It never ceases to impress me the degree to which art, despite the current state of art market “globalization,” is largely discussed in the public dialogue as an obsession with first world problems. Problems of marketization, securitization, offshoots of real estate interests, what have you. There are resistances and counter-measures to the dominance of this approach, but there’s little question as to its supremacy as the “normative” understanding of the value of art. Yet, this approach can at times feel stunted, ignorant of something more than simply the relevance of collectibility or of expressions of the value of power to the wealthiest among us. Especially in this era of the 99% movement, when dissatisfaction with the way in which our society functions to disenfranchise those who qualify as less of an asset holding class than others, you would think the search for ways in which to discuss art as something more than just the value hammered down at the latest auction gathering would become a vital part of the conversation. Instead, relevant to art, this aspect of the discussion seems muted to me, and any sense of society’s inequalites is rarely discussed.
These thoughts reared up for me while participating here in Chicago recently as an invitee to the Coprosperity School, a program held in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the city’s south side. Organized by the 501 (c) 3 Public Media Institute, the event brought together an informal grouping of local artists struggling to get a handle on the Chicago scene and its relevance to the wider art world. We popped the tops on a few beers and passed around a bottle of Jameson’s (generously provided by one of the participants), and launched into a discussion of my own experience of the art world. It was interesting to me how much of what I had to say at this informal consort of interested art-worlders had to center on the vicissitudes of the marketplace.
It’s a subject that has been on my mind since I first got involved in the art world by way of writing for the now-defunct New Art Examiner magazine in early 1999 (they’ve recently released a volume of the “essential” writings culled from the magazine’s run), and of course a perennial issue, this uneasy balance that takes place at a certain section of the upper echelon that makes up the art world pyramid (or “ringleadership,” such as it is) topped as it is precisely by the 1% who drive its “high art” pretensions. There’s also no question as to my own participation in the market-side equation, as the owner and operator of a satellite fair, Verge, that seeks to act the part of a lamprey on the shark (pun intended) of the market heights, and to contribute as it does in its own way to the increasing valuation of artist’s works. And yet, this was certainly not my motivation upon pursuing a place in the art world as a critic and writer, and remains for me the least interesting aspect of the art world. Do we really need to sit and niggle through percentage variables in auction prices? Statistics and valuations? Not to mention the gross transformation of art as a human pursuit into this monolithic system of financial-vehicles and openly unfair and corrupt schemes of shadow bidders and price-fixing? It seems clear from so much of the extant thought on the subject, such as the Intelligence Squared panel on the morality of the art market, that what is commonplace practice in the art market would land people in the pokey were these same tactics undertaken in the stock market. And yet, why is it that this is a subject so openly closed for discussion in the art world? At this past year’s Art Basel Miami Beach there hung in the air the possible threat of a backlash, and a widely felt one, I think, that the Occupy movement might have some effect, might ripple into the art world at the very playground of the 1%. Yet, it never materialized.
Doubtless, this was an effect of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds the art market, and yet the sheer weight of the suppression of any form of dissenting thought on the subject seemed to me pretty incredible. Has the art world lost its spine? Are artists so reliant on the patronage that fuels the art market that they are willing to collectively and uniformly label verboten any such social commentary from the allowable range of dialogue? It was something of a curiosity for me then to sit down a few artists participating in Verge and ask them why, exactly, they found it necessary to attend Art Basel? After all, this is arguably the heart of the globalized liquid market, and many of the artists participating are not themselves direct beneficiaries in any manner of that market. Certainly, it can’t be an altogether uncritical experience. My colleague Peter Schjeldahl has described the experience for artists at art fairs as “cows at the creamery,” akin to witnessing how our comparatively small art trade’s commodity version of sausage (err…cream) is made. Few if any of them see relevant financial benefit from attending, existing outside the backroom deals of the high-finance that fuels the spectacle as they do.
So, I sat down with each of these unknown artists on the bed in the rented room we were sharing, imagining a sort of informal, late-night “pillow talk” discussion of art-making and their relationship to its trade. I’m posting them here unedited. We were drinking vociferously, of course, and crammed together in a crowded room, so the recording can get a bit raucous here and there. But they’re instructive and engaging and I’m posting them here in their full-length versions, the first of which, with NY-based sculptor Edouard Steinhauer is here:
Then I interviewed newcomer Chicago-based net artist Sarah Weis:
Next came NY-based artist Eliza Stamps:
And finally, I concluded the evening’s conversations with Chicago-based artist and curator Gwendolyn Infusino:
Much of what I could gather from these conversations, entertaining as they are, was that these and the other artists like them cramming Miami hotel rooms were all just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. This, of course, may in large part have nothing to do with the marketization fuel lighting the late-night afterparties in the nightclubs and coke-tipping strip joints. After the weekend, Ms. Stamps further affirmed this sentiment by writing a letter to the editor in response to a New York Times reporter’s coverage of the weekend as too focused on the economic side of the event (the letter can be read here, scroll down to the bottom).
Moreover, it occurs to me that all of this of this leads me to the realization that my entry into the art world was at a particularly curious moment, one when the feet of the particular idol known as globalization was just getting trotted out in front of a breathlessly admiring crowd. I’m still surprised when people don’t know that art is treated like any other asset class these days and is held by investment funds, just like shares in corn, oil or any other commodity. Perhaps no work of art (and it is one) demarcates our willingness to stop at nothing in this pursuit of pictorializing art’s fetishization as a commodity class than Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2003), in which the artist accepted payment in exchange for sex that she made an artwork from with a collector. Clearly, this is satire taken as an expression of sincerity in the object of its satire, which results, one would gather, in not much of an expression of satire at all. And so what? Then again, the sheer scale of this investment in art in recent history is pretty remarkable relative to the scale of its source market. The art market, after all, can’t hold much of an economic candle to tech or oil. Sure, there are a history of antecedents in the way of financial test balloons and market devices, but the sort of deep investment in art as an asset class by such funds today hadn’t really taken off ten years ago, just as art fairs themselves hadn’t yet taken off to provide the sort of liquid market access they represent today. These funds’ exuberant embrace of art acquisitions may indeed have dipped off some since Lehman Brothers’ demise, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away, either. These are a somewhat new tools, and still undergoing some adjustment or correction to the “new reality” post-bubble bursting, but they also seem perfectly clearly here to stay.
I don’t feel any particular need to discuss the ins and outs of the variable histories of these investment strategies. Feel free to pick up Noah Horowitz’s recently published Art of the Deal and his excellent chapter on art investment funds for a thorough analysis of those histories and some evaluation of their performance (though I’ll state here that I find his chapter on Actor-Network-Theory more than a little soft as a borrowing). Regardless, as Horowitz notes, there does exist a unique tension between the economic and symbolic value of art as an asset class that requires highly specialized vetting, a search for an socioeconomic, analytic sweet spot that inveighs to the less salient traits of what might be thought of as art investment, traditionally understood. It’s not too far-fetched to assert that few may actually grasp the intricacies of such investing under the sky of these newly conjured indices. But to me, this sounds an awful lot at its core like the betting against the bank that has been securitization, a craps game that has earned a deservedly bad reputation around the world and particularly here at home in the States where it has been practiced most freely.
And in the last year, as a pooled asset class, art has apparently begun to find interested parties to help rally behind the idea, as noted in a recent report on the practice in the New York Times. In that article they discuss Skate’s, a firm that appraises art as financial instrument founded by Russian investment banker Sergey Skaterschikov, a company described by its chairman as aspiring to become a sort of “Standard & Poor’s of art.” It’s notable that in this same article the current president of the Art Dealers Association of America, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, is quoted as coming out as resistant to “seeing art as another financial instrument.” But, it may be just a matter of time before this latest outré approach, given the art world’s abject dependence on the whims of its patronage systems, becomes commonly accepted practice too. Call me cynical.
Which, I think, brings me to my point. Label it nostalgia or naiveté if you must, but there’s something about art as an ideal of how we interact as human beings, of creativity and imagination focused on something more than our limited, measurable and (measurably) crass material states and behaviors that initially drew me to its practice and ideals. Over the last eight months or so, I’ve been working with a group here in Chicago on a mission to stabilize and fund an art center in Jakmel, Haiti headed up by the Frame Family Foundation and its delegate, local art activist Susan Frame. I was brought into the project by Steve Raden, an old Chicago friend of mine and activist humanitarian in the field who has traveled extensively in third world countries, often exclusively on his own dime, to help provide aid where he could, and there are real, clear egalitarian reasons for working to support such a project. As the stories I’ve heard serve to illustrate, the Jakmel center functions as a safe haven from persecution by others in Haitian society who find hate a productive response to lesbian and gay male lifestyles, or who find those physically handicapped in the wake of the earthquake easy pickings. They also work to imbue its participants with art-making knowledge and skills that give them an export upper-hand in their own localized markets and, at a minimum, a means of realizing a productive living. I’m happy to shamelessly plug here the small music and poetry fundraising event we’ve managed to pull together on February 18 at proudly ramshackle local nightspot Phyllis’ Musical Inn. For me, this sort of effort gets at the heart of something more in-line with what a system built around the distribution and promotion of art can really invest in and, by doing so, make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. And, I have to beg the question of course, but wouldn’t it be a better art world if that was more of the focus? Questions of representation and aesthetics be damned for a moment. Can’t we at least admit a conversation about something besides our own material aspirations as an acceptable aspect of the normative dialogue?
Tags: 1%, 99%, Aaron “Funk” Boyles, Alliance Francais, andrea fraser, art, art center, Art Dealers Association of America, art funds, art market, art of the deal, Artinfo, artinfo.com, chicago, Coprosperity School, cynthia plastercaster, Eder Romeus, edie fake, Edouard Steinhauer, eliza stamps, frame family foundation, fundraising, globalization, gwendolyjn infusino, haiti, haitian art, humanity, intelligence squared, jakmel, jakmel ekspresyon, Jean Baptist Junior, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, Miguelita " Farah" Joseph, music, new art examiner, new york times, noah horowitz, non-profit art center, occupy movement, Peter Schjeldahl, phyllis musical inn, Public Media Institute, Sarah Weis, securitization, Sergey Skaterschikov, Spare Change Theater Project, steve raden, susan frame, verge art fair