Nearly $1.5 billion worth of contemporary art changed hands in November, and on cue, the opinion pages rolled out the mindless machinery of whiny decriers – Bendor Grosvenor in the Financial Times most recently – who claim that art has lost its way, that the market is rigged, that it’s a bubble, that it needs regulation, that contemporary art is a hoax, a sham, a fraud.
This has been going on for years now, for as long as the contemporary market has been on its exponential uptick, which is to say since the beginning of the new millennium roughly, when the seasonal auctions have offered regular opportunities for the moneyed to buy expensive art and the unmoneyed to bitch about it (and haven’t we been hearing the ‘fraud’ and ‘hoax’ bit since the days of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?).
These complaints, no matter who writes them or where they appear, all share some basic features:
1 – The writer assumes a position of superior knowledge. Only he or she knows that there is a con game being played, that a Rubens is more valuable, more important, than a Robert Gober, and that the markets have bubbled up to a breaking point that threatens to undo the very name of ‘art’.
2 – These writers speak simultaneously to two audiences. The first audience is the everyman, the sensible salaried masses who do not have millions to spend on art and who presumably care little about it except for the fact that some other people seem to spend so much money on it and the newspapers like to let them know about it. It’s a brilliant backbend, to pander in one breath, and in the other to condescend. The second audience consists of the billionaires themselves, who these writers hope will come to their columns like the converted to their prophet in order to have it revealed that great sums of their hardly earned money have been thrown away on worthless trinkets.
3 – It’s not the poor dupes’ faults, though, such writers tell us, because the market, namely the auction houses, allow for all sorts of shady practices – third-party guarantees, irrevocable bids, gallerists protecting their artists’ markets – which buyers could never hope to understand (even if a twelve-year-old can) and which scream out for regulation. Someone, they all seem to think, needs to save this whiter-than-white-collar class from itself. And finally,
4 – History, the writers know, will judge our contemporary moment harshly. What is proffered on the contemporary auction block just doesn’t compare to the giants of the past.– which are still wildly expensive, mind you, but credibly so – nor does it compare to the best work being made today, which ducks the hungry billions, some of it by getting down on its hands and knees in the dirt and weeds of media theory and social practice, the flyover country today’s collectorate looks down upon while jetting to the next art fair, but a flyover country that still needs your money. Again the pandering; again the condescension.
Though it might not look like it, today we are a long way away from Tobias Meyer’s 2007 claim that ‘the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart’. Few believe that the big evening sales reveal anything other than the willingness of an exceedingly small class of exceedingly wealthy people (fewer than 500) to spend money on the work of an exceedingly small number of artists (fewer than 100). It’s a wealth issue, not an art issue.
What the decriers lament isn’t some loss to the name and history of art, it’s the credibility that they believe this money is meant to reflect. Despite themselves, then, they are defenders of the wealth of the rich, who they believe are being victimised by some apparent breakdown in the apparatus and who would – if they would just listen! – align their millions to the taste of those who know better than they the value of art. Everyone’s a critic? No, today it seems everyone’s an art adviser.
This article was first published in the Jan & Feb 2015 issue.