Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

With much of the recent discussion on this blog being about politics and political economy, it might be easy for the reader to forget that I am also interested in the philosophy of art and the history of modern art. As I've mentioned before, these interests (perhaps...the seniority points part of the sessional teaching collective agreement probably also played a role here) contributed to the Department of Visual Arts offering me the 'Art Theories' course to teach in the Winter.

Given my interest in the history of modern art (the latter of which cannot but include, I think, contemporary art), I wasn't about to miss the summer exhibition at the National Gallery here in Ottawa, called Pop Life: Art in a Material World. We (that's my wife and I) went to the opening weekend of the show in June, and it runs through September 19th. It has been the talk of the town for the local artworld, despite the reservations many feel (and I share somewhat) about contemporary art.

The curatorial concept behind the show is that:
Pop Life then looks ahead to the work of a number of artists who, like Warhol, have openly engaged with the cult of celebrity and unashamedly championed the idea of turning public attention into aesthetic notoriety and financial reward.
Aside from the late work of Andy Warhol, the exhibit includes the work of 19 other artists, with prominence of place given to the the shock/kitsch/boys-club of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami.

How could they not be given the prominence of place, given that they are several of the best-known or notorious contemporary artists? But this leads to the next question: why are they considered major contemporary artists? The Pop Life exhibit gives us examples of branding and the contemporary aesthetic of shock and kitsch (and narcissism?), but cannot provide a narrative about celebrity, opportunism, and aesthetics in exhibit form.

In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (Doubleday Canada, 2008), Don Thompson argues that many of the reputations of contemporary artists rest on the particular modes of transacting business within the artworld, the relationships between artists, dealers, auction houses, collectors, and super-rich dabblers who want to be collectors or even sometimes investors in art. Rather than aesthetic merit, he argues, "art history'"-- especially contemporary art history-- is often "now rewritten with the checkbook"; lesser works of "second-tier" artists can be magically transformed into important contributions on price alone (Klimt's painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, sold in 2006 for $135 million, is Thompson's favorite example).

Now, this picture of the artworld certainly isn't going to go over well with contemporary art critics, but it does explain an intuitive kind of cynicism that many people-- and many artists not invited to the elite world of Saatchi, Sotheby's, and Art Basel Miami Beach-- feel about contemporary art. Thompson investigates many of the opaque practices that produce a market of works that seem only to increase in value. Much of this world rests on branding, whether it is the branding of a prominent collector, artist, dealer, or auction house, and branding reassures those dabblers mentioned above that it's not uncouth to send their riches on art, whether it is the relatively small Old Masters market, or contemporary art.

Thompson shows that once a lot of money is involved, the art market becomes highly speculative, highly staked, and very insular; many players do a lot of public relations and wheeling and dealing to protect the price and brand of the works of their clients. So, for example, while high prices generate lots of publicity, it's very difficult to discover the real prices that work is sold for because these real prices-- that actually changes hands-- is well hidden behind discounting practices, a number of fees and guarantees, anonymity and non-disclosure agreements.

Untangling this web of exchange sounds like it makes for turgid prose, but Thompson keeps it accessible by interlacing these practices with stories about artworks and the people that surround them, including chapters on Hirst's shark (no surprise there...), Francis Bacon, and the market for fakes. Nevertheless, it's hard not to feel cynical about the world of the art market after reading this book. Part of this feeling is due to this market itself, and part of it is due to a few points where Thompson's assumptions-- he has, after all, worked his way up to the (I shit you not) Nabisco Brands Chair  Emeritus at the Schulich School of Business at York University-- fail him. I'll limit myself to two.

First, he actually seems to believe that it's possible to rewrite art history with a checkbook. I don't want to deny that money and branding can and probably will play a role when, decades from now, historians sit down to chronicle late twentieth century art, but it's probably wrong to hold that high auction prices for earlier work will be as influential in rewriting the history of modern art as for detailing a history of the market for modern art. Thompson seems to have convinced himself that price is equal to value while writing a book about how price became the measure of value (this becomes very clear when he writes off art criticism because it doesn't seem to have much effect on-- you guessed it-- prices!).

The second limitation of Thompson's analysis occurs when he discusses subsidies. He may discover all sorts of questionable and, in his own words, possibly "unethical" practices in the art market, but he's not ready to pass judgment until he discusses alternatives to the market. Subsidies, he argues, reduce motivation, and might decrease output. So, for instance, Thompson notes that the Dutch government subsidized art in the 1980s, and then asks, "can you name a single contemporary Dutch artist from the 1980s?" (180). And if you're not convinced, he notes that the
French Culture Ministry gives the visual arts about twenty times as much relative to the number of artists as does the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States. The reader may recall that there were no French contemporary artists in the consensus top twenty-five list earlier in the book...(181).
That list (on p. 56) includes 13 Americans, 4 English/Irish artists, 7 from continental Europe (4 from Germany, one each from Switzerland, Spain, and Italy), and one from Japan. But might this distribution have something to do with political geography? There are over 180 other countries not represented on this list, and I'm sure not all of them provide subsidies to the arts. Political geography-- in this case, mapping contemporary art trends over the geography of political and economic power-- would provide a better picture for understanding how the consensus of major contemporary artists, and even movements, becomes hegemonic. It might also explain the recent appearance of 'hot' contemporary Chinese artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang, Cai Guo-Qiang, or Liu Xiadong (just to use Thompson's examples on pp. 249-250).

These limitations (and a few others--such as when he repeats two class/race jokes without much comment) aside, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is an accessible introduction to the practices and organization of the art market.

1 comment:

Phonix416 said...

your thoughts are interesting and accessible but please check your spelling (Itatly and Frances should by Italy and Francis)