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.