Art about boom is a bust

Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005$72.8 million for a Rothko? $71.7 million for a Warhol? More than $870 million spent on contemporary art in a single week? What does it all mean?

I headed for answers to the conveniently timed “The Price of Everything” exhibition, just across from the Empire State Building at CUNY’s art gallery on Fifth Avenue. The subtitle of the show, on view through June 24 and organized by the Whitney Independent Study Program, is “Perspectives on the Art Market.” The exhibition promises to illuminate the logic of the commercial art world by “evaluating and examining the different economic structures that comprise today’s expanded art market.” The selected artists “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives.”

I was hungry for enlightenment. These days, aren’t we all trying to figure out how a piece of canvas with half a gallon of paint can metamorphose into an asset comparable in value to the lifetime earnings of two-dozen tenured art historians?

Here’s what I found. In a dimly lit, shrine-like room, covered in red fabric, works by four famous artists that had been donated by the Whitney Museum to corporations in recognition of their support of the arts. On a ledge circling the gallery below the ceiling, a visually arresting piece by Fia Backstrom consisting of pages from Artforum magazine (according to the catalog, the work “considers the economic basis of Artforum by drawing attention to its large volume of full-page advertisements.”) To the side, photos of the artist Marianne Heier documenting her donation of a check to a struggling alternative art gallery. (“The hidden economic infrastructure of the commercial art gallery is often rejected by many artist-run spaces.”)

Three TV sets in the rear were looping interviews with art dealers, although, sadly, these were somewhat overpowered by the roar of the security guard’s walkie-talkie. The center of the gallery space was occupied by giant road sign, a sculptural prop for Elmgreen & Dragset’s Prada Marfa piece from 2005, pointing 1837 miles to New York City. There were also token works by reliable old-timers: A Hans Haacke gilded snow shovel readymade, Louise Lawler’s picture of an exhibition featuring Koons and Halley, and correspondence pertaining to a Whitney exhibit by Robert Morris, titled Money, from the late sixties. (This piece, involving a loan to the museum that would generate profit while Morris’ work was on view, was certainly the sharpest in this show) Finally, a large drawing of a Cadillac Escalade, entitled $56,055 by its creator, Karl Haendel. The artist stipulated that the drawing would have to be offered for the price of the utility vehicle and subsequently its price would track the car’s Blue Book value.

Never mind that used cars lose value while the backdrop for this show is a historically unprecedented inflation in the art market. It was just another superficial and ultimately failed attempt to raise “skeptical awareness” and provide “possible alternatives.” I admit, though, drawing a killer Cadillac like that must be fun.

With artistic and curatorial responses like this, no wonder dealers and collectors are having their way with art. Contrasted with the turbocharged complexity of today’s artworld, the acuity of the insights offered in this show invite analogies to a face-off between a Stealth bomber and a baseball bat.

12 thoughts on “Art about boom is a bust”

  1. I had a great conversation with a well-respected artist about this topic over the weekend, and the conclusion we came to was that it was essentially unproductive to examine the market, as if it were somehow the cause rather the the result of what is bothering so many artists. The cause, we decided, is a fundamental shift in values. In a culture where spending disposable (or borrowed) money is a cherished pastime and where the message that you’re inadequate unless you own this or that product is ubiquitous (actually it’s worse than that, that message is bombarding you everywhere you go), the issue is the value of money, not the value of art. Money has replaced virtually every other standard for what’s considered “important.” Money has become everything. From corporate culture seeping into our home lives to the ability of Madison Avenue to co-opt even the most transgressive art, there’s little point in critiquing the market when it’s merely the symptom, not the disease.

  2. I agree with your premise, but not your conclusion. There’s no question that money — making it, consuming it, worshiping it — pervades our culture like never before, and the effects on the art world are, in a sense, only a sideshow. But I do not think artists should stay away from the subject. Art about the money culture — however narrowly or broadly applied — should be as germane to our lives as art about god used to be in a culture that revolved around religion. The art market, at a minimum, is a kind of petri dish in which to observe the dynamics of global money-worship. The obliqueness and low level of sophistication in addressing those issues means that artists are writing themselves out of the story (same goes for science, where artistic responses rarely rise above the level of Frankenstein movies). In a culture like the one you describe, what subject could be more relevant and profound than the genesis and manipulation of values? And where can you observe this game in a more pure form than in the art world? And so, especially when it comes to a curatorial effort that is specifically designed to get artists to address the marketplace, I believe we ought to be able to generate and communicate deeper insights.

  3. But could art about “the money culture” be any less hollow than the world it is trying to portray? What sort of society do we live in when the means of exchange becomes a more important focus than the target for which the currency is being acquired? Money of course means potential; the potential to acquire, the potential to reach a goal, the potential to do many things. But it appears now that the potential is valued more than any of the original goals to which the potential was to be applied. The culture has clearly lost its way.

    I am sorry, Andras, I would rather see Art that inspires the soul, spiritual or secular, than more nonsense about cars (the latest sculpture exhibition for young artists at Pearl Lam’s Contrasts gallery in Shanghai has this theme) or the art market (the CUNY show that started this all off).

  4. Continuing the ping-pong of opinion above, I’m going to side with Andras.

    Ian asks, “Could art about “the money culture” be any less hollow than the world it is trying to portray?…I would rather see Art that inspires the soul, spiritual or secular.” But I think inspiring the soul is only one of the functions of art. Another function – one that I find often far more interesting – is the degree to which artists often pick up much more quickly on inflection points and open wounds in our society and spotlight them (albeit in often lyrical or subtle ways). This is part of why like the work of Andrea Zittel so much – her recent artistic practice has been, essentially, to carve out a way of living based more on self-reliance and self-determination than on the money paradigm we’re lamenting. Alternately, Santiago Sierra has also done a lot of work that directly spotlights the nature of remuneration in the lives of the poor and stuck that fact in the faces of the artworld’s far wealthier denizens.

    Edward writes, “There’s little point in critiquing the market when it’s merely the symptom, not the disease.” Well, if the disease here is our culture’s pervasive materialism, I don’t see many artists attacking that either. In fact, a hell of a lot more of them are celebrating it. Today, the romantic notion of artists as some sort of loosely formed opposition force to mainstream culture often seems like it’s become more an epater-la-bourgeoisie marketing device for luxury goods than a reflection of reality.

    So I think it’s totally legitimate to hope that some artists will directly confront the pervasiveness of money, and the degree to which it has become (as Ian observes) not a means but an end. That said, our society’s relationship to money is by its nature an intellectually and emotionally complex issue, so any artist who hopes to face it head-on needs to do some rigorous thinking first, regardless of whether they’re targeting the art market or society at large. The sloppy reductive thinking that worked in art-school crits simply ain’t gonna cut in this arena.

  5. Thinking about this, I’m not sure that I’ve seen any institution tackle this subject in Mexico. Individual artists, maybe, but institutions have steered clear. And Sierra’s work, especially what’s shown of it here, tends to lean more to the side of social justice, dignity-as-an-economic-privelege, not so much the market-is-an-artworld-cancer side. There’s a reason why Sierra gleans his inspiration from Mexico– it’s one of the more money-polarized countries that’s squished between the developed and the developing world, one with a rich history of public art in the public sphere, which creates a whole load of interesting dynamics. Which, I’d think, would make it a multi-layered place to analyze this topic.

    I’m curious as to what perspectives the commentators living outside of the US or western Europe have seen…

  6. To sidestep the money culture would mean that art has nothing to say about what lies at the heart of our society. I’m not saying we need more art about cars. I believe that one reason why the money culture has pervaded so widely is because it meets no resistance from countervailing cultural forces. Artists are merely throwing sticks and stones at it, whereas it demands serious analytical tools and complex and powerful emotional scrutiny.

    Money, among other things, is a deeply spiritual and meaningful phenomenon. It is the ordering factor and common yardstick of our lives. One may not be comfortable with this, but that won’t make it go away, any more than gravity will disappear even though one might prefer weightlessness.

    My point is that the artistic response to this most fundamental force is by and large trivial, whereas it demands to be taken seriously. As a starting point, let me refer artists to this passage in my favorite book, Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (p. 128):

    “The philosophical significance of money is that it represents within the practical world the most certain image and the clearest embodiment of the formula of all being, acording to which things receive their meaning through each other, and have their meaning determined by their mutual relations … For money represents pure interaction in its purest form; it makes comprehensible the most abstract concept; it is an individual thing whose essential significance is to reach beyond individualities. Thus, money is the adequate expression of the relationship of man to the world, which can only be grasped in single concrete instances, yet only really conceived when the singular becomes the embodiment of the living mental process which interweaves all singularities and, in this fashion, creates reality.”

  7. My only experience with art world money comes from having only recently started working with my gallery in Guangzhou. Now, I don’t know the exact figures of their annual profits but I get the impression that they are not too bad considering they’re having a presence in Art Basel and Frieze this year.

    If you met the people who run the gallery, you just wouldn’t believe how humble they are about it and how little they think about money as a trophy. I mean, seriously, comparing to the dressing standards and lifestyles of every other gallerist in China (designer suits, Jaguars in carpark, the whole shambang…), these guys dress and live like they’re more the owners of a comic book shop in San Francisco.

    The thing is : there is clear evidence that they are channeling a great deal of that money into producing good exhibitions and catalogues with a high level of editorial content with the artists. They have a team of assistants within the gallery who are constantly scanning magazines, books and researching about contemporary art. The artists would drop by and the gallerists would make interviews with them about their new work. The assistants would then transcribe the interviews and archive them. And in turn, I think this attitude permeates how the artists in the gallery approach the issue of money and their work.

    Amidst the whole boom of the Chinese art market, these guys are amazingly zen about it, and their fundamental focus on art and artists itself is what’s really incredible. If anyone would be swayed by the flood of money, I can imagine it would be them at this point of time.

    Like what András mentioned in the previous comment, I believe money is an enabling factor in the production of content and meaning, and we need more galleries, artist-run spaces, museums and artists to approach money as such, not to dwell on the process of just accumulating it or flaunting it.

    P.S. Incidentally, I used to work in the artist-run space that Marianne Heier gave the 5,000 euro check to. I found the project so patronizing and humiliating that I quit. Bleah.

  8. Please correct me, but are we are discussing the validity of a certain topic for art? I am skeptical to that kind of generalization because such an attitude can easily be applied to any kind of theme for a show. One should always discuss the works in the specific show and the quality of these works. Ultimately, one concludes with the way the works affect the whole show and reflect the curators’ intention. If there are aspects of such a theme that are not covered or not discussed in the show, such as work that would be relevant to many of your arguments here, then that would be real flaws that should be underlined. But I just feel that the discussion regarding certain aspects of the theme is easily confused with another discussion which should be a more detailed examination of the actual works in this specific show, and their relationships within such a broad context as the art world and the excesses of our economy. My point is that any topic is valid for a art, but that the discussion must be about the stature of the work.

  9. I don’t think I explained the conversation very well:

    To sidestep the money culture would mean that art has nothing to say about what lies at the heart of our society

    I didn’t mean to imply artists should sidestep money culture, per se, just the art market (or any other specific market). What we (the artist mentioned above and me) concluded after going rounds and rounds on the issue was that the market reflects the values of the culture, not the other way around. Looking at the art market would reveal only as much as looking at the car market or TV or soda market with regards to why commercialization has infiltrated so deeply into our value system. And, done well, I guess any of those could reveal important insights. But, as with the art that explores science, exploring the art market well benefits greatly from more than a bit of expert knowledge, IMO, something few artists have, I’d venture. Hell, it’s something few dealers, curators, collectors or museums have either…hence all the debate on what’s really going on at the auctions, etc.

  10. I don’t mean to question the validity of a certain subject. I agree that any topic is valid.

    My point is that too many artists are discussing the art market as if it were the source of the current frustration, rather than merely a result of the real source: money culture. Discussing the art market, per se, won’t reveal any greater truth, to my mind, than exploring the diamond market or music industry market, etc. We have the current art market because of the cultural values. If the market is to change, the values must change first. Just berating the market (without expertise, I should clarify), as I noted, is counter-productive.

    Or at least that’s what seems most logical to me.

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