The flap that erupted after the collector and entrepreneur Stefan Simchowitz was identified as Public Enemy No 1 in Katya Kazakina’s article about ‘art flippers’ (that species of collector who buys and sells quickly in search of profits) on Bloomberg.com this past February took a dark turn at the beginning of April, and it should make us pause a moment and rethink the stakes involved in our arguments about art, money, markets and value. But first, the turn itself:
On 3 April, Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor published a short roundup of recent commentary by Andrew Goldstein, whose interview with Simchowitz on Artspace.com is what originally goaded critic Jerry Saltz to pen a takedown of Simchowitz over at New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, and Kenny Schachter to defend Simchowitz in the New York Observer’s Gallerist blog by showing how his speculative dealing strategies are just the latest in a long line of such activities that reaches back to Duchamp.
In this regard the content of Maneker’s post was benign enough – it merely pointed to some choice quotes from Schachter and Goldstein – but it ran under the title of ‘L’Affaire Simchowitz’, which one must assume was meant to raise the spectre of the Dreyfus affair and anti-Semitism, though whose anti-Semitism exactly it would be hard to say.
Then a day later Simchowitz himself posted to his Facebook page a quote that linked to the Wikipedia entry for Werner Sombart, a German economist who, in 1911, published a book titled The Jews and Modern Capitalism. The quote itself didn’t come from that entry, but from the one for ‘Economic Antisemitism’, where it is written that ‘Werner Sombart concluded that the perceptions of cheating or dishonesty were simply a manifestation of Christian frustration at innovative commercial practices of Jews, which were contrary to custom and tradition of the Christian merchants, but were otherwise ethical.’ Simchowitz writes that the quote and link were sent to him by a friend who wished to remain anonymous, but he nevertheless felt compelled to post it under his own name and so to spread the insinuation that other forces, anti-Semitic ones, are in play.
Never mind that Sombart is speaking of Christian merchants’ attitudes in the early modern era, or that what he actually concludes is that if you look ‘through the catalogue of “sins” laid at the door of the Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries, you will find nothing in it that the trader of today does not regard as right and proper, nothing that is not taken as a matter of course in every business’. Sombart’s work, it’s worth pointing out, was in large part a response to Max Weber’s better-known The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), and it sought to position Judaism as a positive guiding force in the development of modern economic liberalism. ‘Throughout the centuries,’ Sombart writes, ‘the Jews championed the cause of individual liberty in economic activities against the dominating views of the time.’
Now, the implications are clear: the slights that Simchowitz suffered after espousing his ‘disruptive’ views on the art marketplace (galleries are monopolies that are dragging artists down, money is the best publicity and so on) are driven by an unspoken anti-Semitism that pervades critics’ opposition to that marketplace in their orthodox commitment to art’s pursuit of the good and the true and the beautiful. And if Sombart’s work is meant to license an expansion of this logic, then any moves to hamper (neo)liberal economic activity may themselves be viewed as having anti-Semitism – however unconscious, however unspoken – as their animating force.
The insinuations are gross, and the implications contradictory, when not outright stupid (Communism was a Jewish conspiracy too, after all). Simchowitz may have been inelegant in the way he promoted his interests and enthusiasms for profiting off the work of up-and-coming artists, and he is too confident in his own success (as many newly minted millionaires often are), but he’s an advocate of art and artists in his own way, and there must be a place for him and his ideas in the discussion of art’s value both in and out of the marketplace. Trot out hackneyed and false paranoias, however, and you trivialise and cheapen that discussion before it can truly begin.
This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.