Monday, December 10, 2012

Art Plus Money Makes Things Funny

There is something in the air about money and art right now.  A few examples just this past week have been voiced including; Patricia Cohen in her New York Times article, “An Art World Gathering, Divided by Money,” about Art Basel Miami Beach and collectors influence on art, Simon Doonan’s oddly 90s regressed rant on Slate about art, fashion and why he wouldn’t be caught dead going to Miami Basel, Camille Paglia’s article in The Wall Street Journal that proclaims that the avant-garde is dead and why this is and the lovable curmudgeon David Hickey saying he is retiring from art criticism because the art world is “…nasty and it’s stupid.  I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party, I quit,” as re-qouted from The Guardian. 

Maybe it’s post Miami Basel blues, maybe it’s the fact that the recession, Hurricane Sandy and how various minor and major events seem to have little to no effect on the art market’s strength.  Maybe it’s all of these things, none of these things or a confetti blast of all this and more.  Whatever the causes, it is clear that people have had just about enough of the art and money mix.  When I write, Art Plus Money Makes Things Funny, it is not in the funny ‘haha’ but in the something is off and may make you sick soon funny.  Art and money is always a sticky topic, sticky because it’s like family secrets that are better left buried and unspoken because it is too ghastly, uncivilized and draining to discuss.  Money as the arbiter the enabler and the proof of artistic merit is the antithesis of what ‘real’ art is supposed to be contingent on.  Well, sorry to be the awkward one but we all have to reality check ourselves, each and everyone of us, about the scope of this intermingling and how we all in turn benefit and are also demised by it.  As it is said in the bible and reiterated many other places, “the truth will set you free.”  Truth is a concept that seems impossible in the big philosophic sense but let’s investigate what’s in the air and then to possibly use that to think about what the heck is happening and to see if this reality we are living even has a chance to change.

Art Basel Miami Beach happens every year in the first weekend of December and it is the Carnival, spring break, prom of the art world.  It’s drunk and sexy and fun but also sloppy and vulgar and draining.  It’s probably the closest thing to the mirror the art word has.  It’s excess, desperation, and fabulousness all wrapped up in sponsored parties and everyone has to have a damn good time because you have to follow to rules to play in this game.  The art that is on view is the prop, the enabler, and the high culture reason of why the entire hullabaloo has purpose.  Art fairs are there to sell art.  They are trade shows, and this is a fine set up.  Art fair’s purpose from the start was never about cultural awakening or a revelations.  They have always served to be consolidated places where art can been seen en masse and then purchased by people who are too busy to go around and see all the art the world has to offer.  Also we all want to see and be seen, we are animals, we like to sniff each other from time to time.

What is on view is brought to you by the dealers that have home bases scattered in various cities and at art epicenters.  They have showrooms and staff and electricity and insurances to pay for, they make the money to do this by selling art work and the artist agrees to share in the sale of the work, almost always 50% of this retail cost.  This lets the artist make more work, have a studio, buy supplies, etcetera and lets the dealer pay their bills and salaries.  It’s a simple cycle and simple ecosystem when it comes right down to it.  What is not so simple is the effect that money plays in the value and what is shown.

Collectors are what make the art world go round.  Artists make the art world exist but there is no spin without the grease of money and those who have expendable cash are few.  Well that’s not true, but we are talking about the big bucks pockets now, and those that buy things for a few million are not your average bear.  The artists that make a few million or the upper hundred thousands for their art become a part of the elite in which collects them.  They become elite and their dealers do as well.  Rich people like other rich people, it makes them assured that their reality is real.  This is something that was bound to happen.  What can anyone do?  Pretend capitalism doesn’t exist?  Let’s not be so quaint. 

There is no ‘solution’ no way to ‘fix’ this, but there is a way to possibly slowly shift how these deep pockets effect ‘art.’  The only way I can think of, at this time, is for those who do not have millions to spend on art, maybe those that have a few thousand, a-thousand, even a few hundred extras bucks, to every once in a while to buy art.  The system is rigged in a way, it makes it seem like the artists who cost the most have the most influence and this is true in a way, but it’s just the truth in one aspect.  The way to fight capital is with capital, but not in the -my boat is bigger then your boat way- being subversive with the art market is the key to success.  Yes, subversion is still possible these days.  Instead of wanting to have the boat or to dock on the same island switch it, make it better, cooler, more rewarding to have something else/be somewhere else.  The only thing that money can’t buy is philosophy of life and a way of living it.  Money isn’t bad though, and supporting artists when you can so they can pay rent, buy food, buy materials and to think and actualize new ideas is the best sort of commerce anyone can participate in.

Now, sorry to say this but collectors are not the only variable in the problem.  Artists, yes some of you artists, are also a part of this crazy money art problem.  Artist is a word that is bandied about and it doesn’t need proof or evidence to support it, which it never should.  It has become more of career though.  There is a lot of money to be had in the art world and why not do the things that you would be doing regardless and fingers crossed you can make a living off of it?  The intents have changed though.  To make money off one’s art is more commonplace then one would think and once an artist gets to that level they sure as heck want to stay there as the value of their art practice is wedded to its sales.  Those that are not there yet but are assenting to it or see peers near at hand who are doing so, it’s so close that one can taste it and if you just maneuver well enough, play the game correctly you too can be an artist making money from your art.  We all want to do the thing that we think is our most perfect selves, our most actualized selves but there is a point when the getting there and reason why one was making art in the first place needs to be reflected on honestly. 

But maybe it’s not the artist’s fault.  They may just be making what they are making and feel it is the greatest thing since suitcases with wheels and whose to say how anyone’s brain works in self reflection and self criticism?  This brings in the role of the dealer and the curators that seem to abound in the art world into focus.  Dealers are not evil, working in art galleries for seven years has taught me the truth of the costs and the stakes that running a gallery has and it is not easy.  It is like any small business but in this case the goods are art and ideas.  That being said, the dealer has to sometimes work with, promote and to develop careers of artist that sell sell sell.  There is almost always a balance of this on most gallery rosters.  There are a handful of moneymaking artists and a handful of ideas/new artists.  The moneymaking artists let those artists that do not sell well, or sell at all, to have the solo show, because their revenue supports the whole shebang.  The ideas/new artists in turn lend to the legitimacy of the overall program.  The moneymaking artist may have fabulous ideas too, and this may have taken years, possibly decades of not money making but nurture and support from the dealer to establish.  This is a simple cycle to understand as well.  What is complicated is that many dealers just by being the dealer they are, can up the pricing of an artist or create a market for the artist just by their say so.  This is power and this is fantastic for the artist and dealer, but if the alignment of the ideas and strength of the art is not considered and the factors of only what is hot, marketable, and saleable is the dominant deciders, then this is a bad thing for the entire art universe. 

Dealers have been doing the above to such extant, bringing on and conflating artists careers driven more dominantly by market and buzz incentives that the curator has come to take the role of the cultural arbiter. The curator is considered to be not sullied or constrained by the need to meet overhead.  This is an interesting shift that has been more career-ified in the last decade or so.  All those programs, all those dissertations, all those grants and symposiums.  It is all happening because the art world needed it, or needed to show that there are those not reliant on the art market’s success alone.  This has a shadow of intention as well though because the more the art world is academicized the more validated it becomes and authority is the base for history and history is the bases for accumulated value in influence and in market result.

You can’t blame anyone for this really though.  We are all just trying to survive and the truth is that the world of higher education, and the institutions and professors and all else involved is as big an industry as any other.  Why not latch on to something that is ripe with cash flow?  There are very good curators out there.  Many whose brains are very big and they are essential to making the art world interesting, less uneven and something worth thinking about.  There are also a lot of not so good curators and like artists, there are entirely too many of them.  We need more good and less bad of just about everything.

Finely, the critic.  Critics, I believe, are truly the last hope for art truth telling.  Sadly there is only a handful worth their salt, you know who they are.  They make you scared to read the review if it’s about your show and they make you feel like you got the biggest gold star in the world if they speak favorably of you and likewise to crawl in a hole and just disappear if it is unfavorable.  Everyone’s a critic, most of them poor ones at that (myself included).  There is nothing critical about ranting or raving or linking or blogging or tumbling or twitting about what it is you like, love, hate, think is cool.  It is inevitable though and the more people do it the more filters we need.  Writing is the key to good criticism.  If you can’t write well, sit down for goodness sake.  There is so much art, so many shows and events and so much money involved and the structures of reading about it all and promoting everything is all changing with the new models of advertisement and the internet.  Because of these new models there are a lot people putting in their two cents and each one is legitimized by who they are or who they work for. 

Critics used to be very influential in the directions of the wind the art world was in or about to take and although it will never be that way again, nor should it be, it would be wonderful if there were just a few more snappy, fair but firm, and also highly stimulating critics out there to put a little weight and a little fear into this whole art business.  What has taken the bite out of young critics and writers these days?  A job baby, a job.  It’s hard to keep it and to get a better one if you use up your goodwill when you have little granted to you in the first place.  Hopefully there will be some new voices that can kick art criticism butt in the next five years.  If not, we are going to have a gapping wound of bullshit to fill.

Okay, that’s enough for now, barely think much of this made sense but hey, this is my head, and you and I are both just visiting it for a bit.  Art is the best.  I love art, not because it is the thing I make a livelihood from, which I do, not because I have met most of my friends and had great conversations, which I have, and not because it is fun and elite and makes me feel like even being not wealthy or normal is a-ok, which it does.  I love art because it gives anyone, everyone, the chance to think, to question, to possibly change the way they see themselves, reality and even ways of thinking.  Art is not a solution, it is a series of questions and it is in questions that we find other things, things that bring us to other things and back around again.  Art and money will be linked for all time and that is not a burden or a negative.  We just have to all collectively make sure that the other parts of art and all the things that make it as necessary and captivating as it is are still present, still at the forefront.  Maybe the whole money art mess is a new form of art in itself, which is highly possible. That is what makes all of it never endingly fantastic and something that even though I want to just walk away from sometimes, will never actually do.  No one can kill or control art, not you, or I or all the money in the world.  Let’s try to shift things though, as daunting as that seems, it’s possible, anything in art is possible.