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Six Hard Truths For Ben Davis

Post #1585 • January 16, 2013, 10:28 AM • 3 Comments

It must be confusing to be Ben Davis. As a left-of-center (maybe left-of-left) writer opining about contemporary art for a media conglomerate run by a woman whose net worth is estimated at $680 million (2011 estimate in pounds sterling and this morning's exchange rate, so don't quote me), he'll rail against "Art as an Asset Class" and pen this...

If the rich get richer, they will spend more on art. Art-buying serves a real purpose for this class: It lets them buy into a cosmopolitan new elite, and makes them look marginally more appealing, to the public and to themselves. As an investment, art is therefore a gamble by the already super-rich that their own wealth will continue to grow.

So is it a boom or a bubble? Depends on what you mean—but we should admit that the perilously surging inequality that is driving it is a real factor, not an imaginary one. This also makes its limits clear: Prices may rise until either a) the cravenness and ideological insanity of our leaders triggers another large-scale crisis like the one of 2008, rebounding on the One Percent (which looks sadly all too possible), or b) citizens actually manage to pressure governments to tilt the balance of forces away from the super-rich (which right now doesn’t seem to be happening, but who knows?).

...leaving the rest of us to wonder if his lack of awareness of the ironies of his situation is real or pretended. What else is wrong with this essay? Let me count the ways.

2. His suggestion that art can't simultaneously "aspire to the condition of pop culture" and serve as a long-term investment vehichle, with Damien Hirst's recent downwardly trending auction results as Exhibit A (and only), may be worth considering. Does Warhol's price history contradict this? Yes, but it may hold true for the living. How's Koons doing, then? His Tulips sold for $33 million a couple of months ago. Okay, I've considered it.

3. It's news to me that art has become a class of assets by way of a "craze," by way of a "recent trend." It's like nobody remembers 1987 anymore.

4. Income inequality is a perennial sore point among liberals. The ways in which not everyone shares this view is beyond the scope of this post, but permit me to quote Thomas Sowell (hat tip to David Thompson), who noted recently, "When politicians say, 'spread the wealth,' translate that as 'concentrate the power,' because that is the only way they can spread the wealth. And once they get the power concentrated, they can do anything else they want to, as people have discovered—often to their horror—in countries around the world."

5. This is bewildering.

No commentators, as far as I can tell, had much of an objection to Herb and Dorothy Vogel—New York’s proletarian art collectors, he a postman and she a librarian—and if you watch the documentary about them, you find plenty of artists who say that a few hundred bucks from the Vogels came at just the right moment.

However, one of the effects of mounting inequality is that it decreases the number of potential Herb and Dorothys out there, as the middle class's incomes stagnate and the wealthy bid up precious resources. “The upper middle class has not been able to keep pace with the wealthiest buyers, and therefore the middle of the art market has been the worst affected by the most recent financial crisis,” art market expert Clare McAndrew wrote not so long ago.

If I'm teasing this apart correctly, Davis is claiming that the "precious resources" that the rich are bidding up are the sort of low-three-digit works that aspiring Vogels would like to get their hands on. Where to start with this? The Vogels had great eyes, a certain appetite for aesthetic risk, and some spare income. Even without adjusting for inflation, you can acquire a collection of good work at the rate of a few hundred bucks at a time. Come up to the low four digits and your options increase dramatically. The reason we're not going to see the likes of the Vogels again any time soon is not because of a lack of money, but a lack of eye. The reason for the eye shortage is the Marx-derived theoretical hegemony, of which Davis is an ardent subsriber, and which has been denigrating the value of visual quality for four decades. It was into that vacuum of taste that the rich leapt and started bidding up Hirst in the first place. If it seems like I'm suggesting that Davis and the Acquisitors of Art as an Asset Class are a product of the same phenomenon, well, yeah.

6. Which brings us to this:

And the real reason why today’s art-and-money culture is objectionable is that the people who have consolidated their power—over the art world and the real world alike—are quite often really terrible people.

An example ensues.

Today's art-and-money culture is objectionable because an enormous amount of cash is chasing around a handful of objects whose artistic origins lie squarely within Pop and Fluxus, both of which were designed as a critique of moneyed culture in the first place. Davis's example, Steve Cohen, is described in a linked Vanity Fair article as having a Jeff Koons balloon dog just inside the guardhouse to his Greenwich, CT manse. The overall tone of Davis's essay is one of betrayal.

Maybe it's not correlated merely to how rich the super-rich have become, but also to how ill-gotten their gains are and how much, therefore, they feel they have to compensate for. But personally, I feel that art is too important to become PR for tycoons, no matter how much they want to pay to make it so.

I'm with Hazel Dooney on this:

I'm tired of psuedo-political-correctness criticising the relationship between money and art. Ironically, it's often used to sell to the 99%

Indeed, and one needs merely to glance down the right-hand side of Davis's column to confirm it. Personally, I don't have a problem with that, but then I'm not trying to make a career out of demonizing the rich. This brings me to Point #1, saved for last because it reiterates my introductory thoughts and sums up my conclusions:

1. Memo to Mr. Davis: You look for all the world like Louise Blouin's pet Occupista. Maybe do something about that.

Comment

1.

Chris Rywalt

January 16, 2013, 2:24 AM

You caught the second part of Davis's two-parter but not the first part:

However, one of the effects of mounting inequality is that it decreases the number of potential Herb and Dorothys out there, as the middle class's incomes stagnate and the wealthy bid up precious resources.

The wealthy are bidding up the lower end of the expensive side of art, but more importantly, because middle class incomes have been stagnant for thirty to forty years, there are no Vogels with spare income. There are people around right now—you even know some of them (ahem, me, ahem) who have good eyes and a certain appetite for aesthetic risk but abosolutely no spare income. Good luck finding a postman and a librarian today who... well, who have jobs of any kind, let alone jobs and enough spare income to pick up art on the side. The closest anyone I know comes to that is a guy who works in IT and probably makes in the low six digits, and he picks up art occasionally and very cheaply.

It says something that in the 1960s and '70s a pair of low-level government functionaries could live in Manhattan and buy art.

Also—and I almost feel bad pointing this out—calling out a writer as a hypocrite because they both are paid by rich people and criticize rich people is really unfair. Everyone is compromised. Hell, even Noam Chomsky is compromised. If the hypocrisy of having to get a paycheck signed by someone becomes a valid reason to dismiss anyone's opinions, then we're all done.

2.

Franklin

January 16, 2013, 6:42 PM

I stop short of calling most anyone a hypocrite in this sad world of compromises, but the ironies of Davis's position are too rich to let alone. I would feel more sympathy for him if he were making a more cogent argument, instead of stringing some recent stories into a tendentious listicle. And at some point, the adage of throwing stones in glass houses applies. I think that point is reached when the author claims that the rich who are germane to this discussion are "quite often really terrible people." This is not why the "art-and-money culture" is objectionable, and the correct reasons touch upon the position of the author as noted above. In the meantime, quite a lot of the rich are wonderful people, quite a lot of the poor are terrible people, and quite a lot of the poor are wonderful people. Davis's explanation here is ridiculous.

It's worth noting that the Vogels were anamolous, even given the opportunity to live in Manhattan as relative proles and have some disposable income. I would suspect that someone in their position today, doing the contemporary equivalent, would be ignored purely for traveling in the wrong social circles.

Lastly, despite Davis's expression of dreary obligation to talk about these issues, nobody's stopping him from writing about work being made outside art-and-money culture, what Roberta Smith referred to not long ago as the serious art world.

3.

Walter Darby Bannard

January 16, 2013, 10:46 PM

I'm not sure why Davis is that interesting because he just seems like another the-art-world-sucks moaner, but it reminded me of something that I heard the other day.

I was talking to a grad student of mine who graduated a few years ago, a really talented, amibitious, hardworking painter kid (who recently went through surrealistic regulatory hell to start up a framing business, but that's another story) and he told me that one of the art-buying moguls in Miami - one of those who started his own museum (we have a number of these here) - had an assistant contact him, get him over to the minimuseum, and tell him he was going to be in a show sponsored by the mogul's outfit. It was going to be organized by an army of curators, directors, researchers, and even a special person assigned only to him, and both of his paintings (and everything else in the show) would be sold in the $30k range - no ifs, ands, or buts. All he had to do is just follow instructions, which mainly consisted of allowing the paintings to be picked up and reframed. It freaked him out a little, but naturally he agreed, and said the organization and confidence and discipline of the whole outfit was spectacular. In the meantime he is just waiting for it to happen, and I expect it will happen because the mogul/collector is a hugely successful businessman who doesn't fool around.

I dunno. Sounds like a bubble to me.

By the way, I was struck by the trees picture. It actually caught my eye before I saw what it was or who painted it. Had a real "power" to it, as my son Billy would say.

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