How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art

How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art
Artwork by William Powhida

"The art market focuses attention on what its priorities are, which is big buying and big selling—so we wind up talking about Koons, Hirst, Murakami, the usual suspects. The big problem is figuring out how to focus attention in other directions."

Irving Sandler, an 87-year-old critic, has been on the scene ever since New York inherited the mantle of the New Florence from Paris. The author of the definitive book on 1950s American art, The Triumph of American Painting, Sandler witnessed the birth of the big bad New York art market, as well as the periodic waxing and waning of its influence. As I sit in his painting-filled apartment near NYU—"It's all to be given away," he says, gesturing at an Alex Katz portrait of him and his wife on their wedding day, "we decided we were never going to sell anything and we never have"—he pours a glass of wine and schools me on the noxious effects big money can have on young talent.

"Collectors have had an insidious effect on young artists. They move into graduate schools and offer these kids ridiculous amounts of money. The result is that even art students focus on what sells and continue to produce that kind of work, rather than experiment, which is what they ought to do."

William Powhida
William Powhida

I've come to Sandler's comfortable if modest digs to gather some insight from a figure who has seen the New York art market develop into an $8 billion–a-year industry and the preferred recession-time hedge for Wall Street billionaires. I've also come to learn what someone with his acumen makes of the influence of financial speculation on art today—how it affects the way art is made, understood, and, ultimately, experienced.

"Everything has changed, and the art market is a big part of that. Back in my day, people used to fight for their views. Now people look for the auction prices, and the prices are their argument."

A slight, gracious, even-tempered man, Sandler has lived through the art market's various booms and busts and is mostly inured to the wagering and bluffing that characterizes the trade. Yet even he is clearly scandalized by the prices flying around in what looks more and more like a commodities pit. But the scandal isn't the ridiculous amounts of money, or the amount of collective time we spend ogling it. The horror is what happens to the art world when a second-rate drawing like The Scream (not one of Edvard Munch's paintings, mind you, but a drawing) sells for $120 million, what takes place when that ballyhooed transaction, and the piece's subsequent exhibition at MOMA, trickles down into the studios and minds of young, emerging, and even established artists.

"Tens of millions for a drawing? I don't really know how those kinds of prices would affect an artist who is not, as it were, market friendly," says Sandler. "Part of the challenge I see in trying to focus attention away from market-oriented art is figuring out how art that behaves like a commodity can be counteracted by artists. One way to do this is to create communities. Another way—and I think this is very, very important—is to create anti-market polemics."

Oddly enough, that's just what's happened during the last few months in the normally self-satisfied, go-along-to-get-along art world.

"What can I tell you? It's nasty and it's stupid. I'm an intellectual and I don't care if I'm not invited to the party. I quit." That's Dave Hickey, the widely beloved, 71-year-old critic. He made it official as 2012 drew to a close. For Hickey, art has turned into a plaything for the 1 percent.

In a recent bridge-burning interview with the U.K.'s Observer, he portrayed the art industry as "calcified, self-reverential, and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing." Hickey's whistle-blower account points to a fresh consensus within the art world, a growing belief among insiders that the market is destroying art itself by treating it like shares of Google or Amgen. The whole game has acquired a kind of tacky, Trump Tower uncool: As NYC fashion maven and erstwhile art lover Simon Doonan ranted not long ago in a Slate column about Art Basel Miami, today's art world resembles "a vapid hell-hole of investment-crazed pretentiousness."

Hickey's interview, Doonan's Slate screed, financial writer Sarah Thornton's public spurning of the market in TAR magazine—these and other key art-club defections have one fascinating thing in common: They feature previously sedate experts kicking over the very trough that fed them, calling bullshit on former colleagues and on the rank cupidity, speculation, and insider trading that takes place at clubby lunches at Sant Ambroeus and Casa Lever. Not since the culture wars of the 1980s and the AIDS crisis have such aggrieved righteousness and critical solidarity swept the art world's normally compliant culturati.

That art is, increasingly, a synonym for capital is inarguable. The top of the art market looks like a subsidiary of the NYSE, and art's biggest players today include a disproportionate number of finance's boldface names, from Steve Cohen of SAC Capital and Leon Black of Apollo Global Management (he owns The Scream) to Adam Sender of Exis Capital Management, François Pinault (who owns both Gucci and Christie's), and Larry Gagosian (the financier of art dealers). In recent years, the value of certain blue-chip art has risen faster than the S&P 500, led by a spike in wealth among the country's top earners. Conceptual artist Andrea Fraser, in her essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, cites a Yale study showing that "a one-percentage-point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent." You can almost hear the money sluicing back and forth between Manhattan and the Caymans.

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