Who's afraid of qualitatively weighted metrics?

Read Jonathan T.D. Neil, from the April 2014 issue

Feel like taking a flyer with a spare $10,000? Let Brussels-based Jean-Baptiste Bernadet be your wingman. Made a couple of moves on stock tips early this year and now you’re circling the block looking to park that extra $100K? Mark Flood will be your valet. Oh, were you on the other side of those trades and are now letting those margin calls go straight to voicemail? #Sellnow your Oscar Murillo (lucky dog) and live to speculate another day. Holding Banksy? (Schmuck.) #Liquidate – best to lock in the losses and the humiliation now and hope that Art Basel’s VIP list manager still remembers how to spell your name come June.

I like to imagine that in some corner of the contemporary artworld someone actually talks like this. It makes it easier to complain about the sinister effects of the ‘market’ when their cause is some used-car salesman who has read too much Nietzsche, or the 1%, or some other similarly stupid reduction of the problem. Nevertheless, when a new website, such as the wonderfully provocative sellyoulater.com (since renamed ArtRank) comes along, and those dark imaginings stare back at us from the distant reaches of the Internet, we have a tendency to be taken aback. No one would really do this, would they? Rank artists using some ‘qualitatively-weighted metrics’ that spit out trading-floor mantras – ‘Buy now!’ ‘Liquidate!’ – all appropriately hashtagged for increased social-media stickiness? It’s just, so, tasteless.

Funny, Matisse said nearly the same thing about Picasso’s Demoiselles. Well, he actually called it Picasso’s hoax, and in those terms, sellyoulater.com may be the most modernist of art-market sites. It is spare, yellow, gridded, like Mondrian’s Broadway minus the Boogie-Woogie, and it’s bent on confrontation. Its wager appears to be that intrigue and outrage are enough to drive traffic, gain attention and, presumably, at some point, turn a profit. If Artnet can sell its reports on individual artist’s markets for $186 each, and Josh Baer can charge $250 for a subscription to his insider-ish ‘industry newsletter’, then there is money to be made as a purveyor of art-trading data, and perhaps even more if one’s methodology remains proprietary. Placebo effects aside, do you still call it ‘snake oil’ if it works?

When, exactly, did we become so terrorised by the bogeymen of the art market?

The great disappointment of sellyoulater.com is not that it exists, however, but that its creators appear to be too cowardly to stand up and take a bow*. Besides remaining anonymous, they first made the rather pusillanimous choice of hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask, which was the icon that appeared on the site’s accompanying Instagram page and in the tab of its browser window, before this changed to a borrowing of the Yves Saint Laurent logo (YSL/SYL, see?). How to understand this? The membership of the global hacktivist group Anonymous, which has waged its crusades under the banner of Fawkes’s grin, might remain mysterious, but their actions, when they reach the public stage at least, bespeak clear intent and strong principle (just ask the Church of Scientology).

The most we can say (at time of writing) of sellyoulater.com is that it may be offering straight-up art market analytics. But it may also be a hoax. Or a work of art. Preferably a kind of tactical intervention, a mimetic exacerbation in quintessential avant-garde style of what many view as an increasingly venal marketplace for the fruits of some artists’ labours, fruits that are meant to be venerated for their embodiment of the liberty – in matter, in life, in spirit – that most of us can only hope to experience tragically few times in our lives. Would that it were so, because from the reactions on Facebook and Twitter, apparently believing that sellyoulater.com is real is just too great a burden for us, and for art, to bear.

When, exactly, did we become so terrorised by the bogeymen of the art market? We would be better served by asking what happens to that liberty when its avatars are bought and sold like stock. I’m not at all convinced that anything does happen to it. A work of art is not like the Nobel Prize. Buying one doesn’t compromise what it stands for. If our ideal of art, why and how it matters, were that fragile, that easily corrupted, one can hardly believe that it would have remained with us for so long.

*in an interview with ArtFCity ArtRank's founder has subsequently been revealed to be Carlos A. Rivera

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue.