In the 1979 film Being There (based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski), a naïve, slightly dimwitted gardener is mistaken for an economic pundit. The conceit is presented as a comic send-up of the political intelligentsia, but anyone who has ever spent time gardening knows that the metaphor contains some truth. Without proper tending, desirable plantings are easily overwhelmed by weeds, invasive vines and predatory pests. Real-life pundits today are hard-pressed to explain how our own economic garden got so wildly out of hand. Clearly globalization has made it relatively easy for multinational corporations to avoid taxation and regulatory oversight in any one jurisdiction. But even within autonomous nations such as the United States, government appears paralyzed, incapable of enacting substantive legislation. Our economic gardeners are afraid to cut back the vines and weeds because these are the only things that seem to be growing.
The art market is likewise being choked by top-heavy overgrowth. The sun never sets on the Gagosian empire. In tandem with international expansion, mega-galleries like Hauser & Wirth celebrate their financial clout by constructing massive new showplaces. Writing about the “West Chelsea space race,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith commented that, “More and more when we look at art, what we’re looking at is money.” Money is reflected not only in the sheer physical scale of the art and the spaces required to house it, but in continually escalating prices. Auctions are not so much about selling art as about breaking records, with the bulk of the effort, profit and publicity each season centered on a handful of eight-figure transactions. Christie’s contemporary sale in May posted the highest gross, $495 million, ever achieved at auction. Noting the number of bidders willing to drop over $20 million on a single lot, auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen crowed, “We’re in a new era of the art market.”
Artists have not been shy about getting in on the money grab. It is logical that the patron saint of this cohort would be Andy Warhol, who famously declared that, “Good business is the best art.” Artists like Damien Hirst aggressively control the marketing of their own work, employing a coterie of fabricators that dwarfs Warhol’s self-styled “Factory.” In 2008 Hirst and his business manager, Frank Dunphy, orchestrated an unprecedented single-artist sale at Sotheby’s. The artist, whose company, Other Criteria, produces Hirst tchotchkes like skateboard decks and coffee mugs, has deep designs on the commercial world. “Becoming a brand name,” he has said, “is a really important part of life.” Hirst is one of several prominent artists (others include Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama) to be featured on special lines of Louis Vuitton products. Some younger artists now choose to launch their careers entirely outside the art world by signing with fashion agencies and music managers. “It’s all show business,” says Dunphy, whose prior clients included burlesque stars and jugglers.
Few seem to realize that this fixation on financial and commercial success is relatively new to the contemporary art scene. During modernism’s long reign, the notion of money was anathema to serious art devotees. Starting in the early nineteenth century, the Romantics recast the creative vocation as a spiritual mission, distancing themselves from their paying clients. Hereafter, in the words of historian Peter Gay, “To sell was to sell out.” Opposition to bourgeois materialism became a modernist leitmotif, expressed as both a solipsistic retreat into “art for art’s sake” and in the anti-capitalistic anti-art of Dada. Throughout the twentieth century, artists struggled to block the commodification of their work. When Marcel Duchamp realized that even his “Readymades”—intended to mock the art world—were finding buyers, he stopped making art altogether. “Happenings” and Conceptual Art tried to evade the marketplace through ephemerality. Earthworks were so vast as to be theoretically unpurchasable—that is, until patrons with seemingly limitless funds entered the arena.
In its steadfast opposition to the commercialization of art, the avant-garde declared itself the enemy of mass culture, which was viewed as a consumer product no different from chewing gum. Filling the gap between waning aristocratic traditions and the equally moribund folk arts of the preindustrial era, mass culture was said to be driven purely by the profit motive. Produced neither by nor for individuals, mass-produced art and entertainment were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The bourgeoisie were synonymous with bad taste, and popular appeal became the mark of artistic mediocrity. Mid-twentieth-century critics expended great effort parsing the differences between highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow culture. Clement Greenberg saw the worst danger in the middlebrow, which cannibalized the avant-garde and transformed it into formulaic, predigested kitsch. Greenberg feared the middling would drive out the great, because the latter was harder to comprehend; his bête noire was The New Yorker.
Modernism’s professed contempt for the marketplace was amazingly pervasive and sustained, but it was never entirely convincing. The loathsome bourgeoisie was in practice the spawning ground of the avant-garde’s new patron class, and of not a few artists. Pablo Picasso, a registered Communist, was in all likelihood the twentieth century’s wealthiest artist. Dramatic posturing aside, few artists really wanted to starve in a garret, and the odds of remaining commercially pristine in a capitalist society were virtually nil. Although mass culture was commonly derided as a means of proto-totalitarian mind control, this attitude was also at heart anti-democratic, a big problem in a country like the U.S. that reveres its middle class. So, one might say, the groundwork was laid for a pendulum swing. With the fall of the Soviet Union came a largely unopposed triumph of global capitalism and an unabashed embrace of materialism that swept all in its wake.
Our new market narrative is, however, no more reliable than its modernist predecessor. Even with the shocking expansion of the 0.1%, there aren’t that many people in the world who can spend $20 million on a single work of art. Certainly globalization has increased the international reach of the art market, but it has also caused the market to fragment. Many newly wealthy collectors think locally and support niche areas like Chinese porcelain or classical Russian art. Online and telephone bidding broadens but also thins the bidder base, undermining the salesroom drama that was central to the success of the traditional auction model. Diminished demand below the “trophy” level has in turn sparked a decline in supply, yielding auction sales that are anemic in both quality and quantity. That is probably the reason Sotheby’s and Christie’s have aggressively expanded their involvement in private treaty consignments: often there are no longer enough bidders to generate the necessary competition at auction. Third-party guarantees are another popular way to hedge against the vagaries of the auction process by essentially preselling a lot.
The much-ballyhooed notion of art as an asset class similar to stocks, bonds or real estate is belied by the erratic nature of the market. Contrary to common belief, the big semi-annual auction sales are not like the stock market. They are too infrequent, too subject to the circumstances in place on a single day. Furthermore, unlike stocks, every artwork is unique, making it difficult to extrapolate from one sales result to another. Though art is now often (chillingly) referred to as an industry, it resists basic financial metrics. There is no algorithm to account for taste, no way to systematize or quantify profitability. Mei Moses, which compiles some of the most highly regarded art sales indices, only tracks works that have sold multiple times at auction, ignoring private transactions and in effect limiting its selection criteria to art that already has an established resale market.
Fair-market value is legally defined as “the price a willing buyer would pay a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell, and both having reasonable knowledge of all the relevant facts.” Many sellers, however, are acting under duress, or face pressure on the eve of an auction to lower their preset reserve price due to a momentary lack of demand. Furthermore, buyers and sellers of art, at auction or elsewhere, do not necessarily have “reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.” Knowledge may be lopsided, or lacking on both sides. Promoters of art funds refer to this as “information asymmetry,” and it remains one of the chief obstacles to getting art to perform like other financial assets.
Buying and selling art intelligently require in-depth knowledge of the work in question: its importance and quality relative to other examples by the artist; its condition; the artist’s price history as evaluated in the context of the preceding factors. There is no way to acquire this knowledge other than by following an artist’s market day-in and day-out, and this has historically been the function of the specialist dealer. Some may object that a dealer’s financial interest taints his or her expertise, but ideally the dealer’s self-interest (sustaining professional relationships and reputation) should coincide with that of the buyer (paying an appropriate price). It is the dealer’s job to equalize knowledge on the buyer’s and the seller’s sides of the equation and to ensure that the final price does in fact reflect fair-market value.
Hyperinflation at the upper reaches of the art market distorts the relationship between price and value, with highly publicized record-breaking sales obscuring more ambiguous results. As the traditional arbiters of cultural significance—scholars, curators and critics—shuttle back and forth between the non-profit and for-profit sectors, it is becoming impossible to find an area of the art world that has not been infiltrated by financial considerations. Conventional art criticism no longer has much influence, and museum agendas are routinely shaped by wealthy collectors. The melding of the art and fashion worlds reflects a shared vision based on trendsetting, self-promotion and marketing. All the foregoing tendencies favor short-term monetary gain at the expense of deeper aesthetic appreciation, and, ironically, reduce the chances that the art in question will retain its value over the long term.
It is not necessarily desirable or even possible to completely divorce art from the commercial realm, but when art becomes nothing more than a financial instrument, it ceases to be art. That may be why the modernists, living through the early phases of industrial capitalism, attempted to insulate themselves from the market. This attempt, even if delusional, gave modernism a moral core that is lacking in much of the art produced today. The excesses of the art market are an outgrowth of an economy that has lost its moral core. Capitalism is seen as an unmitigated good, and government as little more than an impediment to the market’s proper workings. All of this is usually presented with a Darwinian aura of inevitability that gives us no choice but to adapt or perish. However, if we and our government do not start to prune back the vines and weeds that are taking over our economic garden, we will soon find that there is nothing else left.