I have a lot of artist friends who are dedicated, hardworking and optimistic about their work. But when it comes to the vicissitudes of the larger world, they are ass-dragging pessimists. And it is understandable, given an art world that lavishly (and to a certain extent, randomly) rewards a few practitioners but leaves the majority to survive on crumbs. Being an artist is not a path for anyone who can possibly do anything else with their life. You only do this because you can’t not.
So it was with a wry nod of consent that I read the latest piece by the very smart Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine about the Frieze Fair in London and the collapse of the recently too-hot-to-hold art buyers’ market. Here’s a meaningful extract from that article. (BTW, you can read the full article on Slow Painting.)
If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.
As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk.
Much good art got made while money ruled; I like a lot of it, and hardship and poverty aren’t virtues. The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.
But my Schadenfreude side wishes a pox on the auction houses, those shrines to the disconnect between the inner life of art and the outer life of commerce. If they don’t go belly up or return to dealing mainly with dead artists, they need to stop pretending that they have any interest in art beyond the financial. Additionally, I hope many of the speculators who never really cared about art will go away. Either way, money will no longer be the measure of success. It hasn’t made art better. It made some artists—notably Hirst, Murakami, Prince, and maybe Piotr Ukla´nski—shallower.
Recessions are hard on people, but they are not hard on art. The forties, seventies, and the nineties, when money was scarce, were great periods, when the art world retracted but it was also reborn. New generations took the stage; new communities spawned energy; things opened up; deadwood washed away. With luck, New Museum curator Laura Hoptman’s wish will come true: “Art will flower and triumph not as a hobby, an investment, or a career, but as what it is and was—a life.”
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