At this curious place in time, the once exuberant art world stands stunned and bedazzled — like a deer in the glaring headlights of the oncoming global financial crisis. The inability of the art world to respond in any meaningful way is testament to the cul-de-sac it has been driving headily and headlong into in recent years.
In a debate last week at New York’s Rockefeller University, the proposition was put forward that “the art market is less ethical than the stock market.” Speaking against were Christie’s deputy chair Amy Cappellazzo, painter Chuck Close, and critic Jerry Saltz. Despite their humour, charm and best efforts, the proposition was carried: 55 percent for, 33 percent against, with 12 percent undecided.
In the most recent Sunday New York Times, Holland Cotter sums up our current state in an article titled “The Boom is Over. Long Live the Art!” He writes, “ethical firewalls are not this industry’s style.”
In these depths of winter, the art world sits by the fire, lost and befuddled, reading Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, pining in remembrance of things past.
Few industries have been left more exposed and bereft by their own inadequacies than the art world. On Monday, Standard & Poor’s warned that it may cut its rating of Sotheby’s bonds to below investment grade, a rating known appropriately as “junk.” Much the same could be said for the industry at large.
In further news out of New York this week, Guild & Greyshkul closed its doors on Tuesday, following on from the recent closures of Roebling Hall and Cohan and Leslie in Chelsea; Rivington Arms in the East Village and 31 Grand on the Lower East Side.
The moral failure of the art market is by no means peculiar to New York City. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this month, Alice O’Keeffe observes, “I remember, in March 2007, going to see Tony Blair make a speech on the arts at Tate Modern, in which he boldly claimed to have presided over a cultural ‘golden age’. The arts, he told the gathered great and good, were a vital component of Britain's continued economic success: ‘A nation that cares about art will not just be a better nation. In the early 21st century, it will be a more successful one.’
“In new Labour parlance, the arts had become the ‘creative industries’. Like bankers and stockbrokers, artists were expected to prop up the wobbly edifice of consumer capitalism, to generate profit, attract tourists, help Britain market itself as a cultural — and therefore financial — ‘hub’.
“Placing culture firmly at the service of finance had its advantages for the arts administrators in the audience, too, as it gave them a clear claim on their slice of the government pie. Blair's speech was received with enthusiastic applause and was followed by polite questions about future funding. Nobody asked whether generating cash was an appropriate raison d'être for the arts — let alone what, if anything, a man who holidayed with the Bee Gees and Cliff Richard could tell us about cultural value.”
Here in Leipzig, it’s been hard, if not impossible, to tell the collector from the curator over the past year. The city’s Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (Gallery of Contemporary Art) has faced stinging criticism for hosting a series of exhibitions giving dealers, collectors and corporate art collections total freedom to display their works as they wish. Chris Dercon, the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, describes the initiative, entitled “Carte Blanche”, as “exactly the kind of thing that we do not need in public galleries”.
The GfZK, which is a public-private partnership, receives much of its funding from public sources. It has now ceded curatorial control of half of its galleries until 2010.
Many German museum directors, including myself, have expressed disquiet at the exhibitions which will give commercial galleries such as Leipzig’s Dogenhaus and Eigen + Art free run of the museum space.
Further exhibitions will be drawn from collections assembled by the publishers Leipziger Verlags, industrialist Arend Oetker and his wife Brigitte; consultant Klaus and Doris Schmidt; and collectors Leon Janucek, and Vivian and Horst Schmitter. The costs are being met by the private participants, who may display the works as they please.
Quoted in The Art Newspaper, Dr. Dercon points out, “You can raise questions about public and private museums, but what we need to discuss is the usurping of intellectual power by the commercial world.” Dr Dercon criticises these contemporary collectors, saying many viewed art collections as “luxury goods”. He adds, “We all deal, with private collectors and many, especially old master collectors, have been generous with loans, gifts and sharing scholarship, much more so, in fact, than many contemporary art collectors.”
But he questions the Leipzig initiative, saying “it may be intelligent [politically] but it is not intellectual and if we are trying to find a way to work with the private sector, this is not it. It is partly an issue of public responsibility and partly an issue of transparency. One of the biggest problems in the art world is that the same people can be critics, curators, dealers, crypto-collectors, even museum directors. I don’t think this is going to shed much light on what is an opaque situation.”
The challenge facing Swedish curator Daniel Birnbaum, as he plans this summer’s Venice Biennale — and many other curators as they prepare upcoming events — is to prove they’re anything more than yesterday’s junk bond dealers. Will the goods they have on offer provide any real meaning to a world teetering on the brink of Depression, or are they just so many more Bernie Madoffs, peddling their Ponzi schemes as they have in recent years.
The greater challenge, however, falls upon artists themselves. The collapse of the art market has meant a realignment of power, with once mighty gatekeepers now unemployed also-rans and artists back in the studio facing an enviable blank canvas on which to build a new world.
As Holland Cotter writes, “This has happened more than once in the recent past. Art has changed as a result. And in every case it has been artists who have reshaped the game. At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again…
“But there will be many, many changes for art and artists in the years ahead. Trying to predict them is like trying to forecast the economy. You can only ask questions. The 21st century will almost certainly see consciousness-altering changes in digital access to knowledge and in the shaping of visual culture. What will artists do with this?
“Will the art industry continue to cling to art’s traditional analog status, to insist that the material, buyable object is the only truly legitimate form of art, which is what the painting revival of the last few years has really been about? Will contemporary art continue to be, as it is now, a fancyish Fortunoff’s, a party supply shop for the Love Boat crew? Or will artists — and teachers, and critics — jump ship, swim for land that is still hard to locate on existing maps and make it their home and workplace?
“I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense.
“Right. Exactly. Crazy.”