Category Archives: Ethics

What would you do with $250 million?

Card PlayersAccording to ArtWorld Salon contributor Alexandra Peers, in an article for Vanity Fair online, the Royal Family of Qatar has celebrated a decade of high profile Art buying by spending that amount on the last of Cezanne’s Card Players.  (The painting was purchased from the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.)  That is quite a number, and a new record for the highest price paid for a single work of Art.  You could pay for the entire budget of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for almost two years with that sum.

And what else?  I started to wonder.  Here is my quick list.  In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-

1 Cezanne
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interesting, no?   So let me ask you again.   What would you do with $250 million?

On seeing a performance of exploitation…

augustsanderMaking its way across the web as I write is a story about the exploitation of performers at the hands of Marina Abramović.  ARTINFO is running the best recap of the story, and Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic has picked it up and carried it as well, but here’s a brief:

Abramović was tapped by LA MOCA to produce a performance work for the Museum’s annual gala.  The outcome?  Each table at the gala comes with a performer getting paid $150 to sit under it on a slowly-rotating lazy-susan with his or her head protruding up through the table’s center, which carries the promise of intermittent and likely uncomfortable eye contact throughout the evening.  One human-centerpiece-to-be was none too happy about such future prospects and sent a missive to Yvonne Rainer, presumably because Rainer’s position in the artworld is unassailable, her politics predictable, and her network far reaching.  Rainer in turn decried the spectacle in a letter to Jeffrey Deitch, which was published on the web as co-signed by Douglas Crimp, Taisha Paggett and, according to ARTINFO, Tom Knechtel and Monica Majoli.

In response to Rainer, Abramović told ARTINFO, “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere [of the gala], that’s my main purpose.”  And in a comment to the LA Times, Jeffrey Deitch said, “I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.”  To make good on that, Deitch invited Rainer to a rehearsal of the piece.

Continue reading

The season of our disconnect

bigstockphoto_ear_2677195I got back from Art Basel this weekend on a plane full of artworld types, with fresh impressions for my interesting disconnects file.

First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town.

Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

The third contrast arrived by way of the 430-page summer issue of Artforum. The tome was not in my mailbox, which proved too small, but on my doorstep. It was shrink-wrapped with the current issue of Bookforum, which includes a review of a new book on the “internship economy,” by Ross Perlin. Titled Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, the study documents the stunning and roundly depressing rise of unpaid labor in our creative industries. One can see why Bookforum reviewed it. The art world, it seems, can fill a glossy with almost as many ad pages as the September issue of Vogue. Yet how many of those ads were placed by young folks working for a pittance, or pro bono, just to get a shot at a job? Continue reading

“Russia takes the lead in regulating…”

100 Rubles c1910That heading would be funny in any context but here the article in Skate’s is referring to an apparent push to regulate “Art securitization” and Art Investments in Russia.   We have for some time, on ArtWorld Salon, commented on the relative lack of oversight of the opaque and enthusiastically “managed” system that is the Art Market.   The private dealing, auction pumping, ability to cellar works that aren’t selling, and lack of any form of reliable pricing register, all make the Art market a challenging environment for anyone thinking of buying that painting on the wall as a possible investment.   For that reason, and because I am old fashioned, I would always encourage every buyer to think of the work as something they could love for a long time, rather than a way of trying to hedge the currently volatile stock markets, or that condo in Vail.

So it is rather amusing to think that Russia might try to regulate Art funds without tackling the underlying market; never mind the difficulties they will have actually enforcing such regulation in a reasonable and effective manner.   But then I read beyond the title.   Apparently a “powerful local asset management firm controlled by Putin loyalists” launched 2 Art funds on August 27; so now this new regulation starts to look like something else.   Am I the only one that thinks this looks like a way to help market the Funds? The illusion of oversight to support the notion that these are investment grade propositions?   Or am I being too cynical here?

As I have said previously on ArtWorld Salon, to get real transparency into the Art Market, and create a basis for any genuine oversight of market practices, we need a price register for each and every work of Art that someone tries to promote as “investment grade”; with NO exceptions and NO omissions.  Continue reading

Blumen for Peter Noever

Flowers

As South Korea and the world tries to sort the best response to the latest provocations from North Korea, an exhibition of contemporary ‘official’ art of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) opened at the MAK (the Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, with a rather dodgy title. “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” was launched despite opposition and questions about the nature of the museum’s collaboration with the Pyongyang regime.

By admission of MAK director Peter Noever in a number of interviews, the work is presented without any critical context.

Perhaps there is no other art in North Korea, as it seems the MAK believes. While that may be true, it is hard to imagine that much first hand research went into that position being taken. Perhaps the director’s trip to the DPRK was not so unlike this one taken by Vice correspondents:

http://www.vbs.tv/watch/the-vice-guide-to-travel/vice-guide-to-north-korea-1-of-3

Watch all three episodes. But perhaps it is another experience for a European museum director.

Surely there is a difference between exhibiting a display of historical propaganda versus a contemporary, active one constructed through forced labor and dictated entirely by one family’s aesthetic viewpoint, if you can even call it that.

The MAK makes a case that this show fits in a tradition of previous exhibitions centering about specific political systems, and yet the defense of this show is that it is about aesthetics, not politics, and about seeing the visual production of an ‘other.’ It is hard to imagine that this will open doors for us to see anything except what the current regime wants us to see. Continue reading

Money for nothing

For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, NSFS logoTate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.

This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’

In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain. Continue reading

Museums and salaries

humanpyramid-1The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.

The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.

Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.

The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?

Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?

Win, place, sell

blacklist_3Randy Kennedy has finally brought the Craig Robins v. David Zwirner legal spat to the pages of the great Grey Lady; so, now would seem to be as good a time as any to open up this issue for debate.  That issue, as laid out by Kennedy, turns on the presumptive practice of art-world “blacklisting,” whereby collectors are kept from purchasing works by artists they covet because the dealers or artists fear that those same works will soon find their way to the auction block.  In this case, Robins sold a work by Marlene Dumas, and allegedly did so a bit too early for the artist’s taste, which is why, according to Robins, he was blocked from buying new pieces from Dumas’ recent show at Zwirner’s.

You see, the art world doesn’t like speculators.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  The art world doesn’t like anyone else speculating on what it’s already speculating on.  And it’s this attitude, largely hypocritical in character, which has likely brought Zwirner’s lawyers to characterize Robins as a petulant child who is being told he can’t have the big red and white lollipop in the gallery window.  Or rather,

“By bringing suit,” the gallery’s lawyers argue, “the wealthy Robins has literally made a federal case of not being able to buy what he wants, when he wants.”

Kennedy goes on to offer some choice quotes from Allan Schwartzman and Jeffrey Deitch about dealing with speculators and the difficulties of “placing” works of art with the right “serious” collectors (as opposed to those who will flip the work to make a quick buck) or simply selling them to some schlub just in off the street with a briefcase full of cash.  But then to “place” a work is a form of speculation in and of itself, no?  After all, even if that schlub loves the work so much as to never even entertain the possibility of selling it, “Some Schlub'” under the “Collections” column on the artist’s CV doesn’t exactly send prices soaring.  We call this the problem (and power) of “access.”

To my mind, though, the “blacklist” issue misses the point (and perhaps purposely so, if Zwirner’s lawyers are trying to deflect attention). Continue reading

Political nostalgia

spero-001Catherine Spaeth on Nancy Spero and political art:

Nancy Spero’s death the Sunday before last invites reflection upon what it means for an artist to be politically engaged at this time. Today the New York artworld appears to be more at home with the post-feminism of Lisa Yuskavage, Marylin Minter and Vanessa Beecroft. It may well be that, above all, it is Nancy Spero’s importance in the history of political engagement and feminism for which she will be remembered.

Her dismembered and spewing “female bombs” were a personal and unflinching personal protest of war. Before self-identified feminism in art, these images laid the ground for that feminism. In 1976, upon seeing her relentlessly descriptive series Torture of Women, Donald Kuspit wrote that Spero was “haunted by the death of women.”

I was too young to have seen Spero in an exhibition context at this time, but by the time I was able to she had become a legend. My strongest experience of her work was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Nancy Spero’s piece, Homage to Ana Mendieta, was a simple gesture – the stain of hands smearing blood upon the wall – but huge in largesse. Ana Mendieta “fell out of her window” in 1985 after a fight with her husband the artist Carl Andre. The artworld was divided over the outcome – Andre stood accused, but it could never be proven. Homage to Ana Mendieta was mournful, defiant and accusatory, the Whitney lent its walls to a political statement that would not leave those walls out of the picture. Spero’s homage was a message from and about a political situation, and inside of this situation it was as though other feminist gestures were taken up by these hands as well, appearing small in the force of its message. Continue reading

Does who owns art change it?

imagesA couple of weeks ago Tyler Green posted an interesting interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips about her institution’s decision to put on shows drawn solely from various high profile collections (Dakis Joannou, New Museum trustee, will be the first beneficiary of the new curatorial program).  I’m happy to debate the merits of such a program (I see the conflicts, but I also see the value too), but what caught my interest was this loaded question of Green’s:

Do you worry that your decision could reinforce the notion that art is a luxury owned by the privileged few rather than a means through which artists engage communities and nations and societies in a broader discourse?

My response in reading this was: “Why can’t it be both?”  That much art–and much of what we recognize as the best and most important art–has always been a luxury good is of course no defense for why it should or will always be so, but it seems to me that the opposition that Green puts into play here is a false one.  I don’t see how a “luxury,” which I take simply to mean a good or service that comes with a high price tag, is inherently incapable of engaging with “communities and nations and societies.”  Who “owns” this luxury, especially if that luxury is work of art, should have little to do with whether the work is engaged in a “broader discourse.”  This leads me to a series of questions: Continue reading

Exhibit or mirage?

We interrupt the summer doldrums with news that “controversial graffiti artist” Mat Benote has surreptitiously installed one of his own works in the Guggenheim Museum. This cheeky guerilla action raises anew questions about authority and power in the art world.

at-the-very-least

Benote apparently hung up his work—a kind of Russian Avant-Garde-ish abstract composition, in black and red, accompanied by a wall label—during normal business hours, unnoticed by Guggenheim security guards or patrons. The press release somewhat hyperbolically claimed, “a piece of art was added to the museum’s permanent collection in the form of a gift by the artist.”

Really? Much like the Grand Rapids ArtPrize discussed in an earlier ArtworldSalon post, the intervention brings up some interesting concerns. If a work is hung on the wall of a museum, without the sanction of curators, is it to be considered part of the museum’s art program? Can anyone bring in a picture, hang it on the wall, and thus confer upon it the status of museum piece? If so, are then random objects in visitors’ handbags also properly seen as part of the museum’s temporary exhibition programming? By extension, are the visitors themselves to be considered a kind of accidental social sculpture, by virtue of performing their pattern of human interactions inside the symbolically charged confines of the museum? Or will these visitors have to be labeled an artwork, by someone such as Benote, to be so considered?

Questions also run in the opposite direction: If an artwork looks like a run-of-he mill abstract composition, neatly applied on a two dimensional surface, installed like a precious painting inside a top-flight museum, with a wall label, is it still “graffiti”?

Perhaps the most fun question for this Salon may be: What were the Guggenheim’s esteemed curators supposed to do? Lemonade, anyone?

Art Gallery 101

978-1-58115-664-5-2This week marks the publication of Edward Winkleman’s How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. For those familiar with Ed’s writing from ArtworldSalon—not to mention his own blog—the book may come as a surprise. Although fully qualified to speak as an art-world insider, armed with the requisite attitude and gossip, he chose the more difficult, and in my opinion braver path: To share basic, practical information with younger colleagues about the particular challenges of running an art gallery. Never has such information been more needed than now, when every penny counts and when dealers, both novices and veterans, must think anew about every facet of their business.

Part Bible, part user’s guide, Ed’s book offers calm and steady, and above all honest, advice on questions younger dealers always want to know about, but are often afraid to ask. How much should I pay myself? Where should I advertise? When do I need a lawyer? But even the best-laid plans can skid off the tracks because of the minutiae. One of the virtues of Ed’s book is that it delves into seemingly mundane, nevertheless important matters that others might have glossed over. No detail escapes his attention: from staff dress codes to the best choice of gallery paint color; from industry-standard salary levels to the wisdom of including packing tape in your “art fair survival kit.”

If you’re planning to open a gallery, buy this book. If you’re planning to stay in business, buy this book.

After the dead tree

The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press.   His response can be seen here, or after the break.

tanpic

Continue reading

The prize of desperation

3_1466I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will probably get me branded an elitist, a staunch defender of the status quo. I don’t like this big new art prize.

I am talking about the ArtPrize [sic.], the “radically open” art competition with the greatest payout in history: $250,000 for the winner ($100,000 for the runner-up) in an American Idol-style contest based on voting by the general public. It’s being funded by a well-meaning young gentleman named Rick DeVos, who won a contest of a different sort — genetic — and leveraged his inherited fortune with entrepreneurial feats of his own. The contestants will register online, ship their work to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the rest will be up to the good folks who happen to be in town during an exhibitionpalooza weekend event where the voting takes place.

So what’s wrong with this picture? I can think of four things.

First, I have nothing against discovering those hidden diamonds in our midst (I, too, watched the Laura Boyle video and got misty-eyed), but public polling is not the best way to reward human accomplishment. The Olympics, the Nobel, or the Pulitzer Prizes are earned in arduous, sometimes lifelong ordeals of jumping over physical and mental hurdles. Judgment by juries and peers has a lot to do with the authority of these awards. Continue reading

Elusive silver linings

2577618297_a9eca1d130From struggling academics, to struggling artists. The New York Times started a blog titled Attention Artists!, on the recession’s impact on artists. So far, responses have been surprisingly sanguine, ranging from “I am completely adapted to being satisfied from my work and my work alone,” to “I think that the recession is making people understand the intrinsic and real value of art.” Some artists wax lethargic about their financial woes. But a more characteristic comment would be this: “The sick economy, combined with the collapse and confusion of the corporate music business, has actually been good for those of us who have existed on the fringes for years.”

Artists may be blessed with strong survival skills, especially in the putting-a-brave-face-on-misery department. Or is this a form of “false consciousness” (to dust off another half-forgotten thinker who is suddenly back in vogue)? How realistic is this new silver-lining discourse?

The idea that art-market busts are good because artists can “take over the factory, make the art industry their own” and “daydream and concentrate” was given an airing in February by Holland Cotter in New York Times in a manifesto-esque article,“The Boom is Over. Long Live Art.” Lots of people who make their living in the art world took note, and some felt the critic may have missed the point. At this stage in history, must art’s credibility depend on proof of human suffering and absence of commercial success? “Certainly, the excesses of the art world were alienating,” observed Alexandra Peers, an ArtworldSalon friend, in a riposte to Cotter in New York magazine. “But there’s Schadenfreude in the argument that bad times are good for the naughty, naughty art world.”

So which is it: An outbreak of gooey-eyed Romanticism? Or a sober reckoning with tough but healthy new realities?

The rat, the rabbit and Yves St Laurent

ysl-bronzesThis just in from Art Newspaper Editor, Georgina Adam.

The saga of the Chinese bronzes hammered down at auction during the Yves St Laurent sale and then not paid for, as a political gesture, raises many thorny questions.

Briefly, (and for those of you who were on Mars this week), the two Qianlong bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, were looted from the Yuanming Yuan Summer Palace in Beijing by Franco-British forces in 1860 during the Opium Wars. They were two of 12 heads which adorned a Zodiac fountain, five of which have never resurfaced.

The heads were offered for sale by Pierre Bergé, the late Yves St Laurent’s former lover and business partner, in Christie’s block-busting sale of their collection last week in Paris. The Chinese have been calling for the return of the heads, and a French association (AFACT) with links to China attempted to block the sale by bringing an emergency injunction in a French court shortly before the sale started. The demand was thrown out in no uncertain terms by the French “procureur” (prosecutor) for a number of reasons, some technical and others more fundamental. I was in court and subsequently at the sale when the bronzes were sold.

China was not able, legally, to claim the bronzes under international law, and does not want simply to buy them back – its position being that they were looted and should be returned. At no point did AFACT claim that Bergé was not the legal owner of the heads, and prior to the sale Bergé stated that he would be prepared to return the heads “when China respects human rights and frees Tibet”. This did nothing to improve Sino-French relations, which hit a new low after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama last December in Poland.

At the sale, the two heads were “sold” to a bidder on the telephone, underbid by two other telephones for the first, and one for the second. The price was  £20.4m each, including premium, and contrary to usual practice no paddle number was announced – “the buyer wanted absolute discretion,” auctioneer François de Ricqlès said afterwards.

On Monday this week a Chinese collector and auction house general manager, Cai Mingchao, announced that he was the buyer and that he was refusing to pay, as a patriotic gesture.

So here are some of the questions this saga raises. Continue reading

Will LA lead the way?

lamocaThe future of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is being decided as we speak. Two scenarios have been preoccupying the press — a LACMA-MOCA merger or a “bailout” by Eli Broad — and the final outcome may be a mix of the two, or something different. This is LA, a city of white knights and twisting plots. Events don’t always follow the predictable screenplay. (I have long been a fan of a Getty-MOCA combo, but that, apparently, is not in the cards.)

Whatever happens, the art world is watching because MOCA’s problems won’t be the last. Museum finances across the country (and the world) are shaky, and some institutions are stretched to the limit. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “It’s only after the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.” But curiously, while much talk in the boom years centered on Faustian bargains that museums make to survive, it is only now, with the protective cover of philanthropic and endowment revenues suddenly removed, that the truly tough choices must be made.

Here might be the silver lining. In a world where Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, we have yet to read about a single proactive arts merger in the papers. Cities across the nation are dotted with cultural institutions that cannot pay their way and are going after the same benefactors. But mergers and combinations remain options of last resort. That has to change.

The news from LA may also make future benefactors more cautious about building new infrastructure where institutions already exist. The museum landscape of LA is the ultimate example of the principle of “to each patron his own edifice.” Last but not least, if things get worse, we may yet witness a reassessment of government’s role in the arts, as happened on Wall Street.

What do you see as the larger lessons of Los Angeles?

What’s next for nonprofits?

Armory
Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

The Hirstian knot

bimhf-hirst-with-the-goldDamien Hirst’s decision to sell 223 new pieces direct to auction at Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September represents the breaking of an unwritten rule: thou shalt not defile your dealer. While threatening the very gallery system that helped to make him a household name by selling his work in the first place (and supposedly nurturing and protecting his interests too), Hirst’s solo venture simultaneously slopes the playing field firmly in favour of the artist. He’s not only temporarily freed himself from his artist-dealer honour code, but now attempting to exercise some influence, if not exactly control, over his own market.

It’s recently become clear that Hirst’s 100-strong production line of artisans are producing more than his London gallery can handle, which in turn suggests that he needs this new outlet (if not going so far as to prove that supply has outstripped demand just yet). But could this firesale of familiar-looking works not perhaps herald a brave new world for artists and turn out to be a good thing for the market, allowing some transparency and public visibility into how artist’s reputations are made, for example? Or will such sales be more like grisly art market entertainment, providing on-the-spot popularity contests and some gallows-style bating if the sales should flop disastrously?

There are even suggestions that Murakami will be the next to follow suit, signaling an even deeper shift of power from galleries to auction houses, which may then open the floodgates to similarly commercial-minded artists the world over (Chinese artists are already used to this practice I believe). Hirst has never played by the rules, famously flouting the usual 50/50 split with his galleries, but does this spell the end of the art market as we know it? He divides opinion like no one else, so let’s have a vote. He’s either Damien 666 – the devil in disguise – or Damien 999 (dial 911 in the US) – the art world’s very own emergency services, coming to save the day. Which way do you see it?

Arts of torture?

Steve Powers

For those needing any practical reassurance that “waterboarding” is a form of torture, Christopher Hitchens provided something close to a final word on the matter, at least in the realm of public opinion (and persuasion), when he subjected himself to it for the benefit of Vanity Fair’s readers.

One is reminded of the Hitch’s stunt by a short piece from last Wednesday’s New York Times, which used it to introduce artist Steve Powers’ The Waterboarding Thrill Ride, an “animatronic diorama,” installed out on Coney Island, “that depicts a prisoner being waterboarded.” Whatever you may think of the necessity, or originality, or political probity of Powers’ diorama, which is being presented by Creative Time, the final sentences of the Times‘ piece describes how Powers’ project will take on a bizarre because redundant dimension when,

In mid-August Mr. Powers and several lawyers will be waterboarded by a trained professional in a secret location in Coney Island as a private performance. Documentation on the performance will be at creativetime.org.

I think one needs to needs to ask here just what such a performance can hope to achieve, either for politics or for art. If Hitchens’ waterboarding was an act undertaken to provide an otherwise reliable public account of it as torture, does not Powers’ “private performance” come off sounding more like an exercise in voyeuristic sadomasochism (which certainly has its own political dimension, just not the one Powers and Creative Time are after)?