“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”- Robert Hughes, 1989
Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?
The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?
Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.
Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:
Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”
The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.
Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.
So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.
The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.
Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.
Dost thou know what reputation is?
I ’ll tell thee,—to small purpose, since the instruction
Comes now too late.
Upon a time Reputation, Love, and Death,
Would travel o’er the world; and it was concluded
That they should part, and take three several ways.
Death told them, they should find him in great battles,
Or cities plagu’d with plagues: Love gives them counsel
To inquire for him ’mongst unambitious shepherds,
Where dowries were not talk’d of, and sometimes
’Mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left
By their dead parents: “Stay,’ quoth Reputation,
‘Do not forsake me; for it is my nature,
If once I part from any man I meet,
I am never found again.’
- Duchess of Malfi, III, ii
Zeitgeist went to see Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic last month, a brilliant production, and was reminded of this fantastic quotation when thinking of the upcoming Olympic Games soon to descend on London. Though arguably less ephemeral than the brand of today’s salubrious celebrities – written about recently in Vanity Fair – the Games can hardly be said to provide any quantifiable burgeoning of brand to host countries of the past (except perhaps for Barcelona). As The Economist adroitly put it the other week, “When asked why the United States is a fine place, few would instinctively mention its hosting of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.”
Are Britain’s current economic woes related to anything that might be solved by hosting an Olympics? Probably not. Will the Games, much like the bloody affairs of ancient Rome, serve to please and distract the hordes? More likely. The Games themselves will have to be good enough to overcome the pre-event controversies of massive over-spending, Zil lanes, anti-missile protests and Olympic torches on eBay. Otherwise, as the above quotation describes, the reputation of many will be lost forever.
Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae
‘Should the world break and fall about him, its ruins will strike him unafraid’. Rupert Murdoch’s world can, without a great deal of exaggeration, surely be said to breaking and falling about him right now. After months of very public airing of dirty laundry, ranging from phone hacking to bribes at the highest levels of society and government, News Corporation could no longer survive in its current form. Though hidden away, nestled in the hills of the South of France for a short time, the news did not escape Zeitgeist’s notice. The empire, which The New York Times reports as being valued at $54bn, will be split into (increasingly unprofitable) newspapers on one hand, entertainment (movies, TV, cable and publishing) on the other. Murdoch said the split would “simplify operations”, though usually that phrase tends to be used as reasoning for when companies merge, rather than disintegrate.
On a personal note, when working a short stint at 20th Century Fox Film several years ago, it was interesting to see the News Corp dynamic at work. Publications like The Sun were a great place for the company to have articles generated concerning subject matter of the upcoming summer blockbuster we were trying to market. At the same time, emphasising the symbiotic relationship of the corporation, a message came down from up high that one of the team’s proximate objectives in the short-term was to shore up and direct eyeballs to The Sun, even at the expense of our own goals. Such a quid pro quo will no longer be necessary in the future.
While the rest of the world quickly comes to grips with the passing of Kim Jong-Il, master of North Korea, Zeitgeist is still pausing for thought over the death of Christopher Hitchens, master of the painfully incisive, devastating epithet. Zeitgeist has had the pleasure of reading several of Hitchens’ essays over the years, mostly from Vanity Fair. Christopher Buckley, writing in The New Yorker, delivered an excellent obituary on the man. As well as managing to anger pretty much anyone, no matter what their political or religious creed, Hitchens also had some thoughts on his own oeuvre. Writing more than ten years ago in his book No one left to lie to, Hitchens wrote of Drudge (of Drudge Report infamy),
“Drudge… openly says that he’ll print anything and let the customers decide if it’s kosher. This form of pretend ‘consumer sovereignty’ is fraudulent in the same way its analogues are. (It means, for one thing, you have no right to claim you were correct, or truthful, or brave. All you did was pass it on, like a leaker or some other kind of conduit. The death of any intelligent or principled journalism is foreshadowed by such promiscuity).”
Something for anyone who writes a blog to bear in mind. It certainly points to a larger trend, which, ten years on, is still a problem for those writing online, that of a lack of regulation. Not that any such regulation has prevented widespread abuse of power in ‘legitimate’ journalism, either. The problem with tougher rules and sanctions – ex ante or ex post – is the worry that such pressure will negatively impact on the quality of stories journalists deliver. It was the press, after all, who broke the story of the phone-hacking scandals. The dilemma will not be an easy one to solve, especially at a time when most newspapers continue to experience financial losses and a resultant brain drain of staff to more stable and lucrative lines of work. The loss of luminaries like Christopher Hitchens will not help matters.
“Old-media guys are always asking, ‘When will revenues rise to meet our cost structure?’ The answer, I say, is when hell freezes over.”
- Clay Shirky, author, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
This quotation appeared in an article by Michael Wolff published last year in Vanity Fair. The article, on internet predictions, touched on how advertising rates are often 10% of what you might get from TV or print. Studio executives are waiting nervously for the time when Blu-ray and digital sales will make up for the increasingly lean profits from DVDs. But perhaps this just won’t happen. What then for the sector?
Last week, Zeitgeist was privileged to hear from Marc Ventresca, lecturer in Strategic Management at Oxford University’s MBA program at Saïd Business School. Where supply meets demand, price emerges, hence the market dictates the price. The economist Schumpeter, though, posited the issue of “disequilibrium”. The key question then being not “how capitalism administers exisiting structures, … [but] how it creates and destroys them.”
What does creative destruction – of which Alan Greenspan was a key exponent – mean then for the media and entertainment sector? No one seems to be daring to look this far into the future currently and guess how we re-combine, re-purpose and reposition the sector. Is the answer to be found in Sony’s new Blue Violet format, or is something more radical needed? Also in the works from the same company is “Ultraviolet”, an aggregate service that “will help identify content, devices and services from a spectrum of familiar entities – including studios, retailers, consumer electronics manufacturers, cable companies, ISPs and other service providers – that will work together”. Something of this nature might reduce regulatory arbitrage, as well as consumer confusion. As Mr. Ventresca pointed out last week after the lecture, it is the platform that is now of paramount importance for consumers, even over the content itself.
Conan the Television Host, a Harvard alum who back in the day wrote many an episode of The Simpsons, found himself at the centre of controversy last year, a victim of NBC and its admiration of Jay Leno. When the latter’s contract on his 11.35pm nightly show expired, Conan, who had been waiting in the wings for so long in the 12.30am talkshow slot, finally had his dream come true when he took over the coveted Tonight Show spot, which in the US holds a nostalgic place in many people’s hearts, as well as being a significant place for advertisers to plug their wares for a young demographic with money and time.
As Oscar Wilde once said, however, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers”. After much dithering, NBC decided to bump Conan off the Tonight Show and return Leno just six months later. Conan was not impressed. A significant part of his fanbase felt motivated enough to rally in protest about the move, both online and on studio lots. After having his fun running up costs on the show and being paid $30m to leave, Conan transitioned to Twitter, which he used intially to promote a tour. He currently has 1.8m followers. After months of pithy and hilarious tweets, and rumours of courting by Fox, O’Brien eventually revealed he was transitioning the lesser-known network TBS.
After a saucy, Paris Hilton-esque ad debuted promoting the new show last week, Conan O’Brien and his production office bombarded YouTube for 24 hours straight yesterday, live from their humble abode in Southern California. This included an aerobics class at 4am PST given by bears, a puppet show (see below) and many, many other bizarre things. This all in aid of his new show, which launches early next month. The stream incorporated tweets and Facebook mentions, and periodically staff (mostly interns), would put questions asked over the platform to various members of the production office.
In his continuing dedication to exploiting all that social media has to offer, Mashable reported recently that the first guests to be on Conan’s new show may be decided by a popular vote on Twitter. Throughout October, a giant blimp has also been plaguing the East Coast of the US, emblazoned with the word “Conan”, that, of course, you can check into on Foursquare to earn a badge. Unnecessary, but inspired and fun. Three words which might well be used to describe the institution that is Conan O’Brien.