Monday, July 16, 2007

The Reality of the Collector-Driven Art World

This has got to be the most lucid and accurate description of the current art market I have read (and I read a good deal of art market press). Jane Kallir, co-director of Galerie St Etienne in New York, offers a "state of the market" analysis in The Art Newspaper that tells it like it is, without all the hyperbole we're accustomed to seeing in such efforts. Titled "The problem with a collector-driven market," it actually has a bit of constructive criticism for more than just collectors, but the essay itself is damn near flawless in my opinion. Here's the essence:


For the past century or so, the art world has been supported by four principal pillars: artists, collectors, dealers and the art-historical establishment (critics, academics, and curators). [...] Over the long term, art-historical value is determined by consensus among all four art-world pillars. When any one of the four entities assume disproportionate power, there is a danger that this entity’s personal preferences will cloud everyone’s short-term judgement. Put bluntly, the danger of a collector-driven art world is that money will trump knowledge. Great collectors should ideally become nearly as knowledgeable as the curators and dealers who help them build their collections. But not all of today’s collectors have the passion or the time necessary to develop this depth of knowledge.
Kallir goes on to describe how this shift affects the other pillars [emphasis mine]:

In an overheated environment, the art-historical establishment often finds itself chasing rather than guiding the market. The press must keep up with the latest trends, and coverage of social events and record prices often takes precedence over quiet critical reflection. Museums need the support of trustees, but the most powerful collectors no longer need the imprimatur of an existing museum; they can simply open their own. [...] The corollary to a collector-driven art world is that the canon of ostensibly great artists is being largely determined by market forces. [...] [M]arket pressures push dealers to become generalists, showcasing a hodge-podge of high-ticket items instead of specialising as they formerly did.
Historically, the other pillars (other than collectors and artists) really didn't have anywhere near the sway they have today, if they existed at all, so perhaps we're simply witnessing a return to the former model. However, to my mind, it's an inferior model. Yes, of course you'd expect me to say that, but, as Kallir notes, there's a reason dealers and museums grew in stature over the past century...they were out there championing some rather challenging work:

Only in the 20th century did dealers evolve from passive shopkeepers to pro-active impresarios, promoting the often difficult efforts of the pioneering modernists with missionary zeal. Public resistance to modernism, coupled with the pressures of international capitalism, gave new importance to dealers and museums, both of which played key roles by superintending the distribution of new art and ratifying its seriousness.
For certain new, and to my mind, important artists, it takes a good deal of time and patience for a dialog about their work to be established and promoted to enough people for them to then receive enough attention and financial return to continue to push their projects forward. With the understandably limited time collectors have, the more they drive the market, the less such artists will flourish.

I've noted this before, but don't mind writing it again: I've had a few conversations with some long-time collectors recently, folks who were collecting long before it, as Kallir puts it, "acquired the patina of trendiness that was formerly exclusive to the entertainment and fashion industries." A few of them have been so discouraged by the development of the market (the frenzy in particular) they're seriously considering getting out altogether. To my mind, this is a huge loss. The well-informed collectors are as an important a part of why I'm in this business as the talented artists are. The dialog I cherish requires their participation. Yes, it's my job to encourage newer collectors to become well-informed collectors as well, but as the existing ones drop out through frustration, that becomes even more difficult.

The question to my mind in all this becomes, so how, in this super-sped-up world we live in, do any of the other pillars change things so that the new collectors and the existing well-informed collectors can slow down a bit? I've been mulling this over for quite some time now (and would truly appreciate any additional advice anyone from the other pillars has), but one encouraging trend toward this end by dealers is the rise of solo installations at art fairs. There are certain contexts in which that doesn't always make sense (and a good group installation can be equally informative), but if the art fairs are the arena in which newer collectors are first experiencing work and existing collectors are being forced to attend (because galleries are holding back some of their best work for the fairs, because the fairs demand certain levels of quality), perhaps this practice makes sense.


We've actually taken to thinking of art fairs as simply another slot in our yearly program. Sometimes we fill that slot with a group exhibition, sometimes with a solo exhibition, but the goal is becoming the same (treat what we show in the booth the same as we do what we exhibit in the gallery). In other words, consider the fair an additional teaching opportunity in addition to an extra-gallery selling opportunity. The truth is, we see so many more folks at the fairs than we do for an average exhibition, this becomes almost self-evidently the right approach.

But I'd be interested in hearing from artists, curators, critics, and academics about what steps they might take (or are taking) to help correct the way the collector-driven market is leading us to the situation where, again, as Kallir puts it, "money will trump knowledge."


UPDATE: Aurix weighs in on this article as well here with another reason collecting without knowledge is risky.

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37 Comments:

Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

In the business section of the Times on Friday there was an article called "Forget Trading Stocks. Now It's Art and Wine." Subhed: "Hedge Funds Diversify into Exotic Assets." Bottom line: It's pretty much only the blue-chippers. "Prices for the 4000 most popular artists, like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, as tracked by Art Market Research, increased 20 percent last year from a record in 2005, and gained 75 percent since 1998."

At the same time that these 4000 "most popular artists" are soaring, their rising tide is raising all the boats. So while while money is trumping knowledge, even the small to midlevel gallery is able to take on new artists, go to art fairs, and pay the bills, and the average studio artist is able to show and sell and make a living.

At the art fairs I have noticed (and attended) an increasing number of panel discussions on collecting. They're at the smaller fairs, but panelists speak knowledgeably and honestly about issues like the the hype of the market, the age of the artist, the vision of the dealer, the esthetic or conceptual (or even physical) longevity of the work. The level of interest is strong and thequestions are good. There seems to be a fairly even mix of artists and collectors at these events. We're talking solid midlevel, so presumably these are not the collectors who'll open their own museums.

Lisa, Ed, haven't you both participated in these kinds of events? I would think your expertise would be helpful in educating an art-buying public. Are you preaching to the converted? Is your good advice falling on philistine ears? Do you think you're making a difference?

7/16/2007 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger RichardTScott said...

"[M]arket pressures push dealers to become generalists, showcasing a hodge-podge of high-ticket items instead of specialising as they formerly did."

This description sounds almost like a high-end Wal-Mart. In my opinion, the root of the issue lies in how corporate structure interacts with the consumer in a global economy and the "Art-Mart" is simply an example of this force.

Wal-Mart enters a town, puts all the diverse, small businesses (which used to be the predominant means of exchange) out of business, and offers a generic selection of wares in a multitude of categories. This model has lead to Wal-Mart grossing more annually than all but the 21 richest nations in the world.

The problem is that the corporation is a feudalist structure and by nature gathers power around the Oligarchy of CEO's. It is antithetical to democracy, which rests upon the middle class and to some degree equality of power. However, if each corporation were owned in equal parts by those who work there, the wealth would be less centralized. In diversity of power one gains the diversity in opinion, consumer demand, not to mention the social and economic benefits of such a system.

It would certainly take quite a while to discuss the implications for such a proposal, but IMHO, the problem in the "Art-Mart" is more the Mart and not the Art. If you repair the Mart the Art will repair itself.

7/16/2007 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Lisa, Ed, haven't you both participated in these kinds of events? I would think your expertise would be helpful in educating an art-buying public. Are you preaching to the converted? Is your good advice falling on philistine ears? Do you think you're making a difference?

I have a bit, and the audiences have been failry well-informed (perhaps the chorus, perhaps I'm underestimating the new collectors), and yes, I hope it's making a difference, but the attendance at such events is clearly just a sliver of those buying art.

7/16/2007 11:21:00 AM  
Anonymous -j. said...

Got little positive to say on this subject today. But like most everyone that reads your blog, Edward, I too have a few horses in this race. And I hope the following doesn't come across as trolling, just being honest if contrarian.

jm said:

their rising tide is raising all the boats. So while while money is trumping knowledge, even the small to midlevel gallery is able to take on new artists, go to art fairs, and pay the bills, and the average studio artist is able to show and sell and make a living.

Doesn't echo my experiences or those of many artists I know directly. To me, this sentiment just echoes boomtime cheerleading. I've grown numb to it. Well maybe not numb, but I sure don't find myself excited by this sort of "lifting all boats" optimism anymore.

Ed originally said:

A few of them have been so discouraged by the development of the market (the frenzy in particular) they're seriously considering getting out altogether.

+1 artist to this count. Or at least I'm taking my marbles elsewhere. Tired of the rubbish.

I've been told it's a foolish ambition, but at this point I'm more interested in making art for my neighbors than for uncurious idiot out-of-touch investors. 'merikan upper crust sucks at the moment.

7/16/2007 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

...and the average studio artist is able to show and sell and make a living.

Joanne, I find this very encouraging! Do you know when it's supposed to start?

7/16/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

...and the average studio artist is able to show and sell and make a living.

I see I've touched a nerve. This is probably not the thread to pursue this secondary conversation. Maybe I should amend my comment to say that many more artists than those 4000 "most popular artists" are able to show and earn a living.

When does it start? When we get out there and promote ourselves and our work (via website, blog, juried show and networking); when we stop being intimidated by charges of "careerism" and think of art as a career; when we embrace, or at least accept, the fact that artmaking is one half of the equation--that getting our work out into the world is as important as making the art.

Eventually, ideally, a dealer or dealers will take over that fuction for us. Until then--and because there are more artists than dealers--we do it ourselves. But because this is a boom time for art, there ARE more dealers than ever before. There ARE more opportunities. And, back to the topic at hand, there are more collectors than ever before.

7/16/2007 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I’m not sure if anything has changed.

I think what has occurred is that the art market has expanded exponentially and that it was unprepared to handle the influx of new capital and consumers.

As a result, the art market became disoriented and is now in the process of reassessing itself.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

7/16/2007 12:12:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

When does it start? When we get out there and promote ourselves and our work (via website, blog, juried show and networking); when we stop being intimidated by charges of "careerism" and think of art as a career; when we embrace, or at least accept, the fact that artmaking is one half of the equation--that getting our work out into the world is as important as making the art.

That's really good advice. It describes what I've been doing for years.

Maybe I'm already really successful and I just don't know it. My solo show here in Santa Monica this spring basically sold out (just a few small pieces left). It was really exciting. I made so much money that it almost covered the cost of making the work. Of course that's assuming the value of my time is zero.

7/16/2007 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous ml said...

David,

LOL. A friend recently asked me if I considered myself successful. I said no. But, she said, you have a gallery, you show regularly, you sell. Why don't you consider yourself successful?
What I sell doesn't even cover my studio rent.

Trickle down economics is a modern myth.

7/16/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

i was just reading this piece and posting a link to it on my blog. i agree with you. it's a very well written / thoughtful piece.

what can be done? i'm not quite sure. i think academics don't see it as their job to try to change the situation, even though most of them are very much anti-market and equate the market with the absence of scholarship. and that's perhaps the reason. they just don't want to get involved. there are exceptions, of course, like Julian Stallabrass who has done some very interesting work on contemporary art and the art market. but then i'm not sure if his work is read by people outside the art-historical establishment, which is a bigger problem facing the academy. there are academics who are doing interesting stuff, the only problem is that they're not heard by society at large, much less the collector. well, come to think of it, artists aren't heard either, neither is the art world in general.

my only hope is that perhaps, as they say, the market will "correct itself" somehow.

people have been talking/warning about a bubble burst for quite some time... it's gonna happen sooner or later.

7/16/2007 01:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan T D Neil said...

I agree entirely with your--Ed's--assessment of galleries running 'solo shows' at art fairs. I'd take this even further and suggest that the next thing we will, or should, see is a fair with a curatorial premise (or set of restrictions). Right now all of the fairs seem to shake out roughly according to price point. With the proliferation of the 'satellite' fairs, no one venue can lay claim to being the 'Art-Mart'; the entire spectacle is. So now the thing to do would be to introduce a bit of 'vision' into the fair system, and a vision that looks to the substance of the work included rather than to the expansion of the fair's own brand, exposure and market share.

Now, I'm a critic, journalist, art writer/historian--whatever you want to call it, and my position has never been one of any significant power. (Yes, Greenberg, Rosenberg and the like are the names everyone likes to trot out, the good old days when a critic could 'make' an artist's career, but for anyone taking a close look at the historical record, such selective remembrances are mythical at best.) The reason, and I'm sure this will garner charges of economic reductivism, is money. The pillar of art history has never held sway because the pillar of art history has never controlled the money. Museum's did at one point, but that is largely because they served as portals through which collectors, philanthropists and the like could exercise their interests, which put them in a place of subservience to the pillar of collectors. I don't think this is the case any longer, but the museums have learned their lessons well, and have become a bit more demotic, if not in their programs, then in the way they market themselves and make money.

At least somewhat in reaction to the above situation (of the pillar of art history not really making, or controlling, the money), I am also now a consultant, which, as Kallir points out, still seams to be a four letter word in the art world. We, apparently, "often know far less than the dealers and auctioneers." No offense to anyone on this list, least of all to Ed, but there are some auctioneers and some dealers out there who don't know all that much either. But here's the thing, I can't survive being a solely a critic. (Being an academic is hardly better, and also nearly ensures that one is taken out of the contemporary art world.) Consulting offers an opportunity to 'educate' while also staying in touch with artists 'on the ground' so to speak. The interesting thing is that everywhere you turn, consultants such as myself are derided while curators at the big institutions are sought after and paid to act as--guess what?--consultants.

The point here is that any 'education' of the new collectorate has to be driven by demand. Collectors have to 'want' to learn about the work; they have to feel like it is integral to their collecting activity; which means at some point, by logical extension, they will have to come to feel humiliated if they do not know, and know deeply, about the art they exhibit in their home(s); and they will only feel humiliated if others like them make them feel that way Now, I'm not advocating humiliation, (and that may be too strong of a word in the first place), but it seems to me, the focus cannot be just on how to educate the new collectorate, but on framing art education and critical knowledge as the new 'next' thing, as sexier, more impressive, more 'desirable' than ownership alone. Only then, I think, will you find a way, not to 'overcome' the collector-driven market, but to gain traction within it.

7/16/2007 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The assumption that the current art market condition is somehow different from the past is incorrect. It’s true that since the art market has expanded, the sums involved are bigger, but I think this is more a factor of the increase in wealth than anything else. There are approximately 15,000 US families with incomes over $9.5 million dollars, this compares with, at most 1000 only 25 years ago. I don’t think it’s all caused by inflation.

Over the long term, the culture does form a consensus on what is considered good art. However, this has never stopped people from throwing considerable amounts of money at art of dubious quality. It was true in the past and is true now.

I suspect that a ‘bubble bust’ won’t have the affect many think, be careful what you wish for.

7/16/2007 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but it seems to me, the focus cannot be just on how to educate the new collectorate, but on framing art education and critical knowledge as the new 'next' thing, as sexier, more impressive, more 'desirable' than ownership alone.

I would wholeheartedly agree, Jonathan (thanks for answering the question with a suggestion, by the way).

But I wonder if rather than the stick of "humiliation" one might not get more with the "carrot" of prestige.

There's one collector I know who regularly hosts panel discussions with important artists, where he interviews them about their work for museum collector groups and other interested parties. That experience (attending a panel) has impressed many other collectors I know to want to brush up on their expertise as well.

More attention on this sort of effort in the press would help spread the interest in knowledge, I suspect.

7/16/2007 02:27:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

ML: What I sell doesn't even cover my studio rent.

Yeah, that's been the tough one for me too. It's multiplied by the fact that if you have a day job you're only in the studio nights and weekends, but you're renting it 24/7.

This might a be a problem specific to Los Angeles. I don't know the east coast very well, but I think studio rents are probably pretty cheap in rural areas like Brooklyn :)

7/16/2007 03:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Kallir:

If it sometimes seems that the art-historical establishment is missing in action, this is in part because, while the market has been aggressively constructing a new canon, academia has been busy deconstructing the old one. ... Although this change in orientation has literally [No! - F.] opened up a whole new world of aesthetic possibilities, it has discouraged academics from making qualitative judgements. Scholarship in areas that are useful to the marketplace, such as provenance and authenticity, has flourished, but overall connoisseurship has declined.

Me:

Instead, the critical and historical enterprise is built on the raising (and importantly, not the answering) of questions, and unfalsifiable analysis that cannot succeed at anything except perhaps intellectual titillation. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, except that it has harmed the larger project of assigning value, where it hasn't replaced it outright. A field that has trouble assigning value to its products is naturally going to rely on extrinsic mechanisms for doing so. In the case of art, this is where people start monitoring auction prices, asking how old the artist is, using the magazines as collection checklists, relying on advisors, and other shams of taste that substitute for the real work of getting in front of a work of art, looking at it, and detecting its quality.

7/16/2007 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

But I wonder if rather than the stick of "humiliation" one might not get more with the "carrot" of prestige.

Instead of worrying about how to manipulate collector behavior through incentives, it seems to me that the more important problem is that too many who care about art are allowing a small group of collectors to dominate their art conversation in the first place. Besides, this whole business about formal "expertise" is authoritarian and exclusive at its core. Why should anyone give two shits about an art system that deems Damien Hirst a genius, but artists like James Leonard or David Palmer irrelevant?

I realize that imagining an artistic community outside of capitalism seems extremely difficult at this point, but it's the only thing worth doing, in my opinion, if we are to free ourselves from an orthodoxy of taste imposed from above by a small group of aesthetic authoritarians (whether it be collectors, dealers, or critics, etc.).

7/16/2007 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

imagining an artistic community outside of capitalism seems extremely difficult at this point

Artists who wish to have a one-on-one with the public in that way, Jason, have found ways to do so (street art, being one example). It's not as if folks aren't trying.

What generally happens though is they find, unless they're independently wealthy, they could spend more time making their art if they sold some of it, requiring some form of exchange for product. Perhaps they can manage that themselves, but other artists prefer to take advantage of the systems in place. I don't think it's fair of you to lump them altogether as part of the same problem you have with Hirst.

7/16/2007 04:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

imagining an artistic community outside of capitalism seems extremely difficult at this point

But I think you have to name what that kind of "imagining" is, which is called Utopia (or Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are Utopia's latest manifestations). The question is whether this kind of activity, often characterized as 'resistant' to capitalism (though it never is), is the kind of activity in which artists should be engaged, or moreover, whether it is a program productive of better (more engaged, more critical, more substantive, fierce, important or necessary) art.

David Joselit's new book 'Feedback: Television Against Democracy' has much to say on this point, including that it is no longer relevant to imagine that one can generate, occupy or inhabit a space outside of capitalism (at least no self-identified artist can). It's compelling stuff.

7/16/2007 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The alternative to capitalism? The Dutch auction on Ebay, it’s a lot of art that people made, the Dutch government bought, that will end up in land fills over the next 100 years.

Part of what makes art special, is having it treasured by the culture, getting it to that point requires more than just ‘making’ and part of what makes it art. The Serra’s at MOMA are a good case in point, it is one thing to think them up, quite another to make them exist. When one experiences them, one knows they exist because Serra made it so, that’s part of it.

Where I disagree with Franklin, is that he is ultimately advocating another ‘my way or the highway’ aesthetic position. This is what I deem to be the failure of the art establishment (in general, with exceptions) over the last 40 years. I’m sorry but I don’t buy your "detecting its quality" argument, you talk a good game but don’t back it up with any more facts than what you rail against.

What I think is needed is a capitalism of ideas. Philosophies and criticism and aesthetics need to be able to partake in free debate, violent disagreement if necessary. Museums, curators, critics and even academics should fight it out, there is NO NEED for agreement, NO NEED for consensus, history solves that over time in it’s own way, the culture ultimately decides on what it chooses to value.

7/16/2007 05:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

New EW readers may find it useful to know that George regularly misreads what I write and then reacts to the distortion.

The market is quite a bit less authoritarian than what Kallir calls the "art-historical establishment," which is protected by academic mechanisms that can defer the need to adapt for decades. Actually, it sounds like the market is correcting itself, in the form of EW's collector friends who are considering getting out altogether, as he puts it. If enough people follow suit, it results in a philosophical or actual selloff and reputations go with it.

7/16/2007 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Franklin, We’ve been debating for a couple of years and you know darn well I’m not reacting to a distortion. We disagree.

I think you are mistaken if you want to believe ‘the [art] market is correcting itself’ for any philosophical or aesthetic reasons. Markets make major corrections out of fear, it’s ever tidy and nice, and it hasn’t happened yet. FWIW, I think the momentum ‘peak’ was at the time of the last auctions and Geffen sales but that doesn’t mean it’s cooked.

More interesting to me are the question the ‘art historical establishment’ must come to grips with. There isn’t any one clear answer about what makes an artwork great, or even what is ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ at the moment and that might also be seen as good and interesting in ten years. Maybe none of that matters, maybe all that matters is that art accurately reflects it’s time, its era and if it becomes transcendental, all the better.

What are museums supposed to be doing?

Would you want to believe a critic who doesn’t collect art?

Should critics specialize? Should museums specialize?

7/16/2007 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Why should anyone give two shits about an art system that deems Damien Hirst a genius, but artists like James Leonard or David Palmer irrelevant?

Jason, I don't think the art system deems James and me irrelevant. It just deems us cash-flow negative. (Speaking for myself, of course, I have no knowledge of James' finances).

As far as Hirst, it's funny that you mention him, because I saved the L.A. Times gallery listing from the week my show opened. It listed 4 openings, including Damien's butterfly paintings at Gagosian and my linoleums at William Turner. Damien ended up getting a full-page story later that week in the Celebrity, um, Calendar section, and my show got no press at all. But it wasn't for lack of trying. I sent full press packages, followup press releases, and e-mails to all the local art writers and editors. One well-known art critic wrote back that he'd seen my show and loved it, though obviously not enough to write about it.

But I have no complaint about Damien. I went and saw his show, and was blown away by it. It deserved a big writeup. But here in L.A., I'm not competing with Damien Hirst. I'm competing with Paris Hilton. How can you win? She might not be very bright, but she's a lot better looking than I am.

7/16/2007 06:56:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

A bit more on ‘the Art Trading Fund’ brought up by Aurix linked the update.

7/16/2007 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous -j. said...

jason said:

Why should anyone give two shits about an art system that deems Damien Hirst a genius, but artists like James Leonard or David Palmer irrelevant?

Jason, I'm touched that you include me in your challenge of the status quo, but from what I've seen, Hisrt is so over at the moment, they can't throw his work away fast enough.



;)

7/16/2007 08:11:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Jason, I'm touched that you include me in your challenge of the status quo...

Jason, I am too. Forgot to mention. Thanks.

7/16/2007 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

New EW readers may find it useful to know that George regularly misreads what I write and then reacts to the distortion.

Come now guys, let's not go ad hominem. Poisoing the well like this is beneath you, Franklin. If you feel George regularly misreads you (which seems highly unlikely, even if you feel he regularly mispresents what you write), then ignore him, but don't pit other readers against him to make your point...or, better yet, just make your point.

I've read enough of you and George here to believe George is responding in good faith. Like he says, he just disagrees with you.

7/16/2007 10:15:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

It's not as if folks aren't trying

Of course they are, and there have been successes and victories. But I was specifically referring to those who, as related to this post and comment thread, are "worrying about how to manipulate collector behavior through incentives." Such strategies are a dead end because they only reinforce the logic of capitalism, by conceding power and authority to those with the most capital.

other artists prefer to take advantage of the systems in place.

Yes, but it's one thing to use the system in order to subvert it, and quite another to use the system primarily for profit.

I don't think it's fair of you to lump them altogether as part of the same problem you have with Hirst.

Who's lumping? I wrote that "too many who care about art are allowing a small group of collectors to dominate their art conversation in the first place." I doubt this applies to those who are either (a) trying to work outside the system, or (b) embedding themselves in the system in order to subvert it. I couldn't care less about Damien Hirst, et. al. My point is that far too many are allowing the super-collectors to dictate how they think and talk about art, and who's making important work and who's not. Better to make the taste-makers irrelevant by shifting the conversation yourself (but not by replacing their authority with your own!). As you said, many have already done so, but that was not the subject of this post.

jonathan wrote: which is called Utopia...The question is whether this kind of activity...is the kind of activity in which artists should be engaged

Well, personally I hope artists never stop dreaming. Once people stop trying to imagine a better world, then we're all fucked.

David Joselit...it is no longer relevant to imagine that one can generate, occupy or inhabit a space outside of capitalism

He sounds a lot like Margaret Thatcher!!

7/16/2007 10:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I think you are mistaken if you want to believe ‘the [art] market is correcting itself’ for any philosophical or aesthetic reasons.

I didn't speculate on the reasons, and I don't want to believe anything in particular except what I have evidence for. Disagreement I can live with. Putting words in my mouth, not so much.

We could use capitalism to our advantage. There's not an inherent reason that many kinds of art markets couldn't exist alongside one another, and I fault my own imagination and initiative for not coming up with a way to generate one.

7/17/2007 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

This wouldn't be so bad in itself, except that it has harmed the larger project of assigning value, where it hasn't replaced it outright. A field that has trouble assigning value to its products is naturally going to rely on extrinsic mechanisms for doing so.

"The larger project"... whose project?

Franklin, I'd agree with George here. The thing is, people in the art historical/critical "establishment" aren't interested in assigning value, especially monetary. Maybe they used to, but now they aren't, and i think that's a good thing. Perhaps art isn't just a product to be appraised in terms of price.

The people who assign value based on extrinsic mechanisms such as auction prices, etc--aren't they the same group of people who buy art in order to invest? If they want to assign value to the products they are thinking about investing in, then by all means please do. In the long run they may be right, they may be wrong, Prices change. And in any case, their valuation is useless to me.

Which brings me to this: If you were given the task of "assigning value" to art, provided that it can be done/is relevant, how would you do it?

7/17/2007 12:31:00 AM  
Anonymous -j. said...

Franklin said:

I fault my own imagination and initiative for not coming up with a way to generate one

And while you're at it, can you whip up an easy-bake solution to terraform Mars and a computer virus that can pass the Turing test?

Despite the best intentions, the brass knuckles head-on approach to generating an emergent phenomenon is only going to leave you exhausted and crestfallen.

The American over-embrace of the "wisdom of the market" is a bit ridiculous. We have doctors and teachers and lawyers and politicians and culture makers all neglecting their vocations while running around focused on Business with a capital Bee bee bee. It's tipped way beyond the point of optimal efficiency. In fact, it's turning into a drag on most sectors of society.

Here's a novel, cosmopolitan, old European semi-Canadian notion for us: eff the "business" side and just do the work of your vocation. And if you're actually on to something and the out-of-touch pillars of the art world are too salt encrusted to follow you, then eff them too. Seriously. They aren't gonna matter much more in the big scheme than their powdered wig courtier counterparts do now. Besides, there's so many more of us outside the castle and we need art and medical care and organic produce and books and philosophy too!

Didn't Rumi once write "All this talk is like stamping new coins, while the real work is being done by someone else digging in the earth"? No need for hyperbole. No need for platitude. No need to apologize. Just get behind the mule, man, and enjoy that divine labor. Ain't no one can take that away from you!

7/17/2007 12:41:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Didn't Rumi once write "All this talk is like stamping new coins, while the real work is being done by someone else digging in the earth"?

Yeah!

7/17/2007 06:06:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

There's not an inherent reason that many kinds of art markets couldn't exist alongside one another…

I agree, but I think this is exactly what is already occurring now.

Aurix said the art historical/critical "establishment" aren't interested in assigning value, especially monetary.

I guess I’d question if it would be a good idea for the critical establishment should get involved with assigning monetary value. I think probably not, that the monetary value of an artwork is best set by the marketplace. I believe that even though the marketplace may over-value or under-value an artwork in the near term, that the market value and aesthetic values will tend to converge over time.

The question of how one would assign value to a work of art is a good one. There are some who would suggest there is an absolute metric for quality, a definable aesthetic. Of this I am not so sure. It appears that the metric for quality, the aesthetic, changes over time, different eras favor one type of work over another. Moreover, there are deep sensibility differences as well, there are those who favor Ingres over Delacroix, and vise-versa.

Do we like the Mona Lisa, because it is a great painting? Or, because it looks like the Mona Lisa? If Titian is so great, why isn’t he being emulated by more contemporary painters? If he was showing at Larry G’s, he would be, right?

So here we are on the cusp of the second millennium, the art world is probably fifty times larger than it was fifty years ago, and at least a hundred times bigger than it was a century ago. I suspect that the critical community needs to redefine how they approach the problem when it is clear that one aesthetic won’t fit all situations. I question whether or not, aesthetics (visual quality, beauty, etc, take your pick) is the determining factor which can make something ‘art’, significant art.

It seems to me that ‘art’ is defined by the culture and this definition morphs over time. In the past, the art world was fairly small, it was fairly easy, and manageable, to define and focus on one or two directions, styles or movements. It is obvious that this is not the case today, how does this change the way the critical community looks at art? If we are in a ‘collector driven’ art market, how is this affecting the art? How is it affecting how we talk about the art? Does what is said make sense, validate what we see? Or, is it just marketing? Even if it is ‘just marketing’, what does that tell us about the state of culture at the moment? Is that something important? Etc.

7/17/2007 07:23:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Which brings me to this: If you were given the task of "assigning value" to art, provided that it can be done/is relevant, how would you do it?

This might be a very un-American attitude, but I've always believed in the inverse of the business cliche "time is money". For me the main value of money is not to be able to buy stuff, but to be able to free up your time. Time is the ultimate measure of value, not $.

So in that spirit, I propose that art should be valued in hours, not dollars.

7/17/2007 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Assigning value is simple: you apply importance to an object. You do this by making your own determinations based on your taste. The market more or less reflects collective calls about that importance. The art historical establishment used to have a useful and active function in the assigning of value; we called it connoiseurship. Once it abdicated that function (which was also a market decision, and worth exploring in itself), people who handle art in some manner looked for other markers of value, and a lot of those markers are ridiculous. To be fair, they are not more ridiculous than the ones put forth in place of connoisseurship by contemporary art historians and their ilk, who supply most them in the first place.

All fields, without exception, have agreements about whether something is a good or poor practice of that field. Note the plural, not singular, state of "agreement" in that sentence. These agreements are not always total and are not always spelled out, but there is, axiomatically, some kind of general consensus about them because without such consensus fields would never form in the first place. This is the gap in the art world that the collectors stepped into. Kallir convincingly observes the consequence that "the art-historical establishment often finds itself chasing rather than guiding the market." I personally don't fret about this because the contemporary wing of the art-historical establishment is largely not doing anything important. Kallir's lament that "not all of today’s collectors have the passion or the time necessary to develop this depth of knowledge" rings false to me; the good ones do, and only the good ones matter. This stuff is really not brain surgery and the idea of deferring expertise to a superclass of poobahs, when you can do it yourself, is absurd.

Just get behind the mule, man, and enjoy that divine labor.

I quite agree with this and like how it's phrased. Without this, you might as well sell shoes or real estate or something. But with it, there's no harm in trying to make it non-cash-negative if you can do so without compromise.

7/18/2007 12:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Bown said...

The article, and the accompanying commentary, seems to me to be based upon a fallacy: that the price of a work of art has historically been, and indeed ought to be, in proportion to the work's quality, or something like quality (some might substitute the weasel-word, so beloved of auctioneers etc., "importance"). But there is no umbilical link and never has been. Did Gainsborough, who ruled the price-roost 100 years ago, suddenly become an inferior artist as his prices fell and others’ rose? Does a de-attributed Rembrandt become a worse painting, or a newly-attributed Caravaggio a better painting simply by virtue of re-attribution? With hindsight, will Damian Hirst be considered a better or more important artist than, say, Julian Schnabel? No, no, and probably no. The value put on art and of cultural artefacts in general is a matter of intellectual fashion, and is profoundly shaped by the primitive (perhaps) notion that history, including art history, is shaped by a few geniuses, and further shaped by national interests and the geo-political realities of the age. Stalin sold masterpieces from the Hermitage and bought up manuscripts by Marx and Engels: seems silly to us today, but made sense in the USSR where M & E were deemed the all-time philospophical geniuses. But that was not an aberration: it is in fact a colourful indication of the modus operandi of the art market as a whole: intellectual fashion, moulded in the cauldron of geo-politics, creates the appropriate heroes and shapes perceived value. What happened under Stalin is happening in analogous terms, in the West today. Unfashionable art is available cheap (don't worry, there are far-sighted dealers amassing it); the newly-rich Chinese are promoting their own (pushing 25 painters into the top 100 at auction by price); the most expensive woman painter ever is now a Russian, Natalia Goncharova (where did she rank 10 years ago?); and so on. These events are merely reflections of geo-political trends, which shape thinking and impact on the art-market: in other words, they are of dubious long-term significance - a matter, in essence, of something like fashion. They are certainly not indicative of an emergent consensus on what is good, better and best: such a consensus will never exist. Thus it was and ever shall be: Gainsborough's predominance was in part an artefact of the British Empire, now no more. All this is not bad news for informed collectors but in fact superbly good news, because if you love art, and have an eye for it, you can buy wonderful things on the primary and secondary markets for very little bucks indeed, merely because they are out of fashion. And what is the alternative to the art-market we have? Something like the housing market, highly efficient, in which the prime real-estate is as it were established forever and prices move to-and-fro by a few percentage points a year? Boring!

7/18/2007 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger aurix said...

the above comment hits the nail on the head. thank you, matthew!

7/18/2007 03:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Mathew Pokoik said...

I'm entering into this conversation rather late in the game, but I'd like to go back to an aspect of the original post, that brought up the idea of education. A major problem with the inflow of money and new collectors is that art is too often bought on the premise of whats hot, what sells, what will increase in value, rather than the actual experience of a collector in relation to an art work, or - that collector's experience is lacking in depths and the ability to enter into the space of a challenging work of art. An aspect of a galleries responsibilities should certainly be partly educational in nature. As an artist, I'm personally engaged in this process as a "teaching artist", an Aesthetic Educator, with Lincoln Center Institute, http://www/lcinstitute.org which deals with how to train people to be able to have an in-depth experience with works of art. We work primarily in the k-12, and university environment in partnership with museums. I wonder, after reading this post, if something like this could be brought into the commercial environment, chances are its a bit too lofty and asking too much of collectors, but the problem seems to be that we find ourselves in a space of the herd mentality. Collectors following the trail of art world buzz rather than having an intelligent well trained eye, mind and heart.

8/01/2007 04:08:00 PM  

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