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To market

Post #1300 • February 23, 2009, 9:46 AM • 63 Comments

One of my gallerists had told me about this debate held between some rather major players about whether the art market or the stock market was more unethical. Saltz admits to getting crushed, but blames his poor debate skills. I'm dashing out the door and can't do my thoughts about this adequate justice this morning, but lately I've been listening to Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman, and Feynman, in the course of describing some of the professoriate he has intereacted with in the course of exploring other disciplines, makes a distinction between honest fools and pompous fools. I'm going to assert that the art market lost the debate because in a non-academic setting, honest fools are in a stronger position than pompous fools. Even in writing post-debate, which ought to be home turf for him, Saltz can't put together a cogent defense:

Their position essentially broke faith with art, believed in the hype of the past few years, was nihilistic and hollowed out. They said that even with all the abuses on Wall Street, the fall of Enron, insider trading, Bernie Madoff, the collapse of the stock market, widespread job losses, rampant suffering, and the world economy in a shambles, the art market was still less ethical than the stock market! Ironically, all those on the other team were likely involved in most of the unethical behaviour they railed against. To me, this seemed infinitely hypocritical and self-hating. But evidently not to the audience, who seemed to agree with every stone they lobbed at the art world, and sneered at every mention of bad behaviour by the art world.

In other words, Saltz's opponents had bad faith, bad information, and bad characters. He equates the stock market with an economic disaster that had nothing to do with the stock market. He accuses them of that which they accuse him even though he has no proof of any wrongdoing. They are hypocrites and they hate themselves in ways that he neglects to specify. Oh, and the crowd was nasty.

People who buy works of art for the pleasure of having them in their lives never need to worry about whether they've been had. Everyone entertaining more dubious expectations may very well live to see them disappointed. That's really all there is to it.




February 23, 2009, 10:19 AM

You account is a bit confusing. In the penultimate paragraph, are you speaking for Saltz?

The problem, as in all debate, is defining the debate. "Bad ethics", in a business context, basically means not giving value for money and the various dishonest means used to do it.

The "apples and oranges" nature of the art vs. financial question is immediately evident because of the different values involved, or rather, that the art value is ill-defined and the financial value is sharply defined.

From a purely debating point of view I would tend to frame the debate in terms of consequences; the art consequences being that you get suckered because you are foolish enough to buy into art bullshit but can probably afford it, the financial consequences being that you are completely or partially ruined. The former seems to be mere folly while the latter is a matter of more specific fraud simply because terms of value are clearer. This line, if accepted into discussion, could tilt the debate toward the financial being less ethical.

There are other good lines of debate also, just as there are many openings in chess.

Saltz, who is not exactly a mental giant, probably went into the debate having worked none of this out.



February 23, 2009, 12:21 PM

I can't wait to hear what I say but Hirst seems like a good scamming point.



February 23, 2009, 12:30 PM

I can't help but think, if you're going to debate the two issues, you need to know your opposition as well as you know your own position. While finance is very complicated, art, on the other hand, is in reality all too easy.

Bernie Madoff took people's millions, and worked diligently to show (trick) them that they were getting value for that money. He showed them the paper that said their money was there, just as your bank shows you the paper with your balance, and you generally believe them in the same way (Of course, as Jimmy Stewart can tell you, your money isn't there, really, it's in Joe's farm, etc...).

But Damien Hirst took people's millions, and gave them a shark in a tank. He gave it a fancy (unintelligible) name, sure, but nobody was under any illusion that it wasn't a dead fish. And, when that fish starts to go bad, he gives you a new fish, just as good as the old. The product you thought you bought remains the product you bought.

One of these is an example of a fraudulent swindle, and one of these is a shrewd business move...



February 23, 2009, 1:18 PM

MC has just shown that art, like life, is not fair.


The original Jack

February 23, 2009, 1:28 PM

I did not post #2 above. Whoever did, please change or modify your handle to avoid confusion. "Jack" is already taken here, as it has been for much longer than you've been visiting. I already mentioned this previously, but evidently you missed it.



February 23, 2009, 1:46 PM

Art? I didn't say anything about art, did I? Oh, right, the fish...



February 23, 2009, 2:05 PM

What's not fair is that someone recruited Jerry Saltz to be art's spokesman in a debate.



February 23, 2009, 2:58 PM

That's the last time I post and rush out the door. Opie, you're right - I'll edit it and fix the typos when I get home.



February 23, 2009, 3:07 PM

Here's the actual transcript of the debate.


Chris Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 3:22 PM

Because Jerry is my friend on Facebook, I can perhaps give a little more context to his side of the debate; he wrote on there recently, "The art world is imperfect and worse. But why, when the art world is most down, do people bash it all the more? I call it shooting the wounded." I think he's defending the art world from a position of love: He loves art (you don't become an art critic for the money) and the art world pretty much unreservedly.

Jerry is one of those guys -- not as extreme as some I've met, but bad enough -- who just loves art, period. If you call whatever you do art, whatever it is, he's pretty happy with it. He just likes that it is art, that people are doing it, and that it's out there. He's more critical than some, but not, to my mind, critical enough: He's willing to give anything the benefit of the doubt, it seems to me, just because it's art.

I'm the opposite. If you call it art, I demand more from it. Art is a meaningful term to me. By calling something art, you're putting it into a very serious competition, and I will judge it accordingly.

People like me are shooting the wounded to put them out of our misery.



February 23, 2009, 4:22 PM

It is only human to shoot what's down, but the art business has not been exactly down lately. I love art too, but, like you Chris, I make demands.

Bad art is the most singularly useless thing we have, and, as Jack frequently points out, we need have no patience for the people who hype it.

I commend Saltz for loving art, but when you truly love something you should be all the more impatient with the things that defile it.



February 23, 2009, 4:58 PM

The "art world" as it exists today (much like the academic salons of the stews-and-gravy years) is a false friend of art.

Friends don't let friends buy bunk.

It's as simply as that, Jer', ol' buddy, ol' pal...



February 23, 2009, 4:59 PM

If Jerry's goals are to celebrate and defend art then he has acheived his goals many times over, regardless of what you think about the art he has written about. Chris if your goal is to shoot "the wounded to put them out of our (did you mean their?) misery...", or to inspire artists who you think are bad to stop making art altogether, can you name one instance in which you have succeeded? For opie, considering his occupation, I am sure he can actually cite several specific instances in which he has achieved the goal Chris mentions.


Chris Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 5:01 PM

I haven't really listened to Saltz at quite that level of detail, but one of our other instructors at SVA, an artist himself, clearly -- to me, anyway -- just loved loved loved art and artists and gallerists and galleries and the whole thing. He was almost totally without judgment. He just seemed happy that anyone would make anything and show it anywhere. Whee! Like a kid digging holes at the beach and hollering about anyone else's hole. "Wow, that's deep! Really deep! You're gonna hit China! Wow!"

Me, I'm the kid at the beach measuring the holes. "This one's not very deep and that one over there is way wider. You should give up now, go swimming or something."

I mean, my dad always taught me, if you're going to do something, do it right.



February 23, 2009, 5:40 PM

The crowd gasped when Marcel Duchamp's playful perfume bottle, "Belle haleine-eau de voilette," sold after a lengthy two-way bidding war to a buyer in the room for €8.9 million, ten times its estimate.



February 23, 2009, 6:48 PM

the first day of the YSL sale did smashingly well. some people still have money falling out of their pockets.


The original Jack

February 23, 2009, 6:54 PM

I did not write #9 or #15. I've asked you (whoever wrote them) twice already to change or modify your handle to avoid confusion with me (see my comment #5). This is becoming both tiresome and annoying. Please be so kind as to observe common courtesy. Thanks.


Jack Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 7:03 PM

When "Jack" says "I can't wait to hear what I have to say," I think we must conclude the joker (Jacker?) hijacking Jack's name is doing it on purpose, and no amount of polite asking will make them stop. This is why people have Blogger/Google accounts. This is the price of working outside the system -- Franklin, take note.


Columbia Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 7:04 PM

I like whoever transcribed the debate linked to above, by the way. "...a family called Mugrabi – textile merchants from
Columbia..." Really? Grad or undergrad?


Buggrit Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 7:06 PM

Also, was it really so hard to get to Bouguereau from "bugaro"?



February 23, 2009, 7:10 PM

"For opie, considering his occupation, I am sure he can actually cite several specific instances in which he has achieved the goal Chris mentions."

What is that supposed to mean, eag?



February 23, 2009, 7:12 PM

YSL had very intersting taste. I suspect the buyers want a piece of that as well as the object.

It turns objects into relics in a way, but what the hell.



February 23, 2009, 8:04 PM

Did you encourage EVERY SINGLE student that crossed your path throughout your teaching career? Were there any that were so gawd awful that you perhaps suggested to them that they might consider pursuing something else? If you NEVER discouraged one of your students then the statement you pasted above is wrong. No big deal.


Chris Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 9:02 PM

Eag sez:
Chris if your goal is to shoot "the wounded to put them out of our (did you mean their?) misery...", or to inspire artists who you think are bad to stop making art altogether, can you name one instance in which you have succeeded?

My goal with my writing is very personal. I do it just to figure out what I like and don't like and why.

I didn't mean "their," I meant "our". My feeling is, since some of the denizens of the art world are more vulnerable right now, we should injure them further so they'll drop out. Thin the herd. Put them out of our misery, because they're the ones making us miserable.

I have no one in particular in mind. I'm not really doing anything different during this new market downturn (if there is one) than I was before. Mostly just complaining.



February 23, 2009, 9:36 PM

The YSL collection was put together in close cooperation with his lover and business associate, Pierre Berge (who's the person running this sale). Artwise, it's not clear what role each played or to what extent each of them did or did not decide what to get and why. But yes, the YSL celebrity factor is obviously a major element here, and it will definitely elevate the prices, as one would expect.


Stop that

February 23, 2009, 9:44 PM

[My patience for this has quite run out. Assume a different handle, please. - F.]


The original Jack

February 23, 2009, 10:08 PM

I did write #25. I don't know if the arriviste version (or the disguised old-timer, as the case may be) wrote something else after that which Franklin decided to delete. In any case, I hope this nuisance has run its course.



February 23, 2009, 10:12 PM

He did, and I hope so too.



February 23, 2009, 10:18 PM

Treating any student like that would be unprofessional eag, and I have never done it.

However, there were a number I wish had never taken up art in the first place, and frankly I wish I could have dissuaded them.



February 23, 2009, 10:43 PM

EAG, do you have any students?



February 23, 2009, 10:43 PM

Of course. That makes perfect sense opie. However, it really is too bad that genuinely talented artists who have tenure track positions and end up encountering many lost and misguided young people throughout their careers can't be honest and direct and help them discover a more constructive path in life.



February 23, 2009, 10:56 PM

Yes MC but not on a college level. At least not right now. I know I am being a ridiculous idealist right now. Bed time for Bonzo.



February 23, 2009, 10:57 PM

Hey, (true) friends of art:

My wife has graciously offered to take me on a trip this April, and I'm leaning toward the Big Apple, but wondered if y'all might have another suggestion of a place to go and things to see... I love the Met, MoMA, Frick, etc. permanent collections, of course, and would of course be happy to see them once again, but if anybody knows of some must see collections or exhibitions coming up somewhere, I'm open for suggestions...



February 23, 2009, 10:59 PM

Thanks, EAG... embrace that idealism!



February 23, 2009, 11:03 PM

eag, I firmly believe that art is for everybody. But that is hardly the same as thinking everybody ought to be an artist. When I taught, I discouraged many from continuing along the path of being an artist. My chief communication tool for this was the grading system, though I used plain English as well. Several students attempted to get me fired over the grades I gave them. Or more precisely, the grades they earned for the work they didn't do or did poorly. That's pretty normal in any university these days, though the first attempt on my job came in 1968 (I wrote "Ugh!" on the back of a painting that was not only bad, but did not attempt to do what I assigned). I bet opie has a similar record, maybe not with the firing thing, but with the failing grade thing.


Chris Rywalt

February 23, 2009, 11:19 PM

If you do pick New York, MC, we'll have to get together. Do me the honor of a studio visit, maybe.



February 23, 2009, 11:38 PM

BTW, the student that got "Ugh!" written on the back of her painting - She was a real cutie and apparently used to getting the grades she wanted. She told me the lowest grade she had ever received was a B, so how could I flunk her? Then she said the picture was to be a Christmas present for her mother and I had ruined it. I told her to do anything she wanted for her mother, but for me, to do what I assigned, for starters. It didn't wash with her, but the "Ugh!" was written in permanent marker so it didn't wash either. After some wrangling with the school's chair who attempted to honor her request to get rid of me, I kept the job for nine more years, then left for a better one. I never changed the grade.

The last attempt on my job came a few years ago from a Native American who was eliminated from the graduate program after the grade she received from me dropped her average below the minimum (she was already on probation). By that time I had learned to keep careful records on student progress or lack thereof and to retain any evidence that was relevant to their problems and my attempts to resolve them. I'm proud to say the black woman who "tried" the case ended it by saying she would be happy to take a course from me.

I suppose I'm bragging here. But I'm also saying that art schools do not give everyone As and false encouragement to make the system "work", despite the extraordinary "remedies" allotted to students who are unhappy these days. Quite the contrary. Many faculty are frank with students who, in the long run, are poorly served to attempt to live the life of an artist. The future is bleak enough for students who are good at it.

Sometimes I wonder if I were suddenly reborn as a twenty-something now, if I would pursue the art trail. It takes a lot of guts and perhaps at least some stupidity to go with the talent. Dumb like a painter, Picasso used to say. I'm not sure I'd be dumb enough.



February 24, 2009, 12:34 AM

In the end I just screwed her and gave her a passing grade, it all worked out.



February 24, 2009, 1:00 AM

The fake Jack has turned into a fake John.



February 24, 2009, 2:31 AM

Ooh, ooh, do me next! I want to see what a fake MC would say!



February 24, 2009, 2:48 AM

Here is one of Jerry Saltz's statements from the debate (I'm reading the whole thing):

Question: I'm wondering how the does the art critic fit into this. Do the Clement Greenbergs of the world manipulate the art market, the Jerry Saltes of the world?

Saltz: Once upon a time the Clement Greenbergs of the art world did, and they were able to manipulate taste. And therefore the market. That time luckily is long, long gone.

Although untrue, that ws the best argument made by the "pro-art/ethics" side all night. It was specific and if true, seems like the art world has cleaned itself up a little. Otherwise the Saltz side just rambled, seemed unprepared, and had no specific points that the voters could hang onto.

The other side hammered and hammered away at the fact there was little or no regulation in the auction market, giving specific examples of how that defrauded collectors. They also gave examples of dealers doing the same, but admitted certain laws made them susceptible to penalties for some of their transgressions. On the other hand, there are many regulations that govern the stock market that don't prevent fraud entirely, but curtail it significantly.

So despite the fact many people are feeling the pain of stocks collapsing, the lack of regulation in the art market carried the day - because its side had a simple, consistent message that they backed up with specifics. The Saltz side "expressed" itself, especially Chuck Close, who romantically said that other artists determine the ultimate value of art work - forgetting the fact most artists respect most the artists that sell. Even if that is true, it remained beside the point of the discussion because Close did not tie it to the issue and provided no specifics, leaving it only as a footnote type assertion. And of course they all talked about how "special" art is, how different it is from ordinary commodities, andhow it is all about "loving art". But if your paying $100 million for a Hirst skull, special or not, those diamonds damn well need to be real and he damn sure better be the artist responsible for making the thing, and there is no mechanism in place that assures that in an auction. Further, the bidders that drive up the price damn well ought to be real. You can't argue that phantom bidders make the auctions "more exciting", as the pro ethics group did. Instead, for them it was all about loving or not loving Hirst and whether "other artists" respected Hirst. If you love Hirst enough I guess it is ok to run a bid up from $50 million to $100 million using means that only insiders can access.

It was a slam dunk for the side that said the art market was less ethical than the stock market. Their argument was hardly profound, but it was at least coherent. They probably devised it over drinks before the event started. The other side just drank and maybe exchanged hugs.



February 24, 2009, 7:17 AM

It was probably unethical to put a group of sharp. logical, well-prepared and probably very familiar with the practice of bad ethics folks against a bunch of wooley-headed art lovers.

This may seem holier-than-thou to say, but as for teaching, I have always taken it to be my job to help and encourage whatever student I am handed. I really think of it as a just a job. If there is no talent there - a situalion I face regularly - I do what I can to get something passable going.

If I were teaching privately I would make different choices.

And, who knows? That untalented student might just be the next Damien Hirst!



February 24, 2009, 7:42 AM

Thanks for those comments John and opie.


Chris Rywalt

February 24, 2009, 8:15 AM

The unscrupulous, unethical side of the art market -- which largely seems to be confined to the auction market -- isn't just about art, it's about anything that sells at auction. My father has been dealing in militaria -- collecting military items, from letter openers made from shrapnel during WWI to lead shot from the Civil War; medals; uniforms and helmets -- he's been in militaria for at least a decade and the stuff he's told me would make your hair stand up.



February 24, 2009, 8:16 AM

A majority of art students stop making art after graduation, including some with talent. I figure that students with little talent will likely eliminate themselves without my having to do anything about it. And if they don't, then they have talent for persistence, which counts for something.



February 24, 2009, 8:21 AM

Great comments John and opie.



February 24, 2009, 8:55 AM

Sorry for the repeat comment. There was a delay in posting for some reason and I posted the message again.

opie's teaching philosophy sounds like the most noble one to me. Franklin's sounds very pragmatic. I also admire John's refusal to cave in or sell out (unless he is being offered a blowjob of course). I guess as a college professor, you have to balance the two, noble intentions and pragmatism, or at least you should do that. I am working on my Masters in English (I have a Masters in Library Science and I have been working as a grade school teacher for 7 years now) and I hope to be able to get an adjunct teaching position at some college when I complete my MA in English. I don't think I will be quitting my full time teaching job in a K-12 school anytime soon though.

The debate format is definitely not well suited for art critics of this generation. It is also not surprising that non-art people would, generally speaking, have ill will towards art people. I mean what else should art world people expect? And I am not being all inclusive when I use the term art world. I know that Saltz has stated that he hates it when people group all of the people in the art world into one non-descript mass, but it is hard to speak about something if one is restricted from using generalities.



February 24, 2009, 10:04 AM

Thanks, eag, but as you noticed I tried to qualify the "nobility" part. I really think of my approach to teaching as purely pragmatic. It is not my business, at least at the undergraduate level, to mess with someone's life goals. My job is to get them to make their art better, hopeless as it often seems. That's what I am being paid to do.

At the graduate level I am obliged to try to steer them to a career to some extent, but, as John says, a lot of them never do paint much after they get out. Nevertheless in 20 years I have seen many succeed both as painters and my students are teaching all over in Miami and elsewhere. There is some satisfaction in that.



February 24, 2009, 10:07 AM

Many artists would envy your position opie.



February 24, 2009, 12:03 PM

Students are not pure consumers in the sense, say, that a car buyer is a consumer. I was obligated to teach them whatever I could, but also obligated to evaluate their success with some degree of honesty, a dual responsibility, any way you look at it. If I passed someone who did not meet the criteria for passing, I looked at that as a failure on my part. In my earliest years I also looked at flunking certain students as flunking myself for failing to teach them what they came to learn. But eventually I realized some of them were simply in the wrong class at the wrong university and quit holding myself responsible.

Thus, low grades are sometimes the only reasonable choice. Other times, though, I would give rather generous grades to those who were making progress, especially if the progress was because they were doing lots of work, as a carrot to keep them on that path, even though they were short on talent. I remember one kid especially who criticized me in an evaluation because he thought I was too generous to those "others" who did not deserve the grades they got when in fact he was one I used grades to reward hard work rather than results that evidenced talent.

How could I tell it was him? By the sentence structure, by the fact I knew he looked down on many of his fellow students' work, and other little hints, including his basic like for me and the class (there was no bitterness in his remarks, he was just trying to help the teach be a better teacher). And I knew he felt that way long before the evaluations were passed around for them to fill out. Opie's comment on Hirst is germane too because he became a "conceptual" craftsman, and has been successful at that endeavor. He asked me what I thought of his BFA show and I told him it was short - there were no objects in it, just photographs of objects and writing about them, lots of writing stacked where the objects should have been. He said that my view was not up-to-date. I told him that art without art is not art, but that there was an audience for it nonetheless.

I looked at teaching as more than a job, it includes aspects of what we call "vocations". It is a pilgrimage not unlike that described by Chaucer. This kid was one of many many interesting characters I met along the way.



February 24, 2009, 12:13 PM

Well, John, I think that eag's term "noble" should be applied to you rather than to me. My tendency is to only get that interested in a student's work when it shows promise. I am also too easy on grading, especially if a student tries hard.



February 24, 2009, 12:32 PM

Opie, I was surprised that the audience was more down on the art world than the stock market. In fact, had I been there to argue that the stock market was more unethical I would have noted that the need for regulation is a function of the scope and scale of consequences if regulation fails, not a function of some ideal quantity of regulations.

Thus, while it is lamentable if someone is duped by a fake at auction, it is far worse when regulations are violated and ignored or downright lacking in the stock market (Gramm-Leach-Bliley act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization act of 2000), with a world crisis as a result. I would have admitted there were not many regulations in play at art auctions, but that the stock market was more unethical because the proportion between the reduced regulations, their lack of enforcement, and the potential bad consequences were much further out of wack than the situation in the art world. That is, the stock market falls far shorter in executing its responsibilities than the art world does. Most people who bought art in the past couple of years are happy with their purchase and for good reasons; most who bought stocks are not, also for good reasons. And so on.

Guessing from the nature of the questions posed by the audience, I think it would have been very easy for Salz and company to persuade them. The debate was theirs to lose, and lose it they did by addressing their personal agendas rather than the question.


Chris Rywalt

February 24, 2009, 12:48 PM

I think the stock market is equally unethical as the art market; it's all unethical and ethical in equal measure, really. We pass laws to stop certain behavior deemed destructive in some sense; the stock market is regulated more than the art market just because it's larger and therefore potentially more destructive. The behavior is the same: Humans being.

Reading Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics really changed how I look at economic behavior: It really is, I think now, just people being people. Some are greedy, some aren't, some are underhanded, some aren't. The stock market is just a collection of human behaviors, some of which have been codified (the idea of futures, for example). Basically it's just a long string of, as the great poet Paul Williams put it, "somebody thought of that and someone believed it".


Chris Rywalt

February 24, 2009, 12:57 PM

John, your idea of school is quite nuanced, and sadly out of step with how schools see themselves these days. My wife is a professor at a decidedly un-academic university, but in fact all colleges are going through this, and in a different way all public schools, too. Schools have decided to run themselves like businesses and that students are their customers. My wife's school, for example, has switched its class terms to run eight weeks. The rationale is that having fewer classes at one time, with the classes each being more concentrated, aids in retention. "Retention" is a big concept with colleges: It's all about retaining students, keeping them in the school and taking classes until they complete their degrees. The big bottom-line number administrators look at is retention.

But retention is the wrong number to look at. Who cares if you retain lousy students? If your graduates are useless, then your school's reputation goes down, and pretty soon no one is going to want to go there in the first place.

Pleasing the students is not the point. The students aren't your customers. Society is your customer. Schools don't need to turn out students who are happy with their purchase, they need to turn out students who are worthwhile to society. Whether that means getting good jobs or contributing in some other way or just generally being literate and intelligent enough to vote decently is something we can discuss, but the important thing is that they're useful in some way.

No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on grades, is the same kind of thing, only the students aren't the customers, it's some kind of nebulous customer including the community and the federal government.



February 24, 2009, 1:15 PM

John, I was not sure how the audience was informed and collected, so it might be one that was biased one way or another.

Of course regulation is another angle to go on. Your analysis is correct and it could go further by simply stating that the fact that there is regulation in the first place is an indicator of lack of ethics.This could be a jumping off point to say "now that that is established, why should there even be any accusation of lack of ethics in the art market?", and put the other side on the defensive.

As I said, the spins are infinite. ART is LOVE isn't going to hack it.

Chris "markets are just people" is a little blind. People act according to circumstancesm, and the big overall circumstances are law, custom and the unconscious guiding ethic of the folks. When these change, people change, results change. This is what is scary about our current economic situation.



February 24, 2009, 4:04 PM

Chris, schools harp on retention because if they don't keep students, then everything they do is in jeopardy. Art dealers have a similar circumstance, if they can't sell the art. I was a tenured full professor from the time I was 36 until I quit last year at age 65, which gave me the enviable luxuries that come when "the administration" has nothing they could take away from me, and gave them to me for a much longer period of time than most get to hold them. The only thing that the school could do that would have hurt me was close down the whole program I taught in. So I was in favor of retention. Public college enrollments will improve now that we are entering an economic depression because young adults who can't find jobs often come back to school as a constructive alternative.

Art departments need to rethink their role in all this. Instead of turning out "professional artists" they could do worse than turn some of their attention to serving students in other majors, where experiencing the making of art enhances their ability to approach problems creatively, and so on. A lot of kids like art, but understand that they cannot make a living at it, either by virtue of their lack of extreme talent, or just because the probabilities are so stacked against them, no matter how talented they might be. The school I taught at threw out these students a few years ago, thanks to "leadership" that said it was better to devote "precious resources" to "the best" (i.e., the majors). Well that played out predictably. As student credit production went down, "precious resources", especially faculty positions, went down and keep going down, and programs were cut. "The best" students have less to choose from and get no more help than they ever did.

Opie's turning the lack of regulation into a sign of intrinsic ethical behavior is a neat trick, but the audience seemed rather ordinary, that is, they wanted government to step in and see that they don't get rooked. In the survey before the speeches began, opinion was evenly divided between the "stock market is less ethical", the "art market is less ethical", and "undecided". After the smoke settled, the "art market is less ethical" folks had changed the minds of a large majority of "undecideds" by saying the art market had fewer regulations and citing some of its effects.

We are in a time when people want regulations, that is certain. But they want regulations that work, and the ones for the stock market have not been working. It would have been so easy to list specifics that illustrate that.


Chris Rywalt

February 24, 2009, 6:23 PM

Of course retention is important, John. But it's not the main metric of success. Better to turn out a smaller number of quality students -- in the longer run it'll work better. Retention is great in the short run, but it doesn't take too many years of focusing on retention before things start to fall apart.

I worked at my alma mater for two years after graduating. I really should've kept that job. But anyway. One year we got caught up in this fervor of Total Management Quality Initiative for Quality, one of those kind of things. The school hired an outside company to rework the school logo and design stationery and business cards and so forth. On the employee side they held seminars to teach us how to do our jobs to treat the students as valued customers and so forth.

I remember one of the seminars they played a video showing happy janitors greeting students by name and so on, saying that making the environment more friendly would help keep students and improve customer relations and whatever. After the video they held a discussion, during which I played a big part since I'd only just been a (successfully retained) student.

I pointed out that happy, friendly janitors had nothing to do with keeping students. Every student I knew who'd left school did so for one of three reasons: They failed out; they ran out of money; or they decided they didn't want to be an engineer any more.

None of these factors were fully in the school's control (except to the extent that they could reduce tuition). Over the last 15 years it seems clear to me what policy my alma mater decided to follow: Let in weaker students and inflate the grades. That solves the failing out part.

My alma mater isn't alone. But it seems to me it's addressing the entirely wrong part of the equation. Poorly training poor engineers isn't going to help anyone. One professor was famous for denying his students partial credit on exams: "I see. If you build a bridge and half of it falls down, you want to get paid for the other half?" No one should want to retain a student that way.

Of course with engineering it's different. A badly trained artist is unlikely to hurt anyone (although Christo's managed it). A badly trained engineer or doctor is much more dangerous.

Still. I think my old school would've been much better off taking whatever money went towards new letterhead -- I remember there were guidelines for letterhead on monarch paper, and who the hell uses that? -- and putting it towards, well, pretty much anything for the students. But I got in trouble for thinking that way more than once.



February 24, 2009, 7:03 PM

Schools, like everything else, rest on competence. I went to a boarding school that has been around for 200 years and as far as I can tell they have never changed anything. It seemed to me when I was there that the professors had been there since the 18th C. They never had any problem attracting students, they never had any trouble getting rid of students that didn't make it, and it is still the same.

The University where I teach now is relatively new but aside from an absurd emphasis on football and the expected growing pains and the pushpull between quality & retention they have been fairly conservative and much less infected by trendy liberal PC ideas put into action than the Ivies, for example. Apparently the endowment has really suffered lately so they are grappling with cost cuts.

John has told me about things at his school, which is a state school, and some of them are true horror stories. We are pretty much a service department and more or less physically isolated so as long as we do our part we don't get involved in much radical replanning nonsense. Our lowly status means less perqs but being left alone is one of the best possible perqs as far as i am concerned.

OK so the audience started out even on the ethics question, and the arguments shouldn't have been hard to make. Even a nice comparison between hustler like Damien Hirst and a criminal on a huge scale like Madoff should have turned the tide, and there are literaly hundreds of other points of comparison. I wonder how they screwed up so badly. Maybe the audience just didn't like the artists. Who else was on the panel?



February 24, 2009, 7:16 PM

OK, I just read the article for the first time. There is certainly reason to believe that the art people were set up to some extent by a conservative outfit and a conservative audience. Apart from some pros like Obama "conservatives" will outdebate "liberals" every time.



February 24, 2009, 8:10 PM

Yes opie, but this is one the liberals should have won. I read the whole transcript and they had so many opportunities and they failed every one. Admittedly, the whole thing was a stupid idea to debate. But once you enter the ring, your job is to win, and they just blew it.

Maybe the people who "set them up" did so by selecting participants they suspected could not think.


Chris Rywalt

February 24, 2009, 8:58 PM

Some writers and artists are witty and verbal, some aren't. I'm a pretty good debater, I think, although not formally. I can sure argue like hell. Maybe the pro-art panelists aren't gifted in that way. I saw a documentary on Chuck Close and he seemed quick enough, nicely avuncular, but hardly of penetrating intellect. Jerry is a good guy and no idiot, but he's conversational. His lecture I attended was more stand-up than philosophy.

I don't know the other players but the anti-art side was all dealers, who are known persuaders. I mean, that's their job. Seems like a stacked deck to me.

In a real debate, don't you switch sides at the half?



February 24, 2009, 10:27 PM

The dealers, whatever, the side that won, won it by a very simple message: the art auction markets don't have enough regulations. They ignored the fact the stock market has regulations that were violated, regulations that were not enforced, and regulations that were repealed in 99 and 2000 to make room for widespread recklessness, fraud, and disregard for common sense. And the losers ignored all that stuff too.

I think any decent high school debate team could have beaten the winners.



February 24, 2009, 11:38 PM

A high school debate team would have done their research... unfortunately, you can be a big wheel in the 'art world' without having to know jack shit.



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