Percent for Art

February 8th, 2013

A highlight of this week’s art chatter is a Village Voice piece by Christian Viveros-Faune and Will Bourne.  Called How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art, it’s a fast-paced summary of art market scrutiny and it inquires about ways speculative capital drowns artistic innovation. Do big money and commodification corrupt, restrict, banish, and kill creativity? “The horror is what happens to the art world when a second-rate drawing like The Scream…sells for $120 million, what takes place when that ballyhooed transaction, and the piece’s subsequent exhibition at MOMA, trickles down into the studios and minds of young, emerging, and even established artists.”

From a position of humility – “I don’t really know how those kinds of prices would affect an artist who is not, as it were, market friendly” – Irving Sandler proposes that artists create communities and “anti-market polemics.” From a position of hardened skepticism, Robert Storr rejects the possibility of market-countering, artist-led communities. “There was the Lower East Side in the 1980s, Williamsburg in the ’90s, Bushwick now—but those aren’t examples of bohemia proper so much as periods of adolescence lived through by successive artistic cohorts.”  Ouch.

Storr heralds middle-market galleries as vital forces, but their viability could be a motivation for this article, anyway, so we’re past that. (And Viveros-Faune used to run a gallery for emerging artists.)

So instead of anti-market polemics, why not anti-market aesthetics? After all, aesthetics perform, while polemics merely persuade. One problem described in the article is recurrence of certain material qualities of the art sought by the super-rich. “There is so much work out there today that is a literal mirror of the values of the super-rich,” says William Powhida, who offers a mini-index of these value mirrors. “Reflective surfaces…vogue in abstraction…slick-surfaced, object-based works that seem expressly made to sell and never offend.”

$33,682,500 Jeff Koons sculpture at Wynn Las Vegas

It’s unfair and it sounds bitter to make sweeping assumptions about the values of the super-rich, because people become super-rich by various means and dispense their wealth in various ways, including philanthropic largesse.  And who hasn’t paused or even instagrammed a selfie in front of an Anish Kapoor?  But in this context, Powhida is specifically referring to the oligarchs who have acquired billions of dollars despite crushing people around them.  Andrea Fraser offered a list already.  And Powhida is pinpointing one particular value: self-admiring, narcissistic, vanity.  Some hedge fund (or commodities titans) just want a mirrored surface in front of which to flex their muscles. Or abstract canvases that don’t interfere.  (Just imagine how a Sue Coe on your wall could ruin your RNC fundraiser banquet!)

The new Beast Jesus! Now legendary painting of and by George W. Bush

Glossy, polished, monochromes are the golden ticket to sweep an earnest artist into the market forum.  So couldn’t a counter-market artist try an aesthetic opposed to this?  Grainy, moldy, illustrative vignettes?  Cracked, brittle, crumble-forms?  Possibly, and I guess we’ll see.  But greater strategies must be available.  Robert Storr talks about “volition” in the article, and Andrea Fraser, in the text cited above, proposes that artists withdraw their cultural capital from markets.  (Curiously, Powhida’s portrait of mirror maker Jacob Kassay isn’t Kassay at all, because Powhida’s reference photo is a surrogate from a profile for Forbes; Kassay’s body-double trickery seems like a legit, if mild, market-withdrawing tactic.  Then again, Kassay just joined 303 Gallery.)

But “volition” sounds idealistic, because forming communities (a la Sandler) or strengthening middle-market galleries (via Storr) or coalescing into fully institutionalized structures (from Fraser) all require products of the same capitalism that consolidates art (and wealth) upward, sort of how Milton Friedman explained how leftists can print pamphlets only in a free society that allows them to buy as much paper as they want. Meanwhile, chandelier bidding and borderline price-fixing (or the actual criminal version) at auction houses contradicts Tobias Meyer’s edict about the art market being so smart. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, merely another link in the chain of consequences following the profits-over-people status quo. Just like local foreclosures, just like climate change, and just like our dysfunctional Congress. People don’t starve because a billionaire buys a lousy Richter painting. People starve because there are billionaires at all. The inequities of the art market have real consequences, but they are consequences themselves, and just a rarefied sliver, of the global blight around us!

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