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"Virtually every gallery I know at the middle says that they're struggling much worse than the galleries at the top or the bottom, because those are the places where buyers speculate." That's Ed Winkleman, the well-known art blogger and owner of Chelsea's Winkleman Gallery. He recently reopened his West 27th Street space after it took on five feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. Despite being in business for years and having a critically acclaimed program, Winkleman struggles with the challenges of running "a family-owned business" in a world that insists on seeing art as an investment. According to the fortysomething dealer, the financialization of art has affected everything—from artists' expectations to what galleries actually show.
"Young artists get carried away by the crazy money out there. They believe the hype. They think success is about endless cash, about having lots of studio assistants, and getting picked up in a limo. As a mid-range gallery, you have to prioritize your spending. Do you spend money on a catalog, which actually helps develop an artist's career, or do you spend it on a limo? Many galleries hire the limo, and I've seen what happens when they can't afford that anymore. I've also watched experimental galleries migrate slowly to show only the artists that sell. Obviously, that strategy only increases the homogeneity of what's on view."
For Magda Sawon, owner of Chelsea's Postmasters Gallery, the distinctions forced by today's speculative market are far more stark: "It's not collecting when someone buys his fifth Jeff Koons for $15 million."
The founder of what many consider to be one of the leading experimental galleries in Manhattan, Sawon describes the current situation as "completely puppeteered from the top" and says it has "tremendous consequences for everyone else." As for the effects of all the investment-grade cash permeating the art world, she is disarmingly direct about what many in the industry are too timid—or conflicted—to say: "It kills radicality for artists, dealers, and everyone else. I think the word collecting doesn't even apply to that kind of activity. It's about buying to sell, really, it's gambling, and has nothing to do with any of the issues that are central to the creation and appreciation of art in our time."
Given that the sort of highly critical work she exhibits—what used to be called avant-garde art—has lost favor among the collectors, Sawon's harsh take could be written off as sour grapes. After all, shouldn't the 21st-century collector have every right to spend money however he likes? Who really gets hurt if billionaires and multimillionaires piss their money away on luxury tchotchkes?
"When money is concentrated among only a few artists and an even smaller number of collectors, then the middle gets squeezed—and that's where a lot of the most important art gets produced." Sawon counters. "Innovation happens in an artist's career where he or she can make advances on initial ideas and before these get locked into signature styles. This is becoming much harder to do, and the result is that art turns more uniform. I'll tell you what I really think—in this climate, I'm pretty sure someone like Robert Rauschenberg could never have made it."
Assuming Sawon is right, we are witnessing the emergence of what might be called Strategic Art—pieces designed to pierce the consciousness of a new investing class. This kind of art increasingly sees the marketplace as a kind of focus group. Naturally, it produces what buyers like best.
"There is so much work out there today that is a literal mirror of the values of the super-rich," says William Powhida, one of Sawon's most emblematic artists and a celebrated gadfly who once satirized Jeff Koons on the cover of The Brooklyn Rail (he's also the artist behind the lettering and portraits in this story). "There are the reflective surfaces of Koons and of younger artists like Jacob Kassay, and there's the sudden vogue in abstraction in the auction houses and the galleries on the Lower East Side. There are suddenly tons of slick-surfaced, object-based works that seem expressly made to sell and never offend."
Kassay, a 28-year-old painter of silver monochrome canvases who set a 2011 auction record of $290,500 for a painting that had sold only a year earlier for $8,000, essentially embodies the speculators' thirst for fresh talent. And while he is duly blasé about their interest in him—"all collectors have is money," he told a New Yorker reporter—it's hard not to wonder how they have straitjacketed him as an artist. Just as important is how these same art-stock traders are transforming what the rest of us get to experience. Take the October auction of Gerhard Richter's Abstract Painting (809–4). A work widely thought to be—like most of the German painter's abstractions—inferior to his far more influential photo-based paintings, it fetched $34.2 million, suddenly making Richter the world's most expensive living artist. Richter himself has called such prices "just as absurd as the banking crisis," "impossible to understand," and "daft." But this process produces more than absurdity; it's damaging to art's own historical priorities. When the mediocre is elevated by speculative greed, the real genius of an artist like Richter is diluted.