The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) just published its recap of the art market in 2015 and it’s not pretty. Global sales were down 7 percent from the previous year. The Chinese are to blame (their sales were down 23 percent), as are the British (down 9 percent). We in the US are trucking along with our heads under the dash – sales are up 4 percent! But Sotheby’s has been losing staff at the same rate as its stock has been losing value. During Asia Week in New York, Christie’s got caught preparing to trade in stolen Indian sculptures. Its Post-War and Contemporary chair is reportedly mounting a sale this May titled ‘Bound to Fail’. (We all know that 4 percent increase in US sales just indicates the continuation of asset transfers out of the country.) Is it this grim everywhere?
Yes. Commodity indexes are down about 18 percent from this time last year. Crude oil is now one of the least expensive liquids for sale anywhere, which means no more Gulf State petrodollars in the art marketplace (not to mention the decimation of alternative-energy investments). The only thing propping up the S&P 500 is corporate buybacks, which will taper off as earnings continue to decline through 2016. The luxury real-estate markets in New York and London, which saw modern and contemporary art-scaled sales in 2015, are facing gluts of their own. Properties are taking longer to sell, inventory is growing and prices are dropping. Granted, hearing about how some fellow from the City or Wall Street has had to drop the ask on his luxury condo from $40 million to $28 million isn’t going to make most of us tear up in sympathy, but it’s a sign of things to come. Wall Street bonuses were down, which makes Bernie Sanders voters happy, but art markets and art institutions alike need liquidity, and it looks like there is going to be less of it around.
Then there’s the political scene, in the US at least, where it’s hurry up and wait, with teeth clenched and white knuckles wrapped around a smartphone bearing the latest election results. Apocalypse now has a double-digit lead on cataclysm, and that’s just the Democratic race. On the other side, what to call it? Fascism doesn’t quite capture the aggressiveness of this American variant of macho populism. An electorate that denounces not just ‘political correctness’ but ‘correctness’ of any sort is one whose moral centre just woke up from a three-day Vegas bender with a tattoo of Vladimir Putin on one arm, David Duke on the other and the congregation’s Christian children’s relief fund long ago lost at the tables, stuck into a passing G-string and blown up one nostril or another. And all this without apology. The scene in Europe is no better, with rightwing parties cynically exploiting the real migrant crisis to gain power and parliament seats.
How should the arts respond? How can the arts respond? Take it to the streets? Mount a show? Make a sign? So far the only aesthetic response to the current situation in the US has come from the brave and foolish (hand-in-hand walk these traits) protesters who have dared to challenge the xenofascism on display at the populist ‘rallies’. These protesters have put their bodies in space and in the way. They have been assaulted – punched, shoved, screamed at, called disgusting names. They have elicited the authentic character of the foot soldiers of reaction. Their art is our experience. We should learn from it.
When the big May auction sales roll around, my prediction is that we will see more of the same. Nothing horrible. Probably a little worse rather than better. Many of the wealthy are holding back, holding their breath or holding their noses. The May fairs will come and go with the usual artificial pomp. Dealers will say there was ‘strong interest’ and ‘very positive responses’ to their wares. I expect a few more panel discussions and presentations in the museums and alternative spaces, with more handwringing about art and agency – we all confront our own impotencies in different ways.
Yet all eyes in the US will be locked on the political horizon and on the macro indicators of social implosion. When an electorate gets this angry and orthodox in its belief in its own rectitude, when any kind of reason is cashiered for the reptilian mind, one can’t but be a bit afraid. Markets aren’t brave. Only people are. Let’s hope the latter rise to the occasion.
This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of ArtReview.