Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Costs of Crazy High Contemporary Art Prices

Let's get a few things out of the way to avoid the rush toward strawmen and red herring rebuttals.

I truly do understand the law of supply and demand. I'm in no way arguing for regulating art prices or the further regulating of any of the channels through which people buy art. I'm simply interested in starting a conversation about why crazy high contemporary art prices are inconsistent with what much of the contemporary art world claims to be about. 

Let's start with "the dialog" and the paradox it's increasingly facing in how it operates within the market.

Art is taught in public schools. Galleries are free. Museums have days or times when discounted or free admission permits those with less means to visit. Many artists bemoan the perceived lack of interest the general public have for contemporary art. Combined, these factors project the idea that the art world believes contemporary art is for everyone. Regardless of your wealth or station in life, so long as you're truly curious and open minded, the art world welcomes you to come see what's being created and join in the discussion of it. 

Yet more and more that supposed embrace of a wider audience is bumping up against demands for exclusivity, unhindered access, and an assertion that art isn't really for everyone within the more competitive segments of the market and within certain quarters of the supposedly welcoming dialog. Increasingly the message is evolving into "art is actually only for those with means." 

Consider the trend among certain contemporary art fairs to not only raise their individual ticket prices to more than most working class families of four spend on dinner, but to increasingly limit the total number of people who can even get those tickets (in the service of an air of exclusivity). This is beginning to go even beyond VIP hours considerations, which as an art seller, I completely understand. And there's a central logic here, of course, that's hard to dispute. If you can't afford to buy the art on display, why would you care about getting in earlier rather than later? But the fact is that some galleries rehang after sales at fairs, so those not let in until later can indeed miss out seeing some of the art they've paid dearly to see. Those early-sale works that disapper are simply not for poorer people's eyes. Again, I'm not saying I don't understand the logic at play here, but that doesn't mean I have to ignore its consequence either.

The supposed desire to include everyone in the dialog about contemporary art is changing outside the (declared channels of the) market as well. Consider the change announced yesterday by Bloomberg news, who are downsizing their arts coverage in general:
Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury. In an email sent to employees on Monday, Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler said that the company has decided "to scale back arts coverage and no longer use the Muse brand." 

He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers.
Bloomberg is essentially admitting they believe only their rich readers will care about art. A self-fulfilling prophecy if you reserve your coverage of it for those readers, no?

Beyond the dialog, though, let's also consider how most people in the art world believe their industry plays a role in contributing to the betterment of humankind. Two stories recently, however, suggest astronomical prices in the arts attract more criminals and gangs into that realm, and violent ones in many cases. You can't lay blame for what criminals do on the people willing to legally pay lots of money for art, of course, but there's no question that the headlines of record prices at auctions lead to more criminal activity and that it's still a societal cost that the portion of the art world dedicated to getting art prices ever higher can't pretend has nothing to do with them.

As the BBC reports:

Det Supt Adrian Green investigates serious heritage crime across the country and told BBC Radio 5 live Investigates that objects are being stolen here and then shipped abroad to be sold to dealers and collectors.

"This is top-level international organised crime and it runs into tens of millions of pounds. 

"What we're seeing is that the value of items is increasing but also the level of violence that they are prepared to use is increasing, which is obviously a major concern to law enforcement. 

"It's robbing our communities of their heritage but it's also putting millions of pounds into the pockets of criminals." 

On Monday, an ACPO-led taskforce, made up of representatives including English Heritage, the National Crime Agency and law enforcement professionals, will unveil their latest strategy to tackle this crime.

"They may major in art and antiquities but very often there will be links to money laundering, there'll be links to violence and firearms, and often of course to drugs. 

"Where there's money to be made, organised criminals will move in if we don't stop them." said Mr Bliss.
And, again, of course that's a law enforcement issue. I'm not suggesting the art world need to "stop them" or that they need to do so by artificially limiting the prices or the reporting. Simply that we don't operate in a vacuum and ignoring how things are related is naive. Crime is clearly one of the societal costs of crazy high auction prices.

The other recent story on how art is attracting criminals (in USA Today) needs a bit more investigation (and editorial prudence, in my opinion), as it's currently mostly conjecture and whispers (indeed the subtitle on the article is not at all supported by the actual reporting), and yet the arguments this journalist makes do indeed echo what some folks are asking behind closed doors: 

Art has become an efficient instrument for hiding cash. Swiss banks are no longer a very private place. But a warehouse in Switzerland — or, for that matter, New Jersey — is nicely confidential. 

And art is a way to clean up your dirty wealth. Say you sell, well, drugs. You might buy a painting for $7 million, paying $2 million in cash (helping the seller to avoid taxes), so the transaction is listed as $5 million. You put it in a warehouse for two years, let it predictably appreciate, and then sell it for $9 million. You've not only made $2 million, but you've cleaned another $2 million. Nobody the wiser. 

Art, too, is a market that can be handily manipulated in a way that is likely more beautiful than art itself to financial fixers. If you own, for instance, five Warhols, you might put one up for auction, participate yourself in bidding up the price — you might even buy it yourself at a high price — thereby increasing the value of your other four paintings (which, now you can borrow against at their higher valuation).
I'm not pointing to this article to validate it. Again, it's mostly conjecture and sloppy journalism in my book, but USA Today is widely read across the country and its editors clearly felt the story had legs enough to publish it. The growing perception that the art world is rife with criminals is simply another of the costs of crazy high auction prices.

All of which makes it more difficult to turn the dialog back to issues of the human experience and contemporary art's importance to us here and now.

"But what are you suggesting we do about it?" a steady stream of people have asked, apparently unwilling to accept any criticism unless it's bundled with some solution that frees them personally from any complicity or obligation to think for themselves.

What I suggest we do about it is exactly this. Rather than myopically celebrating the crazy high auction prices as if they were all good and had no undesired side effects, let's have an open conversation about how the practices of institutions whose sole purpose is to drive
higher and higher the prices of what art they sell (which is often whatever they can wrestle away from its current owners merely to get it back on the market) are in many ways inconsistent with other goals of the art world at large, including a more inclusive conversation and a role in helping improve the world.


Blogger George said...

In mid 1929 Irving Fisher, the most widely celebrated economist of his time, stated that the stock market had reached "a permanently high plateau." Whatever the reasons for the current price highs we are seeing in contemporary art, it is a temporary phenomena.
The artworks which have achieved the record prices have one thing in common, they all have been validated within the culture for several years and have been anointed as being historically important, if not the specific artwork, certainly the artist.
Therein lies the problem, the pipeline of historically validated artworks is finite and requires art which has passed this test of time. I would suggest that in the auction markets art pricing has several components, historical validation of the work itself, the historical validation of the artist and fashion.
Historical validation must take place over at least 20 to 30 years, the artists works are exhibited and discussed, become fashionable and then maybe unfashionable, and over time the culture sifts through its opinions and some consensus is reached.
Rather than going crazy trying to understand or justify the current auction records, it would seem more productive to focus on the artwork that hasn't reached the point of achieving historical validation.
The auction houses are aware of what I'm suggesting and this is evidenced by how they bring certain younger artists into the system as a means of prepping them to become 'blue chip' artists. For example, Wade Guyton achieved a fairly high auction result ($2M+ as I recall) and in spite of his recent Whitney exhibition, his work is being priced solely on it's fashion component as, at this point, it has little historical validation. There are several others.
Other artists, in other historical periods, have realized high auction prices which later failed to even match inflation. Intellectual fashions drive a momentary excitement in the art world, whether it is 'conceptualism' or 'neapolitanism' these intellectual periods (fads) give their artworks a momentary validity, they become fashionable. But tastes change, just as they are at the present moment.

Rather than worrying about the money, we as artists, collectors, gallerists, and critics should look to control what goes into the historical pipeline to become the gazillion dollar artwork in 20 years. What are we doing and thinking about now, besides money?

11/21/2013 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

There is no set price for labor. Because there is no set price for labor it is open to speculation. The Art World is perfectly poised to promote obscene costs for the labor of a few high profile artists. Critics, Curators, Dealers all get in line to support and promote (even at times by their negative feedback) a select few artists. By "labor" I mean the physical object produced and used as a conduit for money. This does not mean that the artist (or workers, if the object is fabricated by others) benefits directly, especially if we are talking about the secondary market. Connections to the skill or beauty inherent in the object (supposedly causing the high price) becomes increasingly tenuous. A "deeper meaning" or "higher purpose" in the art object as it relates to culture is implied but is also increasingly suspect.

It could be argued that "intellectual labor" or "conceptual ideas" are worth more than physical labor but the objects which trade at high value at auctions are the results of physical labor. Value of one artists work over another may start as opinion but the market acts as a qualifier and then multiplier.

I am coming to the conclusion that it would benefit more artists if the bubble were to pop. It is likely a new bubble will form with a new group of artists. Perhaps a different economic situation can benefit a wider group of artists and the groundwork for this may be slowly forming.

At the end of the day this is supposed to be about ART not about money.

11/21/2013 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger AvivaRahmani said...

I would just distinguish between "art" sold at auction at these high prices, sometimes with questionable cred except that filthy rich people have already paid good money for the brand and all the rest of the art & artworlds that are not on that list. Ed, you're discussing a very small percent of the entire market, selling to an equivalently tiny percent of potential art lovers. That is also a diff issue than Bloomberg's alarming equivalence between art and luxury and your justifiable conclusions about art education. Fluxus is turned on the way to it's almost grave. Aside from that parsing, I agree and think it might do us all some good to see the bubble burst.

11/21/2013 12:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im all for keeping the Commoners out.

You Know The Hells Angels are a Club and probably more exclusive than the art world super richy rich.

Every government and institution of every country in the world is a filthy dirty criminal enterprise that's the way of man. except for maybe Bhutan and Nepal.

There is a reason I don't show my work to friends and family if they saw the work and I had to explain it they would have me committed.

David Hammons Rock with Afro 400 k . I love you man.

11/21/2013 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger Aservais1 said...

Amy Cappellazzo's candid but so sincere comments says it all:" “We’re not really pricing a work of art,” she said. “We’re pricing what money means to the five people who might be interested in it.”

It Is the only way to make sensé of indecent prices at the top

11/21/2013 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

An important phenomenon in the fast-rising prices is the billions that are being created in the East and Middle East. There's so much new money, and investors are looking for outlets. Art can add cachet to a fund's portfolio, and a record-breaking auction win strokes the ego.

But yes most of all it's a brilliant way to launder money. Money of dubious provenance - think human and drugs trafficking, guns and corruption at every level - and always untaxed. This is the dark side of luxury goods.

Here in China, government officals have recently been cracked down upon by the central gov't. Expensive art was being used as bribes and 'gifts' between officials, but now every sale and art purchase must be documented by gallerists and buyers. This has stifled some of the higher-end arts sales (mainly antiques and recent contemporary paintings).

11/21/2013 08:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Can someone explain to me how Bansky fits into this art world vs art industry discussion? I mean the works generate sky high prices, but does the artist get paid for these? Does the pricing affect his 'creative' interests or output? Does anybody even know if its him 'manufacturing' them all? Does the pricing exclude his public from seeing them first?

Not to argue Bansky is proof there's nothing to worry about, quite the contrary- but rather that maybe his practice could allow us to see some opportunities in how to negotiate the possible disjoint of the perceived financial and cultural values of art. He seems to show that both can co-exist. Just thinking that his practice can elucidate our concerns somewhat.

(i can no longer prove im not a robot ....)

11/22/2013 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous r said...

I don't see any problem with two art worlds with one of them being highly commoditized. Is it so bad that 1,300 or so Hirst spot paintings, for example, could become the new bitcoin?
There's still a lot of art out there and a lot of conversations about art. I think where that conversation takes place is the big question. It just might not be in the current market/institutions/structure/what have you.

11/22/2013 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the top of the market, purchases are made to soak up excess cash, and as speculation, and maybe sometimes as trophy purchases.

It's a very different situation at my level where people are parting, sporadically, with hard earned money in the mid 4 figure range because they absolutely love a piece and want to live with it.

Even that is way out of the range of most people. But it has zero to do with the dizzying numbers at auction houses these days.

11/22/2013 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger skeena said...

What occurs in the high priced auction venues is an anomaly. It is more of a comment on the destructively wealthy elite and their ego driven indulgences.
As for the actual art world, who cares?
Once art had a place in society in religious and allegorical expressions for an illiterate audience.Later, for some centuries it fulfilled a role providing decorative works purchased by individuals with modest means.
Consider what percentage of the population might view a sporting event rather than view paintings in a gallery. Far more people would rather watch kitten videos on you tube than view art, the same can be said for playing simple games on an iPhone. When individuals do actually come to art in that extremely rare instance, they are willing to spend far more on the framing than on the work itself.
Art has no inherent special status, it must compete with all other forms of entertainment and it comes in dead last.
More artists view or care about other artists work than anyone else, and they do not purchase art except in the most isolated and often contrived situations.

11/28/2013 11:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assuming we talk quality, leaving alone anyone else, besides the artist. Such an artist would try to sell, of course through the gallery, to somebody appreciating in the absolute sense, which includes professional purchase, meaning little or no discussion about price, then when that artist needs money, a very abstract value today. Think of Fiat money, an idea backed up by trust or believe in, on the decline, certainly not rising right now. Lots of entities right on my heels try to convince me to take some of that almost thinner than air significance. Bankers get it for nothing now, here in Europe and in the U.S.A. since years. Is it like trying to sell sour beer? Wrong time fellows - more trouble than utility, at least for me - after bills are already paid. I just try to make some point in regard to our subject in discussion. An artist not needing money, just now, which goes on until there is a need tentatively rising or has even become actual, better say predicted, which would be controlling the process, usually has problems with that commodity, because investing it is another game. Some artists have mastered that, like Friedensreich Hundertwasser. He said, when he needs money he sells a painting. Lao-Tze, in the “DaoDeJing [Tao Te Ching]“, already suggested, given by the sense I recall: to take only as much money as you need, that is when you need it. So much to the use of it.

12/19/2013 08:59:00 PM  

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