Our Myopia, Ourselves
At 6:30 in the evening on Monday, April 14th, a capacity crowd of 500 gathered in The New School’s Tishman Auditorium to hear a panel discussion titled Artforum at The New School: Art and Money. Moderated by Artforum editor Tim Griffin, the participants represented the commercial, non-profit, academic and creative sides of what is now called, apparently without irony, the art industry: Amy Cappellazzo, the co-head of Christie’s Contemporary Art; Thomas Crow, who holds the Rosalie Solow Chair at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts: Jeffrey Deitch of Deitch Projects; Kathy Halbreich, former director of the Walker Art Center and now an associate director at the Museum of Modern Art; and the artist Yinka Shonibare, British-born and raised in Nigeria, who was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2004.
The conversation differed in detail but not in substance from the roundtable discussion featured in the April issue of Artforum, which included some of the same participants. That issue’s cover image, Damien Hirst’s instantly-iconic diamond-studded skull, “For the Love of God” (2007), seemed to hang over the stage—grinning, miasmic—as the panelists (at least those on the commercial end of things) heralded glad tidings of a new era, one of an “unprecedented accumulation of private wealth… on a par with the Mellons and Rockefellers” (Cappellazzo). This economic imbalance, grotesque by any standard, is the poisoned fruit of the Bush tax cuts, fertilized by rock-bottom interest rates that have essentially “offered free money to the financial markets” (Deitch). The $9 trillion national debt and the worldwide credit collapse, direct results of these two factors, were never discussed. The failing dollar—the prime symbol of the monetary basket case we find ourselves living in—was mentioned in passing, but only as one of the reasons for the recent tenfold increase in the value of contemporary art.
If you look back on the wild swings of the art economy over the past several decades, the logical question would be not whether the current bull market could fall, but how fast and how far. The rhetoric of a bright new tomorrow, in which the art world would become “a platform for economic development and political power,” and where contemporary art could be “as important to our economy … as the steel industry was 100 years ago” (Deitch) rang hollow that night and has grown increasingly distant as food riots break out in Haiti, the cost of rice quadruples in Southeast Asia, and a barrel of crude oil reaches record highs.
That said, it would be a mistake to reduce the debate around art and money to a simple dichotomy between elite culture on one hand and the struggle for survival on the other. The cash fueling the art boom is a disposable fraction of the oceanic sums manipulated day in and day out by hedge funds and other fiscal instruments. Society organizes itself around its needs, and the art market has evolved, in the absence of the superstructures of church and state, as a method of organizing, transforming and transferring experience. Under the best of circumstances, this can result in a communal dynamic in which the emotional and intellectual structures embedded in a work of art are immediately clear to all who behold it. In this way, art acts as a social glue, but unlike philosophy, politics or religion, its only requirement is an openness to its transcendent power.
This sense of cohesion, of mutual sensitivity to an object of contemplation, is precisely what is threatened by the current emphasis on art’s economic ascendance. A preoccupation with that object’s preciousness subliminally divides a society into haves and have-nots, which dissolves the glue and diminishes the aesthetic experience. We become spectators at the king’s feast. Yinka Shonibare, the sole artist on the panel, articulated this disparity by identifying the market as “essentially political.” Canny neo-conceptualists like Koons and Hirst play with this concept, but their hyper-luxe surfaces ultimately render their works into one-trick ponies; Shonibare, in contrast, stated that he would like to see art “go from the fetishism of the material back to the fetishism of the idea.”
Where art goes, of course, is entirely in the hands of artists. Market forces may feel inexorable, but as Kathy Halbreich said toward the end of the evening, “Art always survives… we have the choice of how we value it.” Halbreich, whose acquisition policy at the Walker was predicated on “the global, the multidisciplinary, the diverse,” also noted the failure of the market to “[bring] forward art that is outside of conventional parameters.”
It was striking that throughout the discussion, the same few names, all synonymous with outsized work, were cited repeatedly: Koons, Hirst, Murakami, Serra. Their recent art, with its steep fabrication costs, was viewed as emblematic of the new system: without the heavy capitalization enabled by the deep pockets of international dealers and mega-collectors, its scope and ambition could never be achieved, and we’d all be the poorer for it. Yet the very fact of their capitalization fixes them, for good or ill, in the brightly-lit realm of official art, while the legacy of the avant-garde assures us that vitality, like fungus, thrives in the shadows.