"In the current system," Powhida explains, "the rich are really the ones who establish financial and artistic value—instead of artists, curators, and critics. Take Dan Colen's [2010] show at Gagosian, for example. It was universally reviled, but a couple of rich guys thought different, so that work is now not just expensive but has gained institutional traction. That's troubling. Is the system totally rigged? Shouldn't we consider what the price of a work does to art socially and culturally?"

An artist many orders of magnitude removed from the eight- and nine-figure sums that characterize top art prices, Powhida is "incredibly frustrated" by the creative dilemma the market presents to artists. Making critical-minded work while feeling his way through "the problems surrounding art and money," he says, can be paralyzing.

But not everyone gives up. The Bruce High Quality Foundation is a group of Cooper Union grads with serious street cred. The Bruces, as they are known, have taken contemporary art and its larger economy to task on multiple occasions. Indeed, their decision to remain anonymous within the collective (they avoid photographic portraits) is a tactic to stiff-arm the market's star-making machinery. The Bruces also operate an unaccredited art school (the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, or BHQFU) and run The Brucennial, a biennial show that both lampoons and competes with the Whitney's own stolid career-maker. Created to "foster an alternative to everything," this subversive crew, adored as they are, also struggle to find a way to roll back the market's mutation.

William Powhida
William Powhida

"Art has always had a complicated relationship to money, but the fact that money is so prominent and auctions are so newsworthy today is really damning," says one of the Bruces, via telephone. "So, part of the question has to be: How to wrest art back from that kind of banal backstory. For us, it always comes back to one thing: Artists have a quality that makes them different from everyone else in society—and that's chiefly because it's their job to turn their disgust with the status quo into an alternative vision."

Part of the Bruces' vision is to attack the market with a kind of jujitsu. Because they have done extremely well with primary sales, the Bruces are in the rare position of being able to play the game even as they undermine it. They will sometimes agree to exhibitions, for instance, with big-name money-saturated collector-dealers like Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi—as a way to subsidize idea-generating, money-losing projects like their art school; there, they cultivate just the sort of artist who will keep the flame alive.

"What happened, basically, is that the art market did not respond to recessions the way the rest of the economy did. It went up consistently throughout. If you look carefully, the downs don't match the ups at the top of the market, and the breadth of collecting widened rather than narrowed."

Robert Storr and I have met in person this time, over beers and shots of tequila at La Nacional, a hole-in-the-wall on West 14th Street that also doubles as the canteen for the Spanish Benevolent Society. It's the kind of place that was once common in New York before the city was colonized by tonier locales like the Standard Hotel and Soho House. Storr has seen his share of demographic and cultural gentrification. In fact, the curator seems to believe that it is an ineluctable force, like gravity—at least as it applies to art.

"Certain artists and certain dealers were hit very hard in the '80s. The Japanese got pummeled and mostly didn't come back, but they have been replaced many times over by people in Wall Street, the Middle East, Russia, etc. There are tremendous deals that can be had in the art market today that cannot be made elsewhere. These are, by and large, both less traceable and less taxable. Essentially, that part of the art economy has not contracted in the ways that were once predicted by people like myself. And, frankly, I don't think it will."

Storr's vision describes a metastasizing and globalized class of dilettantish oligarch-investors who will do to art precisely what they have done to half of the apartments in Manhattan—cover it in mirrors, lacquer, and logos. There must, one hopes, be another way.

"Saying no is still an option," Storr reminds his people. Just because the rot is pervasive "doesn't mean that artists have no agency or can't say no to the system. Even if the game is stacked against them more than it has ever been, they still have volition."

But as I order another round, Storr lets on that the dilemma may be even bigger and deeper this time. "Art's real problems have nothing to do with Larry Gagosian's legal issues, or the fate of Jeff Koons's or Damien Hirst's prices, or even how some few important artists evade this monster financialization," Storr insists. Rather, they are about "how much of the world's economy is tied up in art investments, and how that opaque economy is actually run. That is the $8 billion question. Ignoring that today and sitting around and worrying about who did what to whom—or things like late capitalism according to Adorno—is just jacking off."

Note: An original version of this story listed Jacob Kassay's age as 29. This has been corrected.

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