What lessons does the art market hold for the young artist?

“Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on.”–William Blake

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”–Samuel Johnson

MY ART EDUCATION was bookended by two discussions of art and money. It’s impossible not to retrospectively arrange my schooling like that: two stern reminders of the reality that awaited me upon graduation. The first was an essay, titled prosaically “Art and Money,” the final entry in a collection by Robert Hughes called Nothing If Not Critical (1990), given to me by my father when I started my undergraduate degree. The second was a glitzy Taschen tome entitled Collecting Contemporary (2006), a gift from my boyfriend just after I finished my NFA.

Hughes’ essay, presented originally as a public lecture, is an attempt to make sober sense of the art-speculation boom of the mid-80s. As a historical reference, it is ideal: clear-headed, pragmatic, deliberate. As a bit of financial reportage, however, it appears quaint: a dated document about wealth, desire, prestige and the public appetite for spectacle. He cites a public-expenditure scandal in the 70s: the Australian government’s purchase of a Jackson Pollock for $2 million. Hughes first gave his lecture in 1984, and even then that price seemed reasonable, if not low. Now, of course, it’s the steal of a bygone century. A further, more telling example: Hughes quotes mounting auction prices, warning, “Dealers tell us that the day of the $10 million painting is at hand” By the time the lecture was printed in book form, it was 1990, and Hughes was forced to reckon with the fact that this “absurd” price had been surpassed multiple times over the span of five–years, by living artists to boot.

I wonder if Hughes has taken a look at the results of any recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art questions, where those 1990 prices have been further surpassed–now outstripped by emerging and mid-career artists. This is the new trend in art-collecting: young contemporary art. The reasons for it are numerous, ranging from the simple–young collectors have a greater affinity for artists their own age; to the obvious–works by dead artists, to say nothing of long-dead artists, have all been bought up by or donated to large museums; to the more complex–new trends in art-exhibiting (the art-fair phenomenon) enable gallerists to show new work by young artists to a greater number of people, thereby establishing wider, more international markets at a speed that would be unthinkable were they limited to gallery traffic; to the crass–buying a young artist means you can get in cheap on the ground floor, and, if you’re lucky, you can watch your artist’s reputation grow, and then make a tidy sum by selling your purchase at auction two years later for 10 times the original price.

Whatever the reason, the auction house is where fortunes are made, and bigger fortunes are spent; Christie’s First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art and Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sales are big events, on par with Art Basel or Dolphin Gallery. Now, I have never thought that money was a pollutant of art (if anything, I’d like more money so I could devote myself to making more art). Still, perusing the sale prices from these auctions does funny things to one’s perception of the works themselves (and therefore the artists). Sure, Elizabeth Peyton sold for a respectable $384,000, but that looks a little shabby next to Glenn Brown’s $734,000, which in turn seems inadequate when compared with Cecily Brown’s $1.1 million sale. And even that looks paltry alongside the recent sale of a number of works by Jeff Koons for over $20 million each.

In the midst of this trend and its cascades of spent wealth is my post-MFA present: Collecting Contemporary, a strange little tome written by Adam Lindemann and published by Taschen. It is the most perplexing object I have ever come across, and, in its blissful lack of self-awareness, surely the most concise artefact of the art market at the beginning of the 21st century.

I should be more specific: only half of the book is innocently oblivious–the content half; the design and presentation half of the book is steeped in irony. The cover image is a detail of Richard Phillips’ painting $ (2004), in which a topless seductress with jet-black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes gazes at us languidly, a giant image of a dollar bill projected across her chest and face. Atop this, the words COLLECTING CONTEMPORARY are embossed in glistening, variegated tones of ruby red. Hidden within these pages, declares this mammoth knowing wink of a cover, is treasure: a world of high art, high money and high glamour.

The book is laid out in easy-to-digest sections, each one consisting of interviews with various art-world figures, or, in Collecting Contemporary parlance, “art market players”: The Artist, The Art Critic, The Art Dealer, The Art Consultant, The Collector, The Auction House Expert and The Museum Professional. Unsurprisingly, given the book’s subject, the largest sections are reserved for the dealer, the consultant and the collector. “The Artist” is the shortest section of the book, weighing in at a scant two pages, but, despite the fact that not one artist is interviewed, it is ultimately its most truthful section for it declares the essential paradox at the core of this art-and-money issue: artists are simultaneously the most important and the most superfluous element of the art market. Yes, they create the fetish objects that set this gyroscope a-spinning, but that’s where their contribution stops. Just as a cow has nothing to do with selling hamburgers, the artist doesn’t set prices, doesn’t directly determine his or her own popularity and only controls the span and availability of his or her own market by dying. Lindemann puts it plainly and succinctly: “The artist must have faith in order to continue to develop his or her personal vision, but you don’t, and neither does the art market.”

Before reading this book, I had never quite understood why the phrase nouveau riche was such a declasse designation. Collecting Contemporary has edified me, for that is precisely its audience. You can tell by the questions posed to the interviewees and by the advice dispensed that this is an audience that must be taught how to want. They must be told that, if they want to know something about art, they should pick up a book or, even better, an art magazine. This is an audience that cannot grasp on its own that, should they want to become interested in art, they should visit galleries or attend art openings, but who need their vast expenditures justified by quasi-religious verbiage about an artwork’s enduring, intangible glamour. The tenor of the book suggests an audience that has fallen ass-backwards into a giant vat of cash, and can’t spend it fast enough. As a corrective, Lindemann suggests the wonderful world of art-collecting, where, if they’re savvy enough, new collectors can not only revel in the reflected glory of their purchases but also achieve posterity as Taste Makers.

Among its many pleasures, Collecting Contemporary manages to up-end some of the more tacit conventions of the art book. First of all, it repurposes the reproduction. Usually, reproductions are meant as illustrations of the topic at hand. Here, reproductions serve a dual purpose: they are at once an illustration of ownership and an incitement to buy. No individual work is discussed or dissected; these works appear in the book because someone owns them.

Secondly, in its undeclared insistence on the art-market-as-centre-of-the-art-universe, the book introduced to me a new jargon term: the art-market star. This refers to what the rest of us call simply art stars. John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons (based on the frequency of his reproductions, surely the best-loved figure in the book): they are no longer art stars, they are art-market stars. I find this so crass, and yet so gloriously right, as the coinage speaks to an essential factor in the success of these artists: their headline-making prices at auction. It also speaks to an irreducible fact of their continued notoriety: critical appreciation doesn’t keep their careers afloat, financial speculation does. Sure, mid-career surveys at major museums help, too, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a trustee or a benefactor or a board member whose investment needs protecting.

Of course, this is reductive cynicism, which is just as dangerous as Lindemann’s gleefully ravenous consumerism. I have to admit, though, that it becomes increasingly hard to hold on to one’s idealism amidst all this talk of primary and secondary markets (in non-art-market-speak, the gallery and the auction house, respectively), investments and returns. Even the cast of Collecting Contemporary has difficulty regulating their own schizophrenia; every time they get too excited by their mercantile chatter, the mantra must quickly be repeated: art is holy, unquantifiably significant. The only people for whom this is not the case are the Museum Professionals, largely because they curate rather than collect art. And so they breathe a bit of fresh air into the proceedings in their obliviousness to market intrigue, and their unique and seemingly genuine belief in an innate (non-financial) value of art.

Perhaps the moral of this book, and, in fact, the moral of the art market in general, is to be found in the two pages devoted to The Artist. q-he market’s lack of “faith” in the artist’s “personal vision” applies equally in reverse: the artist and, in turn, the larger public do not need to have faith in the market. Its spectacles of untrammelled spending may inspire fun gossip, but these are essentially private purchases, private shopping sprees, and are the reflection not of an artist’s importance or cultural value, but of the collector’s need to own. And if there’s one thing that posterity teaches, it’s that markets swell and burst, but artists, who pace Lindemann, need only have faith in themselves, and go about their business regardless.

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