If I could go back in time and change one thing about the development of the art world, it would be to steer the legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen (1869-1939) away from the market. In my humble opinion, Duveen all but single-handedly created the most destructive aspect of the contemporary art scene/market today.
Duveen didn’t deal in the contemporary art market, mind you, but rather sold off European Old Masters to super wealthy, but culturally insecure, American industrialists. (His clients included Frick, Hearst, Huntington, Morgan, Mellon, and Rockefeller, among others.) Often he gave the works a conservatorially dubious facelift so the Americans would find them more attractive, but his truly questionable habit was in jacking up the prices to the point that all but the dimmest of observers in the States began to take notice. One didn’t notice the art so much as how it made people regard the new owner, and, of course, how much (under Duveen’s careful guidance) it all seemed to keep appreciating in value.
More recent developments in contemporary art explain the astronomical prices that dominate the discussion about art these days: the emergence of New York, where finance was already a religion, as the art world’s capital; the rise of the living artist as “rock star” and the money-and-fame-minded people that are attracted to the field; the blurring of art criticism with art journalism, whereby how much an artwork cost became a standard data point, even in many otherwise critical responses; and of course the rise of the contemporary art auction scene and art fairs, whereby collectors so inclined could indulge in the most conspicuous of cultural consumption. But none of these have had quite the impact of Duveen’s persistent price gouging on art objects in general. In short, he helped usher in a sea change in how we consider (as opposed to look at) art itself. Add in the impact of globalization, and Duveen’s legacy has been to change how people around the world perceive art.
The British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous once lampooned this shift in art “appreciation” in an episode where Edina shows her friend Patsy a new work of art she just purchased. Patsy’s initial response to the work was honest.
Patsy: [looking at what Edina bought]: Are you mad?
Edina: Well you don’t have to like it, that’s not the point, Darling.
Patsy: Well how much did this lot set you back?
Edina: Well, I just spent as much as I could, Darling. It cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Patsy: Ah well, in that case, it’s fabulous.
I can’t help but imagine that, if it were possible to convince Duveen to remain focused on selling antiques (his original business) rather than art, Americans might eventually, as the nation matured and our cultural insecurities evaporated, have come to see art more as everyone’s heritage and not merely trophies for the ultra rich. Had art not become a symbol of classism (a rather self-perpetuating status), but rather a field in which great achievements reflected well on all of us (much the way we perceive science), I suspect it might not spark as much resentment as it does in certain quarters. Not that everyone would be interested in contemporary art, mind you, but rather that, as with science, if they didn’t quite understand some of it, they wouldn’t take it personally.
That in turn might encourage more people to see contemporary art as something that they should possibly have in their homes or offices. Of course, not everyone can afford the most expensive artwork, but the more demand for reasonably priced art, perhaps the more artists who could earn a living providing it.
EDWARD WINKLEMAN is Co-Owner/Director of Winkleman Gallery, New York, and author of the book How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery.