterday, and I'm not clear how it would work. If some collector who has more money than they know what to do with with spends an extra 100,000 dollars, pounds or whatever on their Jasper Johns (or an extra few million on their Van Gogh) to impress their friends, how does that help the economy? And especially, what opportunities does it create for emerging artists?

I mean obviously they would pay a little extra tax on the purchase (and we've seen how that gets spent), and clearly the auction house and the seller get more money. Maybe there are a few extra jobs created for serving coffee to the bidders. But anyone who lived through the Reaganomics years knows that very little of that money trickles down. I don't see how that kind of sale would benefit an emerging artist. The biggest barrier most emerging artists face is that there are many times more artists than there are opportunities to show in galleries. Does this kind of sale encourage more new galleries to open (maybe it does, I don't know)?

That's one less Hummer they'll buy, isn't it?

I doubt that someone spending an extra 100,000 pounds on a painting just for prestige is depriving themselves of anything. I'm sure they buy all the Hummers they want :)

3/19/2006 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Does this kind of sale encourage more new galleries to open (maybe it does, I don't know)?

Yes...that's how it works. More galleries = more opportunities for emerging artists...and a strong art market will lead to more galleries being opened.

3/19/2006 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Meyer said, "What I love to do is put people in front of art and make them feel it, make them stop everything else they're doing and experience it, deeply,"

To me this remark is disingenuous. I seriously doubt that the venue for a deeply felt experience with an artwork occurs at an auction. Prior to the auction, yes but what he is actually doing in managing the excitement of the bidders, steaming the milk to a froth. In all auction markets, it is the froth, the artificially generated excitement, which is required to realize the highest prices. He is obviously good at his job.

I've written a couple of long pieces on my blog about the current economic conditions which are affecting the art market. Unlike previous periods of art market excitement this one is considerably different in that the amounts of money involved are a magnitude of order greater. Normal expectations of price appreciation have fallen by the wayside. I believe this sudden expansion in the size of the art market is a, once in a lifetime event, and has created a temporary distortion in the force.

The discomfort with the current situation may not be the issue the money is there, if you are an artist (or gallerist) the money can be helpful, I feel the issue is the preoccupation with the money and the promotion which surrounds it. In the late 80's the talk at parties almost always ended up focusing on real estate and not the art, feels like that again.

3/19/2006 02:05:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

I know the corrections's been made, but since no one went for the obvious, let me say: "Not the Craw, the Craw!"

3/19/2006 04:11:00 PM  
Blogger rilkefan said...

Note that he said "make art expensive", not "more expensive". I thought this a telling distinction when reading the article - not entirely sure why.

3/19/2006 06:34:00 PM  
Anonymous r houston said...

Clearly this guy does not have his job due to altruism. Sales is a mercenary business where outcome ($$$) is all there is. Perhaps this is why it bothers you Edward.

Nancy is right that he could be selling something else, if you are good at sales it doesn’t matter what you sell.

I am a sales manager and I always tell my team that facts don’t matter, sales is about emotion not reality. That is what he is talking about when he says he wants people to ‘feel the art’ he means he wants to stir them up and push their emotional buttons. That’s how you get the sale. All people like to spend money and he makes them feel good about spending more than they have to, that’s what he’s selling.

Meyer is focused on the money. Period. That’s his job like bill says.

3/19/2006 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous dan said...

As an artist, I need to remind myself that there's a big gulf between the making of art and the selling of it - one that is constantly leapt over by people from both sides (without looking down!) Of course they're related, but declaring them separate keeps me sane...

The dangers, however, are when we lose sight of the difference, as George points out above. I have heard one young artist, not quite graduated, insist he'd give up if he didn't sell out his first show. You need to "arrive" or you're done, I suppose... I'm not sure, but I think he's selling fine. Wonder what he'll be doing when he's 40?

3/19/2006 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Rilkefan makes a very important point, actually. Meyer didn't say "more" expensive, as I've indicated in the title. An update is coming soon.


3/20/2006 08:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Speaking of "claw/craw":

3/20/2006 01:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

henry -

engrish is funny, but that usage of craw is correct. craw means the beak of a bird or animal; they weren't trying to say claw.

so it seems in this case, the engrish-speakers know more than the english-speakers.

also, on a more substantial note, MAN just posted a letter than Jerry Saltz wrote to the New Yorker about the Meyer article.

3/20/2006 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Yeah, I just saw that too. Here's a link: Saltz on MAN

3/20/2006 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger crionna said...

If Meyer had said it's his job "to make art irresistbile" it would essentially mean the same thing in the end.

But not to his clients right? Irresistable to one person at the auction is not so great. It takes two to make it expensive...

3/21/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

It takes two to make it expensive...

Crionna, that is so... quotable! I love it.

3/21/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger me said...

I fully understand Ed, thanks for taking the time to reply anyway!

keep up the good work!


3/22/2006 07:01:00 AM  

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