What do we hate when we hate the art market?

Jonathan T.D. Neil, from the September 2013 issue

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

Why does the artworld hate the art market today? For most, the fear and loathing begins and ends with the major auctions, which means the modern and contemporary art auctions that are held by the two (sometimes three, if you count Phillips) ‘big houses’.

Yes, the accelerated art fair circuit makes many wince, but for sheer numbers, try this on: since the beginning of the year, the New York and London sales of these categories at Sotheby’s and Christie’s have seen more than $2.1 billion change hands – that is, assuming everyone pays up.

if the rich stop buying art, that means the rest of us have probably stopped buying other things

It’s not the best-kept secret that an exceedingly small fraction of the big houses’ clientele accounts for about 90 percent of that business. So when The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or Barron’s or Forbes runs articles with (hopeful?) headlines such as ‘Stocks Tanked, Will the Art Market Follow?’, what they’re reporting on are the activities of, in relative terms, a handful of players.

And when critics such as Blake Gopnik call out the ‘contemporary art bubble’ and bloggers such as Felix Salmon say that ‘prices’ fetched at the big sales are ‘quantitatively completely bonkers’, they are also, by extension, talking about the activities and tastes of a small but very monied minority.

Ironically, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and ‘We are the 99%’, that minority has found it has an ‘image’ problem. The entirety of the last US presidential election was contended on it. We know this, but we pay attention to the numbers anyway, mostly because we can’t help taking them as an indication of the health of the market more broadly.

Just as we don’t really want the stock market to ‘tank’, we don’t really like entertaining the question of what happens when the rich stop buying art, because if the rich stop buying art, that means the rest of us have probably stopped buying other things, such as vacations or houses, and everything that goes with them.

Deep down we know that the art market is a trickle-down economy. When it’s good at the top it can be either good or bad down the line; but when it’s bad at the top, it’s only bad all the way down. We’re nostalgic for the days (though few of us were alive to see them) when collecting was an acceptable and accessible middle-class pastime, when well-read shrinks and doctors and lawyers were buying what they liked from the small coterie of artists and dealers that simply were the artworld. It was middle-class art at middle-class prices for middle-class people with middle-class taste.

But who out there is really banging the drum for middle-class art, which sounds as wince-worthy as the middle-class art fairs at which arriviste dealers wouldn’t want to be caught dead selling it? What artist today would echo Matisse in wanting his work thought of like an armchair for the tired businessman?

Middle-class pricing in today’s parlance means ‘young’ or ‘emerging’ or ‘experimental’ or ‘alternative’. The pitch is that this work won’t stay middle-class or doesn’t even want to be. It has aspirations to importance and recognition, though preferably not merely posterity’s. Only being ‘elite’ or ‘other’ will do.

None of this accords with middle-class taste, which is aspirational as well, but the importance and recognition it values are mostly seen in the mirror, when the trappings of one’s self and surroundings look something like what one sees in the checkout magazines and on TV. (This is different than proposing that they are or could be the same, which is the hypothetical that Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013) entertainingly plays out.)

Call it kitsch if you like, but given the recent recuperations of that term, not-even-kitsch would be closer to the mark. Either way, its dominant value remains consumerist, which both art and the middle-class have always been.

Hatred of the market, then, is really just a symptom of this unbearability of not really being middle class, which is to say of being middle class and not believing it, but also of not really being ‘elite’ or ‘other’ either. About the market, members of those two groups either don’t worry or don’t care.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue.