As art prices have spiraled ever upward during the last several years, the art world has buzzed with talk of a "bubble." At each of the big semiannual auction sales, observers hold their breaths as though witnessing a death-defying high-wire act: Will prices hold up, or will they tumble, bringing down the entire art world? Yet if the twenty-first-century art market has become increasingly frothy, it has not emulated the art bubble of the 1980s, nor the much-derided recent housing bubble. As the Galerie St. Etienne has frequently noted in our mid-year state-of-the market reports, in the present boom the rising tide has not lifted all boats. Rather, money has tended to pool at the top, creating an enormous gap between the value of works that are perceived to be extraordinary and everything else. Bifurcation, not bubble, is the operative concept.
The current economic downturn and credit crisis have naturally exacerbated the art world's preexisting fears of impending doom. Nevertheless, it is difficult to predict how, when or if the crunch is going to impact the art market. On the one hand, art is a luxury readily dispensed with when times get tough. The present crisis is partly a crisis of faith, as irrational as the subprime lending binge that triggered it. With tight credit reducing the cash flow of some art world players, there is certainly a chance that the art market will suffer a parallel loss of confidence. On the other hand, today's top-tier collectors are thought to be so wealthy that they should be immune to any form of economic hardship. Art is notoriously illiquid, but it is sometimes perceived as a safe haven when other investment options falter. To the extent that the American art market has become globalized, the weak dollar is cushioning art prices in much the same fashion that it has sustained the value of Manhattan real estate. Rather than an across-the-board decline in art prices, what we are seeing so far is an ever-narrowing focus on the upper echelons of the market. In that exalted realm, values continue to rise, but down below, more and more artworks, artists and dealers are being left behind. Thus the auction houses have been able to proclaim continued financial success, even as disappointing sales results proliferate.
The tightening market reveals just how stratified the art world has become in the last decade or so. Auctioneers and dealers alike have felt compelled to focus the bulk of their energies on obtaining and selling top-end material. In the secondary market, less than stellar material is often relegated to the back burner. There is a palpable pecking order among art fairs: At the pinnacle are the two Basels and TEFAF Maastricht, featuring certified blue-chip masterpieces and a significant amount of secondary market material. Next come trend-setting fairs devoted exclusively to new art, most notably Frieze in London and New York's Armory Show. Swirling around these mega-events are a host of lesser fairs, hunting grounds for speculative collectors looking for the Next Big Thing. The galleries that populate the satellite fairs function like farm teams, cultivating young talent deemed unready for the majors. Artists who show promise will eventually be poached by bigger dealers, obviating the long-term relationships that traditionally existed between gallerists and "their" artists. Gone is the slow nurturance that once allowed talent to develop gradually, at its own pace. Like ballplayers, today's young artists may well find themselves washed-up by the time they hit their mid-thirties.
At the moment, it is all about marketing. Art stars have earned a place in the pop-culture pantheon alongside rock, film and sport stars. Granted, the chance of any one artist attaining such exalted status is exceedingly slim. The point is that until recently the category "art star" did not even exist. It is no coincidence that the most financially successful artists of the baby-boom generation have enthusiastically embraced the commercial realm, extending the trail blazed by Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are so savvy about their interactions with the art world that they have been accused of manipulating the market. However, it would probably be more accurate to say that the market is a primary subject of their art. Over the past year, they have vied with one another for the title of "most expensive living artist sold at auction," only both to be eclipsed this May by a relative old master, Lucien Freud. Koons, a one-time Wall Street commodities trader with a flair for self-promotion, has cultivated a concentrated support base of powerful dealers and collectors. His sumptuously crafted enlargements of kitsch icons, toys and tchotchkes have come to be recognized as a bankable global brand, the ultimate luxury products for super-wealthy consumers. Similarly, Hirst's much-publicized diamond-encrusted skull gaudily heralds the belief that art is the supreme luxury in a luxury-obsessed society. The skull's outrageous price (a reported $100,000,000) and sparkling surface (diamonds valued at $8,000,000, embedded in platinum) are undercut by its macabre form. Hirst, rumored to be the world's richest artist, may be a covert moralist after all, reminding us, with the skull and his even more gruesome animal carcasses, that earthly pleasure is fleeting.
These artists are not lone geniuses sequestered in isolated garrets, but entrepreneurs whose business activities make Warhol's "Factory" seem naively misnamed. Koons employs 90 artists and has pursued collaborations with Hugo Boss and a skateboard manufacturer. Hirst's company, Science Ltd., oversees huge studios in London and Gloucestershire and employs 120 people. Science Ltd. and its licensing arm, Other Criteria, aim low as well as high, marketing T-shirts and posters to those who cannot afford $100,000,000. Hirst recently launched a line of bejeweled jeans in cooperation with Levi Strauss. Perhaps no contemporary artist has explored commercial licensing more thoroughly than Takashi Murakami. Where Warhol and other Pop Artists appropriated icons from popular culture and imported them into the high-art realm, Murakami crafts his own iconic characters and exports them from gallery-sized canvases and sculptures to popularly priced trinkets. Since 2001, he has been producing handbag designs for Louis Vuitton. Murakami oversees a staff of around 100 artists, animators, writers and artisans who work out of studios in Tokyo and Long Island City, New York. It is a given that artists like Murakami, Hirst and Koons rarely touch their own work.
Because the above-named artists and others of their ilk are more concerned with conceiving than with fabricating works of art, they have been referred to as conceptualists, heirs not just to Warhol, but to Marcel Duchamp. However, Duchamp, a founder of the Dada movement, wanted to repudiate the bourgeois art market, and the conceptual artists of the 1970s tried to create art so evanescent or insubstantial that it could not possibly be sold. Whereas today's art stars wholeheartedly endorse the idea of art as a commodity, Duchamp and the conceptualists endeavored to remove art from the tainted commercial sphere. Opposition to commercialism was, in fact, a central tenet of the modernist enterprise, dating back to the early nineteenth century. Industrial capitalism was then sundering the aristocratic social order, with its fixed hierarchies and stable values, substituting a fluid, constantly changing system governed solely by market forces. Denouncing the new bourgeois class as money-grubbing philistines, the avant-garde deliberately and progressively distanced itself from the public arena. To preserve an aura of sanctity in a world permeated by the mass media and consumerism, artists focused on arcane aesthetic issues -- "art for art's sake," or what the critic Clement Greenberg called "the imitation of imitating." Rejecting as kitsch anything that was easily and viscerally comprehensible, the art world became the province of a self-styled elite versed in the necessary explanatory theories.
The avant-garde's innate elitism frequently clashed with its opposition to bourgeois capitalism, and as a result, the ideology of modernism is rife with contradictions and hypocrisy. To counter the rigid dictates of the nineteenth-century European academy, modernists assimilated a variety of non-academic influences, but non-academic creators were seldom granted full aesthetic or economic parity. From the collages of the Surrealists and Cubists to the photographs of Richard Prince, images that in their original form had been transparent and readily intelligible were transformed, through the alchemy of modernism, into something opaque and mysterious. While many modernists favored socialist egalitarianism and championed "low" art forms, they eschewed populist aesthetics. They created "political" art that was completely disengaged from the lives of ordinary people. Their anti-materialistic stance notwithstanding, modernists were not immune to the temptations of financial success, and in practice modernism's emphasis on revolutionary experimentation fed capitalism's voracious appetite for new ideas. Pablo Picasso, a registered member of the Communist Party, was also among modernism's wealthiest artists. As modernism became more and more entrenched, avant-garde artists found themselves in charge of academies no less rigid than those they had originally rejected.
It is not surprising that it eventually became impossible for artists to maintain the fiction that, operating on a higher spiritual plane, they could participate in the capitalist system and yet remain fundamentally outside it. What is surprising is that this illusion lasted for nearly two-hundred years before finally succumbing to the inexorable pressures of the market. Prior to the modern era, artists had always been willing servants to power, supporting the values imposed upon society by its dominant class. If we are appalled by the overt commercialism of today's art stars, we should recognize that their attitude, while aberrant from a modernist perspective, is a return to the historical norm. As the art world embraces the commercial world more emphatically, the boundaries between the two spheres become increasingly blurred. The painter Julian Schnabel also directs movies, designs interiors and has even dabbled in real estate development, while the Gap produced a line of artist's T-shirts in conjunction with the 2008 Whitney Biennial. The mass media have been chasing cutting-edge trends for so long that the general public is relatively comfortable with avant-garde aesthetics. The upside of a cash-rich art scene is to be found in costly, labor-intensive installations such as Christo's Gates and Olafur Eliasson's forthcoming East River waterfalls, crowd-pleasing spectacles that reach a public whose size and scope would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.
If at one extreme the contemporary art scene seems to be drowning in the vulgarity of extreme wealth, at the other, art is more popular and accessible than it has ever been before. The modernist taboo against commercialism was directly connected to the taboo against content, and both were inherently undemocratic. Modernism often intentionally turned its back on the general public, walling itself off in a temple devoted to arcane aesthetics. With its increasingly sterile progression of subordinate "isms," modernism had artists marching in lockstep toward a preordained future. As modernism's ideological stranglehold has loosened, we have come to recognize that the twentieth-century art scene was far more multifaceted than formalist theorists would have given us to believe. The one-time focus on French and American innovations, born of World-War and Cold-War politics, has broadened to include developments--such as Dada, Expressionism, Constructivism and Futurism--across the European continent. Today's art world embraces a plethora of artistic traditions and styles. "Low" art and "high" art, Western and non-Western aesthetics truly are starting to come together, feeding off one another in a nonhierarchical, open-ended fashion. This diversity can impede judgments of quality, but that seems a small price to pay for the unprecedented creative latitude that artists now enjoy.
The art world is not and never was an isolated spiritual realm, but an artifact of the real world, driven, like all else, in part by politics and money. Present market circumstances reflect fundamental shifts in the global socio-economic environment, which is not likely to change any time soon. Rising income inequality and the concomitant winner-take-all mentality have disastrous social implications that far transcend the art scene. It will be interesting to see how artists, freed from the taboo against content, choose to address this imbalance. There are, after all, many artists who are not chasing after money, just as there are still passionate collectors not motivated by speculative interests and dealers who are doing their best to negotiate this treacherous passage with integrity. The art market will continue to have its ups and downs, and today's art stars will not necessarily remain on top. Art operates on a very long time line; only over the course of generations is it possible to discern lasting value. On that time line, artistic and monetary worth become one.
The Galerie St. Etienne has a special perspective on recent art-world developments, because we have historically championed modernism's underdogs. Austrian and German Expressionism, the gallery's main area of expertise, was once viewed as a minor artistic movement, a humanist island in modernism's formalist sea. Self-taught art was an influential source for modernist giants such as Picasso, but not something to be taken seriously in its own right. We took it seriously. Grandma Moses was ostracized by the mainstream art world due to her immense popularity and because of commercial licenses that now pale in comparison to museums' routine merchandising programs. The gallery's founder, Otto Kallir, was an Austrian refugee who believed in the American dream. He did not see anything wrong with an art by the people or for the people, and he believed that popular art could be as valid as high art. Among his numerous and eclectic tastes was a passion for Walt Disney. The Galerie St. Etienne has also provided a hospitable forum for activist artists like Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe. A commitment to meaningful content links all the gallery's seemingly disparate interests.
Our summer exhibition, as usual, is a potpourri of recent acquisitions and highlights of the preceding season. While the booming art scene has somewhat diminished the availability of top-quality artworks, rising prices also lure treasures onto the market. Perhaps because auctions have become increasingly unpredictable, the Galerie St Etienne was fortunate to secure a number of major new works this summer. Among the highlights is an exceptionally strong grouping by Egon Schiele, including a stunning 1911 gouache, Female Nude, depicting the artist's unidentified girlfriend, and a poignant pencil drawing, dating to around 1915, of his bride Edith. The Schieles are complemented by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's pensive portrait of his companion Erna Schilling, done while the artist was recuperating from trauma suffered during World War I. Two seminal early watercolors by Lyonel Feininger, a major Paris-period ink drawing by Max Beckmann, a vibrant portrait by Emile Nolde and two extremely rare lithographs by Max Pechstein also number among the gallery's Expressionist offerings. The German underclass and the socio-economic extremes of the Weimar era are represented in a diverse selection of works by Otto Dix, George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz. Jeanne Mammen's watercolor of a Berlin dance hall is one of the last works of its kind in private hands.
The Galerie St. Etienne's principal exhibition this spring examined Communism in Germany during the 1920s -- focusing, as is our wont, on the interplay between art and politics at a time of economic and social upheaval. Our summer exhibition includes a selection of posters from that popular show, as well as a room devoted to the work of Leonard Baskin, an artist similarly committed to addressing human injustice. Last fall, the Galerie St. Etienne assumed representation of the Baskin estate, and we look forward to a continuing involvement with this multifaceted artist. Our summer offerings include four monumental watercolors from Baskin's series "Angels to the Jews," as well as several works on the Medea theme, exemplifying the artist's lifelong search for spiritual truths in what he perceived as a godless world. The gallery's third exhibition of the 2007-08 season explored the use of pattern by self-taught and trained artists. In the self-taught category, our summer show includes works by Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, Morris Hirshfield and Grandma Moses.
Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné or inventory numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works, including the posters.
Ilija Bosilj Basicevic