Wednesday, February 28, 2018

at TNR, an overview of books about the art market of the 21st century and how modern art serves the wealthy (as though that's never what it's always done?)

...In her 2014 book Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the Twenty-First Century, the veteran art market reporter Georgina Adam surveyed the forces that propelled the stratospheric rise in the market for contemporary art, attempting to explain why, for instance, one version of Andy Warhol’s 1963 screen print Liz could sell for $2 million in 1999 and another from the same series for $24 million in 2007, only a few years later. What was once a niche trade overwhelmingly based in the United States and Western Europe has expanded into a global industry bound up with luxury, fashion, and celebrity, attracting an expanded range of ultra-wealthy buyers who aggressively compete for works by brand-name artists. “When I started out, 30 years ago, millionaires had boats and jets—but didn’t necessarily have any art at all,” Thomas Seydoux, the former chairman of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s tells Adam. “For the very wealthy today, it’s not fine not to be interested in art.” 

In her follow-up Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the Twenty-First Century, Adam, a longtime editor at the Art Newspaper and contributor to the Financial Times, considers the negative effects this influx of money has had on the art itself. As contemporary art is increasingly viewed as an asset classalongside equities, bonds, and real estateAdam sees artworks often used as a vehicle to hide or launder money, and artists encouraged to churn out works in market-approved styles, bringing about a decline in quality. 
Art’s imbrication in networks of money and power is hardly a contemporary phenomenon. Many of the great masterpieces of Renaissance art, for instance, were commissioned by members of the nobility. The origins of the modern picture trade date arguably to the 17th century Dutch Republic, where, in the absence of monarchical or church patronage, artists began producing domestically-scaled genre paintings for sale on the open market. In the early 20th century, the art dealer Joseph Duveen—later the 1st Baron Duveen of Millbank—made a fortune selling Old Master paintings he acquired from cash-poor European aristocrats to wealthy American industrialists like Andrew Mellon. As Duveen famously quipped, “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money.” What has changed is speed and scale: There is, Adam argues, more art being produced and sold than ever before, as artists, galleries, and auction houses attempt to keep up with the demand of a new class of international “UHNWIs,” Ultra High Net Worth Individuals attracted by the lure of profit and prestige.

As Adam describes, two significant changes at the end of the 20th century set the stage for today’s inflated contemporary art market. The first was the expansion of the base of potential buyers: The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and economic liberalization in countries like China and India created a new wave of billionaires eager to flaunt their wealth. In China, which has consistently ranked among the top three largest art markets by value since 2009, demand has also been boosted by a government-sponsored museum-building boom. Over 1000 new museums, a combination of state-run and private institutions, have opened in the past decade; as of 2017, there were approximately 200 privately owned museums devoted to contemporary art. Crucially, building private museums serves not only as a status symbol for the country’s elite, but a means of gaining state approval for lucrative real estate development deals.

The second major change was the shift away from Old Masters and Impressionists as the core of the auction business. Historically, selling contemporary art had been the province of galleries and private dealers; the work of living artists went to auction only infrequently. But the major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, recognized that promoting the contemporary market could open up vast new revenue streams. They began to function more like luxury brands. ...

As much as I love the arts the implication that the fine arts have ever been particularly beyond being the domain of wealthy elites is a bit hard to swallow.  There have been artists working in what we know of now as fine arts who had an interest in appealing to as large an audience as possible (let's just say Mozart and Haydn, for instance, had this in mind).  Rossini comes to mind, although in the lexicon of serious minded German inspired post-Beethoven criticism Rossini doesn't count as even being really good art, more middling in a Wagnerian polemical vein. 

But then advocacy for the fine arts tends to skate past matters of class and caste much of the time.  If we are living in some kind of neo-gilded age it may well be that the eole who wield wealth and influence feel they aren't the plutocrats of our era because they're more into rock, pop, pop art and satirical reimaginings of art conventions as cognitive frames than into the Old Masters or Impressionists.  If you can plunk out John Lennon's "Imagine" at a piano then even if you own billions in whatever it is you own, you're not one of them, not really.  As I have sarcastically noted about kids who can go to Oberlin or Cornish or whatever private school in liberal arts suits their fancy, merely being able to quote Walter Benjamin doesn't mean you aren't part of a privileged elite or ruling caste.  My concern with the popularity of the Frankfurt school in literary and journalistic sectors is less because I have issues with Adorno's aesthetics (though, frankly I do) than my concern that American students can wield Frankfurt school writers like some kind of fetish of authenticity that exempts them from being what would be, in more old school Marxist polemics, an indication that they were all part of an enemy class in terms of socio-economic advantage, or ... to put this still another way, people with the academic privilege of being able to wield the term "privilege" generally don't recognize how much they have of it in the midst of their spotting it in someone else.  An old saying from a Palestinian Jewish rabbi about not seeing the mote in one's eye trying to remove the speck from the other might come to mind ... but then we live in a day when the people most likely to invoke that point of comparison have probably not learned its essence with regard to themselves, too. 

Still, in an era where even advocacy for the fine arts can be associated with the spell or stink of ultra-wealth we might want to have some caution about some of the laments that the fine arts are under threat in the age of Trump.  I'm not so much contesting that as wondering whether the inequalities that people have seen in arts patronage have been addressed yet. 

And, in a way, the lesson that I'm not sure people with liberal/left sympathies in Anglo-American contexts seem able to accept about the liberal arts and fine arts that reactionaries do seem to get is that the professional artist is the servant of an empire, not the other way around.

the dyhnamics of patronage and the dynamics of media and profusion of work can change things.  Opera can't hold a candle to movies for public attention and acclaim.   It's of no consequence to many people what gets done with a Wagner production, whereas if it turns out a copyright infringement case gets traction against The Shape of Water that's more of a newsworthy development.

Now whether or not you consider Ta-nehisi Coates a public intellectual it's interesting that the recently released Black Panther was adapted, so I've heard, from a storyline he wrote for Marvel. Coates announced today he's writing Captain America.  He name-dropped Christopher Priest and Dwayne McDuffie as pioneers and inspirations (and well he should, I think McDuffie's writing for the Justice League Unlimited Cadmus arc was fantastic!). 

Let's stop a moment and consider that Coates has shared that he's excited to be writing comic books.  Now for me I don't see any tension between this passion he's got for the medium and his interest in ideas.  I don't see it as a contradiction in terms or some kind of oxymoron that a writer would like comics as an art form and care about political ideas and literary activity.  Obviously I don't because I wrote tens of thousands of words about Batman: the animated series and about Pixar films and about Nolan's Batman films.  Some of the more interesting riffs and ruminations on our society and its times have been embedded in cartoons and comics that, as best I can tell ,academics have in many respects ignored from the traditionalist side and that, as mass media under the aegis of the market, can also get sort of ignored by people with a bit of leftish angle as the results of capitalism.  But, and I'm admitting to speculation here, if Walter Benjamin were alive today he'd be riffing on Optimus Prime and Megatron long before he'd get around to writing about Jameson ... or even someone like Coates. 

A fine arts world that can give us a Jeff Koons is simply never going to be in a position to condemn the vulgarity of movies made by Michael Bay ... or maybe even Uwe Boll.


chris e said...

Sure and up to a point.

The exception would be the 20th Century when one of the things the Soviet system did was push the notion of high art as something for the people. When I lived nearer London and used to frequent classical concerts, it was always noticeable to me that performances that would be of interest to Eastern Europeans or Russian emigres would always pull in a much more sociologically diverse crowd than the average.

To a lesser extent this was true of various arts related bodies in Western Europe founded with social-democratic ideals [at the time I could also pay the price of a coffee for a ticket to go and see the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall] - see the various public orchestras, the educational bodies that sprung out of the workers educational movements and so on [the WEA in the UK is a shadow of its former self, but I could if I wanted pick from a range of Arts History courses at a cost of a fairly inexpensive meal out for an entire term.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Since I love a lot of Soviet music, that's a fair point, though Americans would tend to see the USSR as a totalitarian system that took over so many countries the imperialism point would still stand. It's certainly possible within an empire for a high art approach to be considered the domain of the citizenry as a whole, but vocational art being attached to an imperial patronage system could still be in place.

But the Western European examples are definitely pertinent, and not even necessarily Western as we'd conventionally understand it. One of my creation friends shared that she was able to see Ray Charles live in concert because the state paid for him to come give a concert. I still haven't written about Borstlap's The Classical Revolution, but one of his complaints has been that the patronage system in Western European nations has been so hijacked by post-tonal sonic art in the post-Xenakis vein that more traditional kinds of music composition (not coincidentally what he's been trying to do) get sidelined.

chris e said...

" It's certainly possible within an empire for a high art approach to be considered the domain of the citizenry as a whole, but vocational art being attached to an imperial patronage system could still be in place. "

I think it's necessary to separate the two - certainly it's possible to have the latter without the former - see the Chinese model which has been far more hierarchical. I lived in and around London during the first wave of Schengen inspired immigration from Eastern Europe to the UK, and later lived in a university city with a lot of Chinese students - the difference was clearly that those from the ex Soviet states were more likely to think of high art as something that everyone should be interested in as a natural state of affairs (rather than as an affectation), were far more likely to have seen performances - even if they were few - in their native country, and far less likely to see high art in itself as something that was the preserve of the elite [they were also acutely aware of the extent to which the elite had shaped the careers of certain artists which they tended to see as something separate].

In many ways the former was a natural evolution of the workers/friendly societies formed by workers themselves to teach basic literacy as well as subjects like philosophy to the working class - and within a lot of the European left there has been the phenomena of the very articulate working class auto-didact.

To your Ray Charles example; I'd add the salutary effects of the social safety net. On a very prosaic level a number of Brit Pop bands have put their success down to the ability to subsist on the dole while making music [something no longer possible]. On a slightly more subtle level, the BBC World Service had a documentary a year or so ago about the jazz pianist Horace Parlan - who had been fortunate enough to have gained danish citizenship via marriage, and so rather than living in penury like many of his contemporaries he was in a state run assisted care facility. Blind, wheelchair bound and recently widowed, he was obviously still surrounded by people who cared for him both as a person and as a musician. Even if Mark Noll would describe Denmark as living on the embers of a Christian past - at that point it seemed a kinder, nicer society.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

fair distinction to make about high art and vocational art.