Looking for Leaders...
I'm so sorry to tell you this, contemporary artists, but one way or another you're going to have to lead us out of this mess.
I've read many a comment on social networks from artists arguing that they resent critics and others insisting that the way out of the death spiral that is the contemporary art market's focus on money over art must come from artists. They resent it. After all, they only work with galleries because they don't want to deal with the business end of things, so why can't the galleries figure out how to change all this?
The factors one must understand to appreciate why that's not likely though are that 1) a gallery IS a business and if there's a clear way to make money and a clear way NOT to make money in the current climate, the business owner part of the dealer's path is obvious; 2) dealers are their artists' representatives, with an obligation as such to work toward their true goals, so as long as their artists are making choices that favor money over art, they're simply doing their job in helping them; and 3) while other artists may demand their dealers make choices that favor art over money, unless there's some money involved there to cover expenses, dealers can't afford to represent too many artists like that (whereas entire programs are built around the other category of artists, and very lucrative ones at that, bringing us back to factor #1).
I'm sure some artists out there are chomping at the bit to interject here: buh...buh...who ARE these so-called category 2 artists you're imagining here, demanding money over art?
I kid you not, I had a conversation just the other day with an artist who confirmed for me that so long as there's money to be made in the current market, they felt they should try to make as much as they can too. Why should they be the cross bearer for their generation? And it's clear they're not the only artist who feels that way, regardless of what some would say if put on the spot. Which isn't to say all artists feel this way...just enough to fuel an ever-money-obsessed market.
But let me back up. What is this "death spiral" you're hyperventilating about, Edward? Adam Lindemann summarized it quite nicely the other day:
We’re in a pretty scary moment in the cycle. The number of people flipping works of art has never been higher, and they will keep on pumping up prices until the music stops. When it will stop is anyone’s guess[...] One can semi-plausibly argue that a Bacon, a great Picasso or a Warhol is a rare and precious thing and that in the 21st century we will always see more buyers (many of them from outside the U.S.) than there are works available. The young stuff is another matter altogether. Artists go on making it every day, and the higher it goes, the more they produce. The market now is rife with speculation and getting hotter by the day. Today, everybody’s a wise guy looking for an angle.I've been talking about this issue long enough to know at this point, someone will chime in to suggest all we need is enough idealistic dealers who dig in their heels, show quality work without compromising, and they'll begin to change how things are heading. Again, though, waiting for enough dealers to do this increasingly seems like a fool's game to me. In her "Exit Interview," Kristen Dodge explains part of why she recently chose to close her Lower East Side gallery:
A guy gets offered a picture for a buck and thinks: Why just tell the seller “yes” or “no”? Why not be a player and re-offer it to 10 other guys you know for two bucks? Maybe you can buy it yourself for 85 cents and sell it for $1.50, or better yet, just flip it without buying it. This is, after all, trading tulips; no one really wants to smell them roses. Collecting is now an anachronism. Some people are still doing it, but they have become the minority. The new generation is in it to win it, and it’s very bold and not risk averse. It will dive into anything that has buzz and hype and feels like it’s going to the moon. What’s ironic and sad is that some artists’ careers now seem to end only months after they began. This means we won’t get to “sell them later,” because there won’t be any “later.” [emphasis mine]
"I spoke with a successful art dealer recently who dismissed the notion of a new model, observing that when people set out to do it differently, they wind up doing the same thing as everyone else. This particular person has decided to look the evil (not my word) and fallibility of the art world in the face, embrace it, become it, and use it for financial gain. It's a job at the end of the day, right? I admire this person's tenacity to succeed and survive alternately over the course of changing markets, and their track record of launching artists’ careers. But at some point along the way, this person admittedly lost the art part of the equation. All I could think was, what happened and fuck that." [emphasis mine]
And so putting those two emphasized ideas together: "Artists go on making it every day, and the higher it goes, the more they produce" and "when [dealers] set out to do it differently, they wind up doing the same thing as everyone else," it's hard not to conclude that whether artists resent it or not, shifting the focus from money back onto art must come from the artists themselves.
OK, you say, but how? If an ever-expanding pool of MFA graduates are willing to crank out the production to fuel the speculation that's drowning out any demands to focus on art for art's sake, how can individual artists change anything here?
The only answer (and I'll admit it's not instantly satisfying or easy) is to not get drawn in. Becoming a tool of the 1% is best left to politicians. From artists we have always expected a bit more. The artist above who told me they figured they might as well make what money they can from this market could have made other choices. They would not have died had they not.
I know there are those who will conclude, "well, the dealer who Kristen cites could have made other choices as well...they wouldn't have died either." And that's true, but in the current climate dealers making those choices are finding it hard to climb above a certain level, because their best selling artists leave them for bigger galleries who will more generously "clean up their messes." As that keeps happening, over and over, almost systematically, those types of dealers are being exhausted.
So again, to my mind, if more artists don't lead here, change will not quickly come.
I will say one artist who is leading in this regard (as I've noted before) has a show up right now at Postmasters. I think artists looking for guidance on how to change things could do much worse than to visit it.