Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Values for a New Millenium

George made the following fabulous literary connection on yesterday's comment thread about the soon-to-be launched "Stock Exchange for Art":
Right out of William Gibson:

Chapter 15 - Box - "... Marley studied the quotations. Pollock was down again. This, she supposed was the aspect of art that she had the most difficulty understanding. Picard, if that was the mans name, was speaking with a broker in New York, arranging the purchase of a certain number of "points" of the work of a particular artist. A "point" might be defined in any number of ways ..." [William Gibson, "Count Zero," 1986]
Gibson's predictions of the shift in what we will value in the future are celebrated for their accuracy (although I find it quaint that in Neuromancer he predicted you would be able to trade a few meagbytes [I think] of memory for a plane ticket),.

But this bullseye is rather unnerving.

Especially when I mix it in my mind into a conversation we had over the holidays about the seemingly non-stop stream of high-profile liars being exposed after they've gained public sympathy for themselves or some other cause. From NYTimes reporter Jayson Blair, who lied in countless stories in the paper of record; to Oprah Book Club embarrassment James Frey, who lied in his memoir about his addiction; to "Balloon Boy," whose parents claimed that their six-year-old son was trapped in a helium balloon wafting off into space; to WABC-TV weather anchor Heidi Jones who lied about being raped---there have been enough cases of "trauma hucksters" gaining public sympathy--only to later be exposed--that a psuedo-medical term has been coined to describe the general impluse: "false memoir syndrome."

In our discussion about this, one of our new and very astute friends noted that we're likely to see such false accounts only multiply because the rewards from mass sympathy are the same whether or not the history is true. The teller of the tale still receives attention, empathy, and celebrity. And apparently, more and more, these are the things that collectively we value. These are the things worth getting at any price.

My first thought when I recognized the truth of this was to wonder why are these the things we value? What is so desirable about attention and celebrity that people are willing to risk losing their jobs or livelihood to attain them? To my mind, that sounds like an addiction.

My second thought was to wonder which old values those new values were replacing, which made me wonder what I really value and am willing to get at any price. After a quick accounting, I concluded that (after my loved ones) I tend to value new experiences and the expansion of what I understand or who I meet perhaps more than anything else, which is admittedly hedonistic of me.

But upon giving it some more thought, I realized that what I truly value most is the accumulation of experiences...the resulting layering and depth that enables me to connect the dots across the places I've been or the conversations I've had. It's not that I'm discarding my past in the never-ending search of the new, but that I'm tacking the new onto the old in this crazy quilt of life experiences that just gets more complex and richer, circling back round to the things and people I love with new experiences under my belt, new things to share and see, new dots to connect.

It's like coming back to view Les Demoiselles d'Avignon again after having spent some time learning more about el Greco. It's the same old painting I stand in awe of, reborn yet again before my eyes. It's also probably why I re-read my favorite books or plays repeatedly (I'm up to 17 readings of "Streetcar"). What I understood when I read Joe Orton's plays at age 22, for example, was nothing compared with the outrageous double entendres and scandalous word play I recognize in them now.

Richer and richer human experiences, aging like a fine wine, only getting better with time. That strikes me as a good central goal on which to build one's life. And so it disappoints me greatly to see people valuing short-lived celebrity or attention to such an extent that they're willing to risk so much to gain them. It's valuing the short-term over the longer-term that I simply cannot relate to. There's no point to a series of short-term "successes" that lead to one big failure to my mind. I don't understand it. It seems in opposition or completely unrelated to what life is about to me.

Just like Marley, in Count Zero, who "studied the quotations. Pollock was down again. This, she supposed was the aspect of art that she had the most difficulty understanding."

She had difficulty understanding this "aspect of art" because the "number of points" one should purchase for this or that work of art is in opposition to and, for most of us, completely unrelated to what art is truly about.

But perhaps that is truly shifting.

I know as soon as I go off on such rants that someone will say, "But you're an art dealer. You contribute to this commodification-over-culture-enrichment aspect of art. Who are you to complain about it?"

My defense is twofold. First and foremost, I view what we do as enabling artists we believe in to get the attention and hopefully the sales they deserve so they can keep making art. My proof of that is that we focus almost exclusively on the emerging artist section of the primary market. Second, if dealers are indeed responsible for the "art stock market" being born in this new age with its new, questionable values, then it's up to dealers to speak out and note why such a venture misses the larger, longer-term point of art.

Labels: art market, values


Anonymous David said...

I think the Art Exchange is a great idea.

Since a portion of "collectors" are just speculators anyway, why not just let them buy and sell shares instead of actual artwork? It will keep them from drinking all the free wine at the galleries. This won't have any effect on people buying art that they love. But it might cut down on the number of "collectors" buying a bunch of work they have no interest in and hoping to cash in if they pick a winner. Why do that when you can buy shares in a Van Gogh?

1/04/2011 01:09:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

It's a new decade, and a great time to reassess values, think about where we're going- Thanks for that.

After all, (as they say) if you don't know where you're going, any road will do. Maybe that's the justification for living in the short term, if not for being an abject liar? Damn, there's way too much of that going around these days. I might say 'AHHH, we're doomed," but at least there are a few hold outs out there who are still believe in a life lived for the long haul.

As I move through live, I have a harder and harder time understanding living for the short term. The problem with that, however, is that if I can't understand it, how can I help to change it? When I look back to my younger days, I feel that I often made decisions based on what seemed to be the best choice available at the time. I had good intentions in that, but I don't think I had sufficient length of life experience under my belt to realize that instead of a bunch of 'best choice for the time''s adding up to the best possible life, it is often a recipe for heading in entirely the wrong direction. Sometimes you have to move backwards and sideways to get where you want to go.

Maybe that realization is what everyone is so mad about, that we're not on this surefire path of progress wherein we all continually get richer, more beautiful, smarter, funnier, more loved, and better and better all the time.

and surely, someone must be to blame for that--- someone other than ourselves..

But surprise, there no one on the outside anymore to send the blame away to, we're all connected. As we are learning, (are we learning this?) One person's short sightedness can easily be all of our problem to live with for a long time.

1/04/2011 08:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your tone Ed!
I've always felt that the greatest quality that art could possess is the ability to influence and deepen one's experience or sense of life. However, the question of what sort of influence a work exerts depends entirely upon the indiviual viewing it.

For instance the paradox with Hirst is that his art really is influential and cerebral as well as profoundly meaningful in significant ways beyond the financial aspect that has come to be its primary means of evaluation. In a sense I feel a little bad for Hirst, his work will always be bound by this new market paradgm, he will never know a freedom as an artist outside of the market. His most sincere attempt at being an artist (his painted odes to Bacon) were viciously attacked and critically despised.

Somewhere beyond the specualtive eyes of the market, there is a place where art exists vital and alive ... and you are correct Ed, the gallery and dealer has everything to do with allowing this realm to exist for art, your artist are very lucky to have your support!

1/04/2011 09:47:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Kessler said...

“Richer and richer human experiences, aging like a fine wine, only getting better with time.” What an inspiring way to start the morning — and the new year. I’ve been feeling the aches and pains of aging lately, and this thought is a comforting antidote.

I want to add that teaching, in its broadest sense (writing, serving as a role model, making art), helps people expand and deepen the “accumulation of experiences” you wrote about. When I was a penniless graduate student at UCLA in the 1960’s, the art dealer Nick Wilder opened up the world of contemporary art to me. He’d pull out paintings from his stacks to show me, and we’d talk about art for hours. He brought me to Ron Davis’s and Mike Todd’s studios (we became friends and I learned from them); and Nick even took me as far away as John McLaughlin’s studio in Laguna Beach. I also learned from other art dealers — Margo Levin, Peter Goulds and yes, Larry Gagosian.

So teaching about art should be added to your defense of art dealers.

1/05/2011 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

The post and comments like those above keep me coming back to read this blog, time and again. I value substance.

Somehow, this Stock Exchange for Art reminds me of a job I held a few years ago, where the office personnel were required to complete LEAN training alongside the manufacturing production personnel. As if pieces of information were as interchangeable as widgets. Just because a system works for one thing doesn't mean it will translate for another.

On the upside, this may create some jobs for all those newly-minted art school graduates -- they can be art commodities advisers.

1/05/2011 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Regarding an "art stock exchange," or other form of selling "shares" in an artwork.

On the face of it this may seem like more of the same, just another way of encouraging more speculation in the art market. It's worse than that. Right off the bat it invites fraud in both subtle and more obvious forms.

The "value" of a "share" of an artists or artwork is going to depend more on current tastes, fashions and popularity than anything else including aesthetic merit. There is no way to prevent this, it is what happens in the financial markets every day. (Ask yourself why the price of ABC stock is different today than it was yesterday, with no new news announcements to change investors perceptions - The "price" has a huge emotional component which has nothing, or very little, to do with the company's economic fundamentals.

Placing a value on an artwork is no different and price changes will be obviously influenced by 'leaky' information which will allow one person to have an unfair advantage as an "insider".

Next, consider what "selling shares" in an artwork really means. Suppose we have a $50M painting we wish to sell. To do this we have to find a buyer willing and able to pay $50 million, at the present there are not too many collectors who can do this. However, if we create 50 "shares" worth $1 million each, it is quite likely we could find 50 suitable and interested buyers. Now these buyers are going to think "hey, if I sell my share for $2 million, I've doubled my money" which is true. However, this now makes the painting worth (think in terms of market cap, total shares x last price) $100 million.

While this might not be entirely incorrect or implausible, but at some point, that "I bought it for $1 million and sold it for double that" is going to create an implied worth for the art abject which makes little sense and other "shareholders" will rush for the exits and the price will crash.

So what we are really learning from the suggestion about the creation of an "art stock market" is another way of saying that current prices in the upper end of the range are too high. One way to counter the perception that prices are "too high" is to "split" the stock, to create 2 shares each worth 1/2 of the original share (the total market cap stays the same $1 x 1sh = 1 and $0.5 x 2sh = 1)

Splits, or in this case, shares of an artwork, allows investors with less capital to participate AND is a form of "distribution" - distribution occurs when the smart investors sell to the dumb investors.

1/06/2011 05:54:00 PM  

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