I love art and the art world, but lately, I can see why the Gavin Brown gallery has a new Website called NewYorkIsDead.biz. The site’s creators say that “nothing’s moribund; energy still abounds. But its timbre is strange.” Just how strange can be seen, as never before, when the bullshit machine runs at full steam; students charge $25,000 for paintings; the M.F.A. (as Daniel Pink notes) is the new M.B.A.; and “the system,” as David Hammons observed, “is making people offers they can’t refuse when it should be making them offers they can’t understand.”
A large chunk of the art world seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid, too. Megacollectors suppose they can enter art history by spending astronomical amounts. They’re P.T. Barnums, showmen and -women who have become part of the show. Art magazines, once left on coffee tables, are fat enough to be coffee tables. Ten years ago this month, Artforum had 124 pages. This month, it has more than that many pages of ads, and 412 pages overall. Damien Hirst, who once brazenly declared that collectors would “buy what you fucking give them,” recently, and wearily, told The Guardian, “You just make things and you sell them, you make things and sell them.” Addressing the strangeness, the underrated painter Jason Fox recently observed, “In these conservative times, it’s easy for art to become hollowed out from any progressive or radical energy and exist only as a bourgeois decoration.”
Just how easy can be seen all around. A couple of seasons ago, after Christie’s Christopher Burge brought down the hammer on Warhol’s Orange Marilyn, 1962 at auction for $14.5 million, the bigwig collector-dealer Bob Mnuchin dimwittedly shouted from the auction-room floor, “How about a hand for Christopher?” Everyone applauded, understanding that art had become a currency to manage. Perhaps it was ever thus; it’s just more thus than ever.
Last year, amid the same tent-city casino atmosphere, Amy Cappellazzo, the international co-head of Christie’s postwar-and-contemporary-art department, crowed that auction houses were “the big-box retailers putting the mom-and-pops out of business … After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there?” A few months earlier, her cheeky competitor, Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s, effused, “The best art is the most expensive, because the market is so smart.” That’s exactly wrong. The market is not computer but camera, so dumb that it believes almost anything put in front of it. It’s self-replicating: If the market sees one artist’s work selling well, it buys more by that artist, driving up prices. Thus, the rush to buy third-rate product from second-rate artists, like the kitschy paintings of Martin Eder, whose prices have hit $500,000.
The words “New York is dead” rocketed though my head last month at Greeting Card, a spectacle staged by artist Aaron Young at the gloriously emptied-out Seventh Regiment Armory. The event, organized by the otherwise admirable not-for-profit Art Production Fund, and sponsored by sundry art dealers and collectors, Target, Sotheby’s, and Tom Ford, was attended by over 500 invited guests, including—for a touch of pseudo-danger, I suppose—members of the Hells Angels. A-listers, curators, thin and well-dressed women, up-and-coming artists, and certain critics were given seats. Everyone else had to stand.
With the social pecking order in place, and gas masks and earplugs distributed to the nervous, at exactly 7:45 p.m. (this professionalized art world runs on time) the lights of the Armory dimmed, ventilation fans switched on, and twelve motorcyclists began fishtailing atop 288 black-painted plywood panels, rubbing away the surface to reveal snaking lines of fluorescent pink. Wheels spun, smoke rose, and by 7:55 this ersatz Carl Andre sculpture had been turned into an ersatz Brice Marden painting. Some said they thought the $220,000 testosterone-fest was not decadent but “divine.”
Young, who’s made good work but here fell prey to his own hype, told the New York Times that he wanted the performance to be “very hard-edged.” But Greeting Card, though impressively militaristic—it elevated painting to some combination of gladiatorial spectator sport, motocross, and a rock concert—was less hard-edged than Hallmark. As artist Jackie Saccoccio remarked, “Like a lot of things these days, it was more about the funders than the thing funded.”
Speeding Up the Assembly Line
Taste has become a cheap high. Many art-worlders have an if-you-say-so approach to art: Everyone is so scared of missing out on the next hot artist that it’s never clear whether people are liking work because they like it or because other people do. Everyone is keeping up with the Joneses, and there are more Joneses than ever. When we learn that a Richard Prince photograph fetched over $1 million or that a Marlene Dumas canvas sold for $3 million, does it affect the way we think about these artists’ work? High prices become part of its temporary content, often disrupting and distorting art’s nonlinear, alchemical strangeness. Money is something that can be measured; art is not. It’s all subjective. You can’t prove Rembrandt is better than Norman Rockwell—although if you actually do prefer Rockwell, I’d say you were shunning complexity, were secretly conservative, and hadn’t really looked at either painter’s work. Taste is a blood sport.