Pointless punditry (why critics don’t matter, ch. 35)

Portrait_of_the_Art_Critic_Vladimir_Stasov__by_Ilya_Repin__1883.JPGFor this post, I was going to write about the Whitney Biennial. I was planning to coin the phrase “Unfinish Fetish” to describe the prevalence of inexpensive and coarse materials in the show. Alternatively, I might have written about the surprisingly solid auction sales of recent weeks. Or I might have devoted an article to the excitement of the ADAA fair and its ebullient opening in New York.

But none of this would have mattered much, because, you see, pundits don’t matter much. That was an insight I gained last weekend at a conference organized by the Museé D’Art Contemporain de Montréal.

The Max and Iris Stern International Symposium on the State of the Contemporary Art Market coincided with the worst snowstorm in the city since 1971 (a pundit may have observed the symbolism of this fact). A highlight of the event was a presentation by Michael Moses, the economics professor of Mei-Moses index fame. The talk included fresh figures from 2007, according to which art solidly outperformed stocks last year. The Mei-Moses jumped just over 20 percent, against a 5.5 percent uptick in the S&P 500. (The real money was in gold, which shot up 31 percent.) No surprise, but 2007 was the first year since the inception of the index that fine art values measurably outperformed real estate.

But the statistics that raised the most eyebrows had to do with “citations.” Does a mention by a critic or a selection by a museum curator make a difference in the sale price of an artwork at auction? No. “Art critics and museums are basically meaningless.”

Well, almost meaningless. Only when there had been at least 11 citations by critics or selections by curators (as noted in the auction catalog) did citations make a dent on prices. Of 12,000 works analyzed by Professors Mei and Moses, that could only be said about 185 objects. Even then, the impact was a paltry half-percent.

The findings raise interesting questions when it comes to journalistic accusations of “collusion” by “interested parties” who loan artworks to museums to get them talked about by critics. This may matter for contemporary art, which does indeed get a bump from museum exposure and critical validation, as the creators of the works at the Whitney Biennial, finished or not, will soon find out. But in most cases, where artists already present at auction are concerned, the data do not confirm the conventional wisdom that citations matter.

Last point: If you can make it to Montréal, don’t miss “Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today” at the Museé des Beaux-Arts. It may be the best exhibition you see this year, and it won’t be coming to the U.S.

11 thoughts on “Pointless punditry (why critics don’t matter, ch. 35)”

  1. I have been thinking about something related to this lately; how the speed of communication and information today kills the potential of some of the most interesting artworks and artists. I have followed the general art thing for a short 10 years by now, and that’s nothing, but I realize how my favorite early pieces – from the 90’s – are “forgotten”, how they might have been universally well-received then, and how the works seemed so important, but now it’s all history, there’s a new, even better, Unilever sponsored installation at Tate Modern every 6 months and smash-hit superstar artist shows touring the world. Somehow art seems much more than ever to be about the sensational and spectacular, and if not, it’s about the artists’ face and the fashion. And I still have to say that some of the Unilever sponsored pieces at Tate Modern are some of the best works ever, from Eliasson to Nauman to Doris Salcedo. But I guess I am being all wrong, but all nostalgic – for a time that I don’t know – about how things must have been when Rauschenberg and Stella and Judd all changed the way we see art and talk about art, and eventually the art world and all that. So my point, or my personal thought rather, is how the internet and all the blogs and all the news sites and eventually the general press and finally the specialized art press, simply overloads on everything and any kind of serious deep discussion about the details and the implications of some artworks gets bogged down, or simply escapes us all. It could be one reason why art criticism doesn’t matter. But still I would not really want to go back…

  2. I agree with Jan: what’s here today can be gone tomorrow. Having just trawled some 20-year old back issues of London’s Time Out magazine for notable reviews by my predecessor, the critic Sarah Kent, I’ve noticed that not only do very few names of ‘contemporary’ artists of the time ring any bells, but most of the galleries have gone or changed, multiplied or died.

    Without flux in the art-making world, there’d be nothing much to write about or sell for that matter, so pace is good. But if all anyone cares about is recession-proofing their investment, then why not do away with the galleries as well as the critics and the museums? After all, if viewing or debating can’t guarantee the required 12 percentage-point price hike, then maybe art should be for buyer’s eyes alone.

    The idea that commentary makes no difference to the art world is just as ridiculous as this notion of art without the beholder, because the work that gets written about is often the same stuff that’s being talked about or thought about. It’s discussion (initiated by the artists of course) that makes the art world go round, not money.

  3. Interesting post from András. And funny that Jan should bring up Serra. Reading Serra’s own writing again recently, and David Smith’s too, for that matter, (why do so few artists write these days?) one can’t help lamenting the passing of a time before the market came to dominate everything. Both Smith and Serra were highly articulate (indeed poetic) about their work, and could not have been more withering about the market, whereas today every other artist seems in thrall to the market (all too often, in my opinion, at the expense of the quality of originality of the work). I’ve never been one for Golden Ages, but really the current myopic obsession with prices does make one pine for a time when artists made things because they were artists rather than because they wanted to be rich. As for art criticism, as long as it is existentially related to ‘upticks’ in auction prices there will be no criticism of any value (which may partly explain why intelligent, well-informed art criticism has died altogether in the UK). As for the dismal Mei-Moses Index, pass the shotgun…

  4. I remember the optimism induced in my friends in the financial world when Vincent’s Irises was sold for about 54 million dollars to Alan Bond, the Australian yachtsman, in 1987. At the time, that was by far the highest price that a painting had brought down at auction. The optimism was due to the feeling that despite the dismal state of the world’s stock markets, things could not really be so dismal if a work of art could bring such a sum. It little mattered that Bond was unable to raise the needed cash, and the painting had to be resold.

    One cannot but wonder what impact the current financial crisis will have on the art market. It is difficult to imagine that the reverse effect of the art market helping stabilize stocks and real estate. For one thing, the kind of astonishment elicited by the Irises can never happen again. If, in the face of everything else, on the other hand, the art market goes from strength to strength, like the price of gasoline, we shall have to reflect deeply on why it should be so robust a commodity. Maybe the critics can give us a hand with that, if not the metaphysicians.

  5. To Arthur’s point, economists attribute the strength of the art market to the same causes that spur higher gasoline prices: naturally limited inventory and escalating consumption. In other words, the interplay of supply and demand.

    The question of inventory is straightforward: There really are only so many Picassos or Warhols or Basquiats, or even pictures by living artists available for purchase at a given time. Assuming that collectors want to buy, therefore, art would be expected to remain a robust commodity.

    Where we could use some insights from critics as well as metaphysicians is in the area of taste and cultural fashion. Under what circumstances — beyond emerging constraints on spending imposed by diminished wealth or income flows — would collectors choose not to pursue art purchases anymore? If they so choose to suspend their buying, will any kind of critical consensus still be there, and still be compelling enough, to serve as a kind of cushion to prop up the existing value hierarchies?

  6. Stock brokers say it doesn’t matter which investment strategy you choose with regard to capitalization, exposure to risk and other variables. As long as you maintain a diversified portfolio and “stay the course”, you will realize a very similar return (within a couple of percentage points) over the “long term”, after 25 or 30 years. The key is to be comfortable with your strategy, to keep your money in the market, not to be disenchanted or scared away. With stocks and similar statistical valuations, time is the great leveler of short term volatility and emotionality.

    But “long term” is a difficult sell in the art world, where memory is fleeting and fashions ephemeral. Casual critics can label the current version of the Whitney Biennial the “worst ever”, handily forgetting the one they viewed eight or ten years earlier, which at the time they judged the absolute pits. Conversely, artists chosen for a particular Biennial tend to magnify its significance for their careers, despite full knowledge of other artists in previous editions who have since seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.

    Perhaps punditry and “citation” are not meant to indicate long term market considerations, and we should not look for their meaning in that particular arena. Perhaps, as Ossian notes, they function better on the level of connoisseurship and communication, in the fomentation of dialog and community within the contemporary precincts of the art world. Does an embrace of its immediate significance, and the admission of its negligible contribution to the long term marketplace, make punditry any less valuable?

  7. From Catherine Spaeth

    As someone who is really more interested in contemporary art, I identify strongly with Jan Christensen’s post about an increasing sensationalism and a lack of critical understanding amidst all the hype. But I would like to add that apart from academia, the blog can be a space for critical judgment that is not distorted by commercial interests. And that there is in the blog a freedom for writers to contribute to scholarship and discourse in a manner that is not so readily available in glossy magazines. What I enjoy about the blog is an open exchange, the responsibility to hone in on ideas with clarity for a public audience, but also the almost diaristic self-critical speed in which my criteria of judgment becomes increasingly articulate. This speed and its feedback are beneficial to the nurturing of ideas, in a way that is at odds with the usual scholarly withdrawal from what might be considered “thinking aloud,” and that no magazine, with its six month delay, can really offer.

    I would further add that the blog has become a way for artists to publish what they write, about the work of others as well as their own, and there are some good ones out there and more on the horizon. Gallerists and collectors are also writing on blogs, that is, people who devote much if not all of their time to thinking about and looking at art. Much of what you read is going to be hype, certainly, but I do think that in the field of contemporary art engaging with criticism has become necessary, despite all the appeals for its end.

    It may be sad but fair that local newspapers will no longer carry art criticism – the real challenge will be providing a way in which serious criticism can be ethically supported from within the community that is, in fact, quite obsessed by it. Like painting in the ’80s, art criticism is both manic and melancholy, and in the pages of Artforum, the snarkiness of the blog has shown its teeth. Appearing like a bad symptom, we certainly know that it’s here.

  8. Let me throw in a different perspective from my window into the contemporary art world (representing and curating art from around the Indian ocean). I can observe the signs of a reverse causality where Euro-American critical and institutional interest in art from India (and to some extent Pakistan and the so-called ‘Islamic world’) is driven by its market success.

    With the auction houses aggressively expanding their geographic reach, and accepting material (quite literally) fresh out of school in order to pad out their auction offerings, critical acclaim is no longer a leading but a lagging indicator.

  9. I’m sorry, but the obvious 800-lb gorilla in this room demands to be heard: Is the only measure of whether criticism matters whether or not it increases the commercial value of the work it discusses?

    I say this as someone whose business depends on the market remaining strong, as someone whose past four gallery exhibitions got rave reviews but coincided with turbulence in the stock market leading to relatively fewer sales, but as someone who wouldn’t have traded in one of those reviews for more sales. We’re building life-long careers, in which this current obsession with commerce will be but a blip. The critical response to the work, on the other hand, impacts what the artists do next in their studio (in other words, what direction art history turns).

  10. Point well taken Ed. It’s essentially what I said in my earlier post on this thread: that punditry (or criticism, or “citation”) finds its immediate value “on the level of connoisseurship and communication, in the fomentation of dialog and community within the contemporary precincts of the art world.”

    You put it more eloquently and succinctly. The “current obsession with commerce” is certainly not “the only measure of whether criticism matters”. That criticism is faulted for not contributing to the eventual long term value of the artwork is one more indication of how market considerations have come to dominate the discourse.

  11. I dont think any of us are suggesting that the most expensive product is the ‘best’ product. It is simply the most expensive.

    To carry on with the corporate analogy, perhaps we need a ‘balanced scorecard’ that looks at not just prices, sales and auction catalogues, but also art history books for longevity and impact, contemporary art journals for art world acclaim and the popular press and attendance for ability to reach beyond the narrow, self-selecting art-world.

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