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The Problem In The Middle Is The Problem At The Top

Post #1653 • March 4, 2014, 11:50 AM

Steven Zevitas, a Boston-based dealer and the publisher of New American Paintings, had a Jerry Maguire moment and penned an essay that has been making the rounds lately:

If you were to walk through the aisles of any one of the dozens of art fairs that now take place globally on an almost weekly basis, you would get the sense that the art world is a happier place than Disney World. Big art, big artists, big dealers and big money play their roles in a hypnotic and well-rehearsed production, and toothy smiles abound. Yet this intoxicating spectacle is just the most public manifestation of a problem in the art world that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade: more and more, the cart is pulling the horse.

The horse in question is, of course, aesthetic production and the individuals and institutions that assiduously guard its sanctity. The cart is, at least on the surface, money -- and lots of it. Or is it? After all, money does not have motivation or intent, people do. I would argue that the cart is actually the insidious forces that have, over several decades, narrowed the gap between art and financial instruments, and in doing so have forced art to submit to criteria once reserved for commodities. Money is simply the scapegoat for a problem that is pervasive and systemic.

Zevitas goes on to make some accurate if unsurprising observations about the art world. Curators have too little independence of their museum boards. Critics have lost the ability to influence anything. High auction prices in the headlines send a message to the general public that art is not worth paying attention to unless you're rich. The rich themselves move in ovine herds. At the end he calls out each player in turn and exhorts them to do better. Artists should make work out of need, not want. Auction houses should refrain from capitalizing on emerging artists. The magazine should expand their coverage to a wider variety of artists and speak plainly. Museums should get a wider range of humanity on their boards. The collectors should follow their eyes. The dealers should follow their hearts and do right by their artists.

I disagree with none of this but would add that each of these actors probably thinks that he is doing his utmost good on behalf of contemporary art and that the associated profits, if there are any, are gravy. This has been my experience even with the most cutthroat, Machiavellian dealers. (I'm not talking about Steven.) That at least is what they purport. Therein lies the problem with this sermon. The art world is the way it is because the incentives are what they are. Unless the latter change, the former will go on as before and we can complain about it until we're out of breath for all the good it will do.

Steven largely forgives the top tier for the way it is, but...

The trouble really starts with the prices being paid for works by mid-career artists such as Christopher Wool and Richard Prince, and, of greater concern and with more frequency, for the work of emerging artists.

I am all about artists making money, but when a small group of mostly young white male artists such as Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo start to sell work for six-digit amounts, it should raise a lot of red flags. (And I am in no way making critical judgments about these artists and their work -- Joe Bradley, for one, may very well turn out to be a generational talent.) The age of the "ism" is over and in its place we have the age of instant "consensus" and the other big art world C word, "context." Right now the "consensus" is that serious art involves raw canvas, a smattering of paint, possibly an exposed stretcher bar, and a "who the fuck cares if it looks done" attitude -- some of this work is quite good, by the way. The "context" that this work is presented in is the hippest galleries and art fairs in the world. And collectors who do more listening than looking are lapping it up in large amounts and at absurd prices.

This is essentially the same complaint that Ed Winkleman made on his blog last month.

Other artists [that Katya Kazakina at Bloomberg] cites as being popular with speculators [in addition to Oscar Murillo] include Alex Israel, Petra Cortright, Christian Rosa, David Ostrowski, Parker Ito, Israel Lund, and Fredrik Vaerslev, each of whose practice includes (mostly to a large degree) abstract painting. ... Now it's entirely feasible that we're simply seeing a Golden Age of Contemporary Abstraction, and the work is simply wowing collectors more than other types of work being created. But that wouldn't explain why so much of this work then enters the secondary market so quickly...

The percentage of abstract paintings compared with other types of work exhibited at many emerging contemporary art fairs these days, for example, is very telling. This is how many emerging galleries are sustaining themselves. And while no one wants to name names here, very few of the curators or other dealers talking about this trend are shy about saying how much of that work strikes them as derivative or mediocre at best. ... It seems very clear to me that speculators are grossly favoring abstract painting over other types of contemporary art for other, less idealistic reasons. We owe it to our collective legacy to sort out why and, while still supporting and indeed celebrating the great artists creating great abstraction today, correct this imbalance.

The difference between them is the price point of forgiveness, as it were - the prices at which works of art trade for such sums that the attendant concerns relate to a small cadre of rich buyers. For Steven it's the Hirst-Koons point, and for Ed it's the Christopher Wool point. On the contrary, I think these concerns apply all the way up.

The healthiest thing that could happen right now would be for the collectors to start to want to differentiate themselves from one another. That might happen naturally if they became more numerous, or if the people with more independently minded collections won more acclaim for them. How to engineer that I have no idea, but I do have a hypothesis that all works at the mid-five-digit level and up are sold in the same way, through the advocacy of a tiny handful of influential collectors. Oscar Murillo, cited by both dealers, had a long-term residency at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, and they produced a monograph for him. These are the same people who put Hernan Bas in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (and produced a monograph for him) at the same time as his exhibition at Lehman Maupin in 2009. As I already said to Ed, my cat could be passed off as a major emerging artist with that kind of advocacy.

I may be singling out the Rubells here, but I assume that this is how the art world operates in general past the mid-five-digits. Wool came up for sale at Christie's at the same time that his Guggenheim retrospective opened in October. The Koons exhibition at the Whitney Museum this summer will trail his simultaneous shows at Gagosian and Zwirner by twelve months. Consequently I use the word "engineer" deliberately. The narrowing gap between art and financial instruments makes the art in question less like commodities, and more like the sort of multi-tranche derivatives that you can't put together unless you're a Too Big Too Fail bank and have connections to the Federal Reserve and the Fannie Mae Corporation. This is what's threatening our cultural legacy, and what we have to marshal our resources against if we want to see any meaningful improvement in how the art world is run.

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