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Seeing Dollar Signs by Jerry Saltz : and my Response

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Painter Charline Von Heyl recently described Americans' disconnect between the personal and political this way: "While almost everything in the outer world feels messed-up, our inner lives aren't altogether messed-up." The current art world, awash in money and success, is shot through with a similar disconnect.

To some, the art market is a self-help movement, a private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift. This set seeks out art that looks like things they already know: anything resembling Warhol, Richter, Koons, Tuymans, Prince, and Wool could be good; any male painter in his thirties could be great. To others, the market is just a jolly popularity contest, or as New York Times reporter David Carr put it about having his own blog, it's like "a large yellow Labrador: friendly, fun, not all that bright, but constantly demanding your attention."

For many, the art market is a communal version of the Primal Scene—a sexed-up site that offers a peek into the bedroom of the creative act. Art advisers and collectors now treat art fairs and auctions like Warhol's Factory: Places to flaunt junkie-like behavior while hoping one's creative potential might bloom. In this global circus, mega-collectors like Charles Saatchi and Francois Pinault are the art world's P.T. Barnums: showmen who have become part of the show—moguls who understand that the market is a medium that can be manipulated.

Once upon a time, the market and the scene (clubiness, chicanery, and profligacy notwithstanding) were joined and reflected social, political, and sexual change. Now the market is only in service of itself. The market is a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight.

Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid? Consider the lame-brained claim made by Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, who recently effused "The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart." This is exactly wrong. The market isn't "smart;" it's like a camera—so dumb it'll believe anything you put in front of it. Essentially, the art market is a self-replicating organism that, when it tracks one artist's work selling well, craves more work by the same artist. Although everyone says the market is "about quality," the market merely assigns values, fetishizes desire, charts hits, and creates ambience. These days the market is also too good to be true.

Still, the slap-happy assertions keep coming. Last season, Amy Cappellazzo, international co-head of Christie's post-war and contemporary art, crowed that auction houses were "the big-box retailers putting the mom-and-pops out of business." Then she gushed of her clients, "After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there?" After wondering, "What's a G5 jet?", you may well ask how the current super-heated art market is changing the ways we see and think about art.

The market is now so pervasive that it is simply a condition —as much a part of the art world as galleries and museums. Even if you're not making money—as is the case with most of us— that's your relationship to the market. To say you won't participate in the market is like saying you refuse to breathe the air because it's polluted.

The current market feeds the bullshit machine, provides cover for a lot of vacuous behavior, revs us up while wearing us down, breeds complacency, and is so invasive that it forces artists to regularly consider issues of celebrity, status, and money in their studios. Yet, it also allows more artists to make more money without having to work full-time soul-crushing jobs and provides most of us with what Mel Brooks called "our phony-baloney jobs." Last December, more than 400 New York art dealers representing more than 5,000 artists paid for booths in one art fair or another in Miami to participate in this market. Everyone is trying the best they can. For critics to demonize the entire art world, then, as somehow unethical and crass seems self-righteous, cynical, and hypocritical.

Much confusion stems from there being no new, cogent Theory of the Market , no philosophy that addresses the ways in which the ongoing feeding frenzy is affecting the production, presentation, and reception of art. Nothing we say about the market adds up, partly because "the market" isn't really an autonomous subject. It's a diversionary tactic—essentially, a blend of economics, history, psychology, stagecraft, and lifestyle; an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.

Yet we can't ignore the market or just lay back and drink the Kool-Aid. Maybe we should be asking questions such as: Are we sometimes liking things because we know the market likes them or are we really liking them? Do people really believe the kitschy pictures of naked girls with pussy cats by German painter Martin Eder are any good or are buyers simply jumping on the bandwagon because his prices have reached $500,000? When we learn that a newish painting by the second-rate latter-day Neo-Expressionist Marlene Dumas sold for over three million dollars, does it alter how we think of her work? Does it alter the ways magazine editors or curators think about it? One of the organizers of Dumas's upcoming MOMA exhibition, the otherwise excellent Connie Butler, recently responded to one of my public hissy fits about the overestimation of this artist by saying, "Dumas has been making portraits of terrorists," as if to suggest that certain subject matter exempts art from criticism. In fact, this subject matter is not only predictable and generic, and in that sense utterly conservative, its perfect fodder for a culture in disconnect. It's wonderful that mediocre women artists now command the same astronomical prices for their art that mediocre male artists always have. But do artists who don't sell for high prices have less of a chance to ever make money? Are Vito Acconci and Adrian Piper fated to forever being 'Lifestyles of the Poor and Famous' artists? If you're unknown and over 35 do you have a shot? In this era of the 30-month career, what happened to the idea of the 30-year career?

In the 1970s, conceptualist Joseph Kosuth said, "The only people who care about art are artists." That's changed. But is the art world of greater interest to people outside of it because art has become more interesting or because art is a hot property? Is the market creating a competitive atmosphere that drives artists to produce better work or is it mainly fostering empty product?

If there's a silver lining to this golden cloud it's that despite how professional and "smart" it is made out to be, the market is still inherently blinkered, erratic, and insecure. As such it is simultaneously vulnerable and a force of chaos. As almost everyone in the art world knows, chaos is usually good for art. At the end of the day art still has a private inside and a public outside. It still exudes an alchemical otherness . In our studios and before artworks we still experience moments of authentic serenity, passion, and meaningfulness—places on the edge of language that the market can't strip away. In this imperfect realm we can intuit the elemental feeling that sometimes, just by making or looking at art, we might glimpse the full range of human possibilities. The market is art minus otherness. The rest is gossip.


I have been mulling over Jerry Saltz’s thoughtful and disturbing essay “Seeing Dollar Signs : Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid?”. In many ways it touches on some heart-breaking realizations about the current international art scene that I have been experiencing and thus reading about, most devastatingly in Julian Stallabrass’ small book “Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press). In it Stallabrass describes a theory of the art market which explains the current art world’s messed-upness somewhat along the same lines that Mr. Saltz’s does: specifically arguing that behind contemporary art's multiplicity and apparent capriciousness lies a bleak uniformity (which, in Mr. Saltz’s words “craves more work by the same”) and that this amounts to making culture uncurious, timid and stupid in the service of a big business ethos of unquestioning consumer conformity; a pop ethos apparently enforced by some dim-witted and unsaid social-climbing consensus. Also Stallabrass purports that the unregulated insular contemporary art market seeks to dupe newbie art rubes into being enthusiastic participants in the dumbing-down values useful to big business; values which address all communications to the lowest common denominator of the mass. This consensus impulse is evidenced in Mr. Saltz’s essay also where he points out the trend of art collectors to seek out an impossibly contradictory “paradigm shift (…) that looks like things they already know..”. Yep, that sounds pretty damn stupid – but also a true reflection of the deceptive and self-deceptive Cheney-Bush neo-con epoch that we are enduring. So, the obvious question to Mr. Saltz’s questions is: what about art’s responsibility of resistance? Perhaps surprisingly, for me the answer is to be found within the challenge of style.

Jerry Saltz and I are around the same age: thus people from a generation stimulated by the open-field of confrontations and agitations typical of post-minimalism/post-conceptualism that turned towards 80’s figuration for political reasons. This is our general standard of excellence, I assume. But what strikes me today is that even in the midst of our fervent political angst - based on our current conditions of great distrust and deception coupled with feelings of helplessness – current painted figuration has mostly devolved into a lame, if lampooning, form of easy and fun illustration. This in conjunction with painting as a money-eyed institution, I believe is what he was getting at as evidenced by Jerry’s example of Martin Eder. At the same time a pure neo-abstraction seems to me no more than conformist decorative eye-candy. So I am wondering what about contemporary art’s commitment to the idea that the core of art is that which purports to transcend the banal economic world and portray a wider vision of political awareness including private spiritual, ecstatic or numinous themes accessible through the subjective realm of each individual; a self-perception which reveals in minute particulars the full spectrum of the extensive social-political dimensions of the mind? The question is: how do artists and dealers and critics prevent the market from eliminated that quality from art – and in so making particularly the younger people opportunely unintelligent?

So what is the antidote related to what Mr. Saltz’s see as art’s “private inside and a public outside” struggle? Style.

Let’s consider the difference between politically visionary art (based on an individual’s inner vision) verses what Jerry might call mass “bullshit machine” market perceptual vision, with its mechanical functionalism. For me the difference is in looking into and projecting onto something - thereby discovering an emerging manifestation (I guess what Jerry calls art’s “alchemical otherness”) as opposed to looking AT something. In that sense it requires an active but slow participation on the part of the viewer/collector - and the art style demands as much. For me this required user mental participation is essential in our climate of mass media (mass-think) in that it plays against the grain of given objective consensus. In that sense painting becomes more a service product than an investment object.

Moreover, my deep feeling is that today art must indict - or at the very least play the role of the jester who unmasks the unspeakable lies of the powerful. Americans have been deceived and victimized by our government’s propaganda and if art cannot rebuff and contest this grave situation by fueling the political will and imagination of resistance, I wonder why we need it at all. In the political world we need investigation to heal our souls and so an art that demands a mental mood of investigation would support such a need. Thus a complex and ambiguous politically visionary art of resistance and investigation would be increasingly valuable to an analytical social movement based on skepticism while undermining market predictabilities as it strengthens unique personal powers of imagination and critical thinking. This is so as it counters the effects of our age of simplification - effects which have resulted from the glut of consumer oriented entertainment messages and political propaganda which the mass media feeds us daily in the interests of corporate profit and governmental psychological manipulations.

Our inner world - the life of our imagination with its intense drives, suspicions, fears, and loves - guides our intentions and actions in the political and economic world. Our inner world is the only true source of meaning and purpose we have and a participatory politically visionary art of investigation is the way to discover for ourselves this inner life. So we see now that in contrast to our market-frenzied materialist culture, which trains us to develop the eyes of outer perception, a politically visionary style of art could encourage the development of inner sight based on the individual intuitive inner eye. Of course this politically visionary realm embraces the entire spectrum of imaginary spaces; from the infinitude of actual forms to formless voids of virtuality.

Joseph Nechvatal


A career as an artist

Somehow, the contemporary art market has turned into a craft fair where people create interesting objects that have a built in fetish potential. The position is to cater to the "collectors" pysche. A collector will collect in a certain area,until their desire is satiated. They will then find a new area to collect. The market functions by producing areas of collectability. I'm preparing an article on this subject and will be done in a couple of days so Joseph's piece is a perfect start to the discussion.


Also see ART VALUES OR MONEY VALUES? by Donald Kuspit :

The problem with a collector-driven market

The problem with a collector-driven market
from: The Art Newspaper : Editorial and Commentary:
By Jane Kallir (co-director of Galerie St Etienne in New York)

For the past century or so, the art world has been supported by four principal pillars: artists, collectors, dealers and the art-historical establishment (critics, academics, and curators). From a wider historical perspective, the latter two entities are relative newcomers. The development of art history as an academic discipline, and of public museums, dates back only to the 19th century. Only in the 20th century did dealers evolve from passive shopkeepers to pro-active impresarios, promoting the often difficult efforts of the pioneering modernists with missionary zeal. Public resistance to modernism, coupled with the pressures of international capitalism, gave new importance to dealers and museums, both of which played key roles by superintending the distribution of new art and ratifying its seriousness. At varying points in the course of the past 100 years, the weight of the art world has shifted from one of the four pillars to another. Artists made the modernist revolution; dealers recognised and supported it before academia did; in the post-war period, critics became so dominant that Tom Wolfe lampooned their influence in his 1975 book The Painted Word. And now, it seems, collectors have taken charge.

Over the long term, art-historical value is determined by consensus among all four art-world pillars. When any one of the four entities assume disproportionate power, there is a danger that this entity’s personal preferences will cloud everyone’s short-term judgement. Put bluntly, the danger of a collector-driven art world is that money will trump knowledge. Great collectors should ideally become nearly as knowledgeable as the curators and dealers who help them build their collections. But not all of today’s collectors have the passion or the time necessary to develop this depth of knowledge. Collecting, once the pursuit of a relatively small number of driven individuals, has become far more common among far more people.

This expansion of the art market, made possible by the broader dissemination of concentrated pockets of wealth and by the globalisation of art and related information, has drawn in players who do not have the focused commitment of the traditional collector. The exponential growth of the market, and the genuine gains realised by those who got in early, inevitably fuel the tendency, justifiable or not, to view art as an asset class comparable to stocks or real estate.

Art has also become the greatest common denominator in the new global social order. Today’s rich are an international elite whose members can measure their cachet by the level of VIP services given them at Art Basel and Art Basel/Miami Beach. Anointed by the glamour that today attends the public display of great wealth, the art world has acquired the patina of trendiness that was formerly exclusive to the entertainment and fashion industries. The contemporary focus on trendiness and investment potential, each of which operates on a relatively short timeline, obscures the fact that lasting value in art accrues in the course of generations.

The corollary to a collector-driven art world is that the canon of ostensibly great artists is being largely determined by market forces. The huge prices that have been achieved lately at the top of the market are the result not only of new concentrations of wealth, but of the fact that many people are pursuing the same handful of artists and works of art. Therefore the drop-off from the peak can be steep, becalming the middle market and consigning lesser works and lesser artists to also-ran status.

This is a market with a voracious appetite for alleged masterpieces, and little patience for historical or developmental nuances. It encourages superficiality: rather than collecting a single artist or group of artists in depth, collectors now often prefer to amass scattered masterworks: here a Matisse, there a Picasso, and then perhaps a Schiele. In an overheated environment, the art-historical establishment often finds itself chasing rather than guiding the market. The press must keep up with the latest trends, and coverage of social events and record prices often takes precedence over quiet critical reflection. Museums need the support of trustees, but the most powerful collectors no longer need the imprimatur of an existing museum; they can simply open their own.

If it sometimes seems that the art-historical establishment is missing in action, this is in part because, while the market has been aggressively constructing a new canon, academia has been busy deconstructing the old one. For several decades now, scholars have generally agreed that the white, male, Eurocentric canon that traditionally dominated Western art evolved from historical biases that are no longer morally or intellectually justifiable. Although this change in orientation has literally opened up a whole new world of aesthetic possibilities, it has discouraged academics from making qualitative judgements. Scholarship in areas that are useful to the marketplace, such as provenance and authenticity, has flourished, but overall connoisseurship has declined. Similarly, market pressures push dealers to become generalists, showcasing a hodge-podge of high-ticket items instead of specialising as they formerly did. Auctioneers, operating within a timeframe that seldom extends much beyond the next sale date, focus most of their energies on the highest priced lots. Novice collectors, justifiably wary and insecure, engage consultants who often know far less than the dealers and auctioneers. At every level of the art world, deeper knowledge and principled guidance seem to be in short supply.