Damien Hirst divides the art world. No one thinks him a good artist, of course. But there are those who despise him for his commercialism, and those who recognise the ingenuity of the man and his innate sense of self-promotion and salesmanship. The apotheosis of this was undoubtedly Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, the infamous Sotheby’s auction held on the eve of the global recession. The diamond skull that was the centrepiece of the auction was described as a “vulgar publicity stunt” by The Economist. In the auction’s aftermath, the market for his works “bottomed out”; sales performed poorly versus the contemporary art market as a whole (see chart below). Despite such schadenfreunde, it was satisfying to read a positive review for the artist’s new retrospective, “Relics”, which opened last month in Doha. The exhibition is part of a major push by Qatar to make itself culturally relevant abroad. Indeed, the physical context in which the pieces are set do apparently allow the viewer to judge them anew, without all the tabloid baggage the artist’s works usually bring with them. But concessions have had to be made too:
“In a country where Muslim clerics hold sway, the titles of these works, many of which feature the word “God”, have not been translated into Arabic. Mr Hirst sees the sense in this, admitting that he wants his art to be “provocative in the right way”. Nudes are also virtually banned from public view.”
In an increasingly homogenised culture – by which we simply mean one where content from one nation is easily accessible and ultimately transferable to another – what does being “provocative in the right way” mean?
In New York, such questions were similarly asked in recent months, in particular at the city’s two opera houses. One, the New York City Opera, recently filed for bankruptcy. The house has long been suffering from financial difficulties, and despite a last-minute Kickstarter campaign that raised $300,000+ in a short space of time, the curtain will fall on this institution. Its strategy seemed sound – to not be, rather than to beat, the competition, in this case the Metropolitan Opera. In pursuing this end, they often used American singers and often produced avant-garde works, the most recent and famous of which was undoubtedly Anna Nicole, about a Playboy model who captured the hearts of America’s flyover states before meeting her tragic end. Such courage should be commended, and in a just world, rewarded, but sadly it was not to be. Indeed, the City Opera lost its biggest donor entirely because of this production.
The other of New York’s opera houses, The Metropolitan Opera, a stalwart of tradition, is battling with political ramifications that are happening thousands of miles away. In June this year, in another blow to any sense of fledgling democracy in Russia, President Putin signed into law an act that restricted discussion or promotion of homosexual acts, labelling such things “propaganda”. The New York Times cites one Anton Krasovsky, “a television anchor who was immediately fired from his job at the government-controlled KontrTV network in January after he announced during a live broadcast that he is gay, saying he was fed up with lying about his life and offended by the legislation”. Such news quickly became internationally relevant when mixed messages came from the Kremlin as to whether openly gay athletes would be welcomed at the Sochi Olympic Games next year. Boycotts are being considered. Just as there are openly gay people in sports, so in the arts. The controversy settled on the Metropolitan Opera as it prepared to launch its new season with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The new law, the almost universally acknowledged fact that the composer was homosexual, as well as the presence of talent (soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev) that were known Putin sympathisers, served to create a perfect storm. It was not long before opera fans were pleading with the Met to dedicate its opening night performance in support of homosexuals. Gergiev, an indisputably great conductor, as well as being a “close Putin ally”, according to the Financial Times, has long been dogged by rumours of political favours from the President, and protesters are becoming increasingly vocal. His claim on his Facebook page that the law targeted pedophiles, not homosexuals, pleased few. The stubbornness was mirrored by the Met. Writing an article for Bloomberg, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, attempted to clarify why the house wouldn’t “bow to protest”. Gelb conceded he personally deplored the new law, as much as he deplored the 76 countries that go even further than Russia currently by completely outlawing homosexuality. He went on,
“But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”
Clearly, Gelb is declaring that such a mention before the performance would not have been – to return to Hirst’s words – “provocative in the right way”. But just as we have called it a perfect storm of political and cultural affiliations, was this not also the perfect opportunity for such a tremendously important institution to take a stand for those people who do not have such a prominent pulpit? Gelb asserts that the house has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause. Progressive thinking and innovation rarely develops from such thinking. Moreover, the Met has stood up for the rights of the marginalised in the past when it refused to play in front of black/white segregated audiences. So a precedent exists, which arguably is not being lived up to.
It would be naive to avoid acknowledging the pitfalls in the knee-jerk use of the arts to constantly promote change and stand against discrimination. In some cases, such calls to action can fall on deaf ears, or worse, provoke outrage that costs the institution and earns it an unfortunate reputation. Such damage to a reputation can be financially devastating (the New York City Opera is to an extent an example of this), which apart from anything else rules out any future opportunities to make such important statements. These organisations are, whether for profit or no, ultimately businesses that cannot afford to support every cause, no matter how relevant. Arts organisations have the rare distinction of often being at the intersection of culture, politics and money (which can often make for a murky combination). Perhaps what is needed is an entirely new fundraising model. Monied interests will usually be conservative in their tastes (why would someone want to change the status quo that allowed them to get where they are?). Increased use of crowdfunding, such as the City Opera briefly used with Kickstarter, will surely play a far greater role in the years to come. Such efforts could go some way to negating the worry of avoiding a few vested interests. What an organisation should or should not publicly speak out on must always rest with the individual situation, as well as how any statement is phrased, which does not necessarily need to condemn a party. As Andrew Rudin, the composer who started the petition to ask the Met to make a statement, implored, “I’m not asking them to be against anybody. I’m asking them to be for somebody”.
“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.