By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Of course, the charge that money is corrupting art has been thrown around since before taxi magnate Robert Scull flipped pictures by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol into a then-scandalous $2 million profit at Sotheby's New York in 1973. (As Sandler told the story to me, Rauschenberg accosted Scull after the sale and shouted: "Kiss me—I like to be kissed when I'm being fucked!") The Scull sale affirmed the role big money would have in shaping and dominating the art world and, since then, art's principal players have largely adopted (embraced?) Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer's platinum rule: "The best art is the most expensive because the art market is so smart."
Rank-and-file artists, critics, and curators likewise went along with this free-market piety—although usually with an ironic fig leaf. As the decades passed and the money just got bigger, the overstuffed art beast consumed everything in its path, from Warhol's productized paintings to Jeff Koons's commodity kitsch. (In his book The Value of Art, writer and dealer Michael Findlay identifies this period as dominated by the world's last art movement: Commercialism.) But it wasn't really until serious business journalists took note and came running to document the next hot market for High Net Worth Individuals that the art world took stock of its new situation. And what became clear to the more experimental, contrarian critical community was that what passes for fusion among uptown's financial giants is uranium poisoning for everybody else.
Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, for one, has detailed the degree to which the market is kept afloat by vast, dark pools of wealth. In a post called "Occupy Art," he explained the basic data that make possible the anomaly of a skyrocketing art investment economy amid a wider macroeconomic recession, and also pegs how this "flood of money" has begun to negatively affect "the public face of the art world." Over the last few months, Salmon has pointed to nonstop auction records (last November, Christie's and Sotheby's jointly notched a record billion dollars worth of sales in two days), proliferating art fairs (there are 189 worldwide today, up from 68 in 2005), and the art world's increased identification with the mega-rich as just some of the reasons why "the art market has stopped being a source of fascination and crazy numbers, and has started to be a source of sheer disgust."
For an expanding circle of the art world's laboring classes—critics, curators, academics, mom-and-pop gallerists, and, of course, artists—enough finally appears to be enough. Ex–Newsweek critic Blake Gopnik wrote in his very last column in December that "hubris has taken over from sense across the board." But that's too delicate by half. The bad juju emanating from the market is having a Chernobyl-like effect. As The Simpsons' Smithers said to Mr. Burns when asked whether his power plant had killed off a pond full of ducks: "There's no maybe about it, sir."
"Believe me, I don't romanticize poverty at all, but Cindi Lauper was right: Money changes everything." Those words belong to Robert Storr, ex-curator of MOMA's Department of Painting and Sculpture, director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, and, since 2007, Dean of Yale's celebrated art school. Storr has gotten on the phone with me to talk about how "the once comparatively small art market has ballooned into hedgerows of commodities and alternate currencies." A man New York magazine described in 2006 as a "vital link between the museum world and academia," Storr has at times also proved to be a highly contentious figure. As his voice comes over the line, one thing is certain: He hasn't much time for the gaudy big-money players.
"Galleries used to be like record companies. They had artists who sold big, others who sold some, and then still others who didn't sell anything at all. Now that's all changed. Today, every gallery show needs to pay for itself, which means that artists feel increasing pressure to make commercial work. That is not just happening in the art world—the whole world is going corporate."
Despite the growing disgruntlement among his colleagues, Storr is skeptical that any change will come to the system until "some part of the financial game falls apart." When I ask about the possibility of some as-yet-undiscovered local bohemia providing an alternative, he scoffs: "Allan Kaprow announced the end of bohemia in his 1964 essay 'The Artist as a Man of the World.' Essentially, what Kaprow said is that what contemporary artists really want is to become is proper middle-class citizens. Of course, there are moments in every generation when a facsimile of bohemia arrives. There was the Lower East Side in the 1980s, Williamsburg in the '90s, Bushwick now—but those aren't examples of bohemia proper so much as periods of adolescence lived through by successive artistic cohorts."
So much for the Bushwick avant-garde!
But if bohemia is a nostalgic tic, what remain important to Storr are those middle-class citizens. When I mention that middle-market folks are being put under incredible strain by the churn taking place above them, Storr agrees that the art market is an increasingly two-tiered economy. "Of course, absolutely the worst thing you could be in today's art world is a middle-market artist," he says. He then submits that it is in that very middle range—as in the American middle class—that real artistic innovation happens.