Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Looking for Fairness in the Age of Art Fairs

Charlie Finch offers a succinct look at one of the uglier realities of the contemporary art market in his latest artnet.com post. I have to confess to having had to read it three times to see how his argument was pieced together, but eventually I think I got it.

Essentially he's focused on the way hedge-fund-type collecting (large holdings by one collector of one artist's work that permits manipulation of prices outside the normal, more transparent, market model, and usually results in flipping the work for profit at the expense of everyone else concerned) has created two distinct markets:

Why are works by Marlene Dumas worth millions and those by the stylistically similar Chuck Connelly worth next to nothing? Because surplus capital in the hands of a small group of moneyed types decrees it so, by fiat. Disparities between surplus capital and "normal" market behavior...create two distinct "markets." The high-end market just described is the seeking of surplus capital for true value, which lands on a work of art, because that work of art is perceived as unique, often in a highly arbitrary manner that disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.
I think Charlie offers a good chunk of food for thought there, but I'm not at all convinced this is as new as he seems to suggest. Later he notes:

Nobody wishes to strike gold, because they already have gold: what these collectors want is status and cachet and, let’s face it, more gold. Greed is good. But art suffers in this context, because it functions solely as an economic and social marker, always subject to immediate obsolescence, should economic realities change.
Looking past the first contradictory statement (i.e., that nobody wants new gold, because they already have it, but "let's face it," they want more gold), I feel that Charlie's insistence that "art suffers" when it functions as "an economic and social marker" ignores art history. In fact, I'd say the opposite is true. Art thrives when it functions as an economic and social marker. As do artists. That very function is what helped artists rise from "mere" guildsmen to celebrities during the Renaissance. Moreover, that very function today has made it possible for contemporary artists to find more of the sort of budgets for projects that were previously only granted them by the limited numbers of kings and popes.

What I think Charlie means by "suffers" here is that the opportunities for talented, yet not-selected-by-the-hedge-fund-collectors, artists are not equal to the opportunities for the blessed few hand-picked "stars" (surely the work of each hasn't been altered by the choice...history can still swap their respective statuses...the latter simply won't get rich from their art in their 30s). Indeed, his argument seems to boil down to the idea that if there was not as much money in the market, and artists were elevated to celebrity status based on the praise of critics (like Mr. Finch, for example) instead of less-educated collectors, then all would be right with the art market.

I'm not sure I agree.

I do agree the current state of things isn't fair to "stylistically similar" artists, but the notion that it ever has been fair ignores history as well. Fate has always favored certain folks over others...that's life (critics have their favorites, too). Further, in his article, Charlie notes how "In the 1960s, when Ethel and Robert Scull cornered the market in Pop Art, they were regarded initially as social climbers and soon after as visionaries." Perhaps a few of today's hedge fund manager/collectors will be regarded as visionaries some day as well.

What I think we're seeing isn't some new threat to the world prefered by the pure art lover, but simply a higher concentration of a particular unpleasantness that's always been part of the art world. But, in my opinion, that's balanced out by a higher concentration of working artists, more commercial galleries, more alternative art spaces, more museums, more critics, more art publications, more curators, and more collectors than ever before as well (in other words, the population of the world has more than doubled since the Sculls started collecting...it's shouldn't be unexpected that excess across the board would be the result).

Finally, anyone who cringes to see the latest hedge-fund-created art star get a major exhibition can always turn their attention instead to any number of truly excellent exhibitions at one of the growing number of alternative spaces. Oh, yeah, but if you do that you might miss the caviar at the posh opening.

Labels: Art Fairs, art market, Collecting, Hedge Fund


Blogger Molly Stevens said...

There doesn't seem to be much room for a non-hedge-fund artist to sustain her profession. There may be more spaces, but building a career or momentum on a group show is nearly impossible. I'm wondering how making art in a smaller art world would be different, though.

1/30/2007 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

Ed - of course things are manipulated - this is a world of capital not a meritocracy. It's naive to think otherwise. I do think your observation about "higher concentration of working artists, more commercial galleries, more alternative art spaces, more museums, more critics, more art publications, more curators, and more collectors than ever before as well" is important to note. This is the fertile ground for artists to understand and take advantage of.

1/30/2007 10:01:00 AM  
Anonymous bnon said...

This debate about art reminds me of discussions of why so many poor and middle class people vote Republican.

Pundits have wondered (sorry, I can't remembert the book or author, somehting about Kansas, I think) why ordinary working class people would consistently vote against their own interests, against any welfare state stuff and for tax breaks for the rich and other business-friendly measures. The theory proffered is that many Americans believe they will one day become rich, and don't begrudge the breaks the rich get handed by free-market fundamentalists.

The analogue here is saying that the hedge-fund-style buying and the general high activity in the upper reaches of the art market are good, as Ed pointed out, in a general way, with more artists and dealers able to profit from the hot market. But also, I presume, because some of this wealth will trickle down to the rest of us poor slobs. And the rest of us poor slobs don't want to get mad at the insta-millionaire artist and the system that creates them because we could be next.

Which reminds me that this debate about the art world is really a political debate. People like Finch might believe the market should be regulated becuase it can create such injustices on its own, that the dough should be spread around, that there is a better, more enlightened way to run the art world than just letting people with money fight it out and in effect decide who gets in the history books. Art should be judged on its merit, as much as possible, in this view, and artists of all kinds should be supported, even if they are not easy to sell.

In my career, such as it is, I've found that there are more opportunities for a very peripheral player like me, just because there's so much big action at high levels. It does seem to trickle down. So I can see the point of the free market view. I also am discouraged at the huge gap between someone who exhibts regularly and who has built something of reputation, but makes no money at all from art, and the next level of artist who makes a living from their art. It's one level difference, but it may as well be a million.

And I don't think money taints art. A lot of great art has been done with purely commercial motives. I even suspsect sometimes that trying to please a market can be beneficial to an artist's work, distracting him or her from what amounts to too much artistic freedom and forcing the artist to be a little more down to earth, and focused on the audience, not the self.

I have no idea what to do, but I think it's wise to see both support for the art market and outrages at its excesses in the context of political ideology. That way, you can ask yourself what kind of art market will benefit you individually, but also what your values are and how you think they should be acted upon.

1/30/2007 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Gotta say, this is all so exciting that it almost makes we want to close down the studio and just go work on Wall Street! Almost...

By the way, Edward, you want to buy a watch?

1/30/2007 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

This reminds me of something in a 1994 New Yorker profile of David Salle by Janet Malcolm. She was commenting on some early 90's reviews of a Salle show:

hThe hostility and snobbery of both Hughes and Kramer toward the collectors of Salle's work is worthy of note. This kind of insult of the consumer has no equivalent in book or theatre or movie reviewing. That is probably because the book/play/film reviewer has some fellow feeling with the buyers of books and theatre and film tickets, whereas the art reviewer usually has no idea what it is like to buy a costly painting or sculpture. He is, per financial force, a mere spectator in the tulipomanicacal drama of the contemporary art market, and he tends to regard the small group of people rich enough to be players as if they were an alien species...

1/30/2007 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

He is, per financial force, a mere spectator in the tulipomanicacal drama of the contemporary art market...

Probably good to remember that after the crash of the Dutch tulip market in the 17th century, the tulip bulbs went back to being practically worthless.

1/30/2007 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...

To me this discussion simply means there is a ton of money out there for art, and perhaps a bit of a loss of inspiration for what to spend it on. I don't see that as unfair. I see that as a huge opportunity for artists to achieve success with a new vision. I think money follows great art, always has and always will. It's fun to complain about (or at least contemplate) the system. Even better would be to go to the studio and to try to paint something special.

1/30/2007 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Hi Karl. I agree up to a point. But once your studio is full of special paintings, you still need to figure out how to get them seen. Money doesn't follow great art, it mostly follows other money.

1/30/2007 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Find your collectors. Get a business partner and lay down a very clear business plan. Travel! Fairs!
Larger than Life!! It's yours.
It's long been known the quality of the work does not matter.
My opinion is that it should matter, but I'm certainly not hanging back in some dark and dank studio to debate that one.

1/30/2007 06:16:00 PM  
Blogger Oly said...

This is probably off the subject, but how much do you think "age" of the subject matter-- meaning the age of the work of art, not the artist-- coming into as a factor in the price wars currently?

I don't know why, but for some reason I feel society still places more of a value on something of age and historic value vs. the new.

But it's surprising works from the late 1800s are now selling more than the 1500s, etc..

Don't really get it.

1/30/2007 06:26:00 PM  
Anonymous max101 said...

I think it is also worth noting, as Holland Cotter did in a recent review of a Triple Candie show, that the the supposedly alternative spaces are becoming more and more like commercial galleries. Specifically, they seem to be showing more "name" artists and fewer lesser known emerging artists.

White Columns under Matthew Higgs, for example, seems largely to have abandoned the practice of drawing from its curated artist registry when putting together its shows. It's becoming rare, now, to see artists from the White Columns registry on display at White Columns.

A friend of mine (not me, I swear) submitted her work to White Columns registry and still hasn't gotten a yes or no in over two years, despite repeated follow-up emails. Is this bad management, or is it because Mr. Higgs has decided that unknown emerging artists applying to the registry are no longer a priority?

This is not to pick on White Columns -- they are getting favorable reviews for their shows under Mr. Higgs, so why not? I'm sure their funders love it. But for emerging artists hoping that alternative spaces will give them their big break, the increasing commercialization of these spaces noted by Mr. Cotter may not be good news.

1/30/2007 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger friknidjit said...

everyone knows it, but it's hard to admit: mister higgs has gone over to the dark side.

1/30/2007 09:30:00 PM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

Perhaps white columns is changing, which isnt a necessarily bad thing-all things change. As far a the hedge fund market idea-how rampant is that? I mean how many Saatchis are out there? I would imagine the "normal" market structure is still the predominant form. But i could be wrong.

I think technology is really changing how artists work. There are so many opportunities that I found just by having a pressence online. Much like musicians, visual artists are finding alternative ways to get their product out. And i suspect that will develop more in ways we cannot even imagine at the moment.

1/31/2007 08:46:00 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

I found it bizarre that Ed would quote Charlie Finch's comment that Marlene Dumas and Chuck Connelly are "stylistically similar." To me they are as different as could be, and seeing them bracketed together makes the argument sound wacky.

2/02/2007 06:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Bob that Finch was working his usual double entendre. The comparison is typical of a 'who cares' and possibly 'who would really notice'!
Finch's writing is good for that. He gets his honesty across in the strangest of ways.


2/02/2007 07:26:00 AM  
Blogger Jacques de Beaufort said...

I'm glad I found your blog..
recommended by Dennis Hollingsworth.
This seems to be a bubble of consciousness worth returning too.

2/04/2007 03:32:00 PM  

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