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Arte Povera

Why recession isn’t good for art.

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Not many people would argue that fewer jobs for dancers are a boon to ballet, or shrinking advances are good for literature, or newspapers in bankruptcy are good for journalism. But it’s become commonplace to declare, as the Times did recently, that “a financial scouring can only be good for American art, which during the present decade has become a diminished thing.” Newsweek took it further, comparing the art boom to an imaginary world where jazz—once appreciated only by “an audience who really dug what they were hearing” in a “cozy club”—started packing Wembley. The unseemly result, per Newsweek? “A grotesque imitation of heavy metal for the masses.”

Certainly, the excesses of the art world were alienating. But there’s Schadenfreude in the argument that bad times are good for the naughty, naughty art world. It is, and was, a place where you could fly to Miami to see Dita Von Teese strip on a giant pink sequined lipstick and call it “work.” And there’s something both marvelous and ridiculous in that.

The evidence of such profligacy was often on view at the annual art fairs—the massive Armory, plus Volta, Pulse, and Scope—which return this week, considerably constricted by the financial collapse. The art fairs are all still promising breakthrough art, cutting-edge performances, and, now, more “inclusive” or “accessible” events. (Translation: There’s more photography, decorative art, and small works, and the parties will be easier to crash.)

But as for the art, will it be any better? Is the recession good for art?

It’s doubtful. As curator Renée Riccardo, whose group show “The Garden at 4 AM” just opened at Gana Art Gallery, notes, recessions mostly just yank young artists’ work off the walls. “If traditional art isn’t selling, galleries aren’t going to show emerging art.” The recession isn’t breeding creativity so much as demand for familiar, less-threatening work. Ellen Donahue is closing her Chelsea gallery, the Proposition, after seven years and another eighteen running other downtown galleries. “People come in, they look, but they don’t even talk about buying,” she says. “All over Chelsea, artists are being told to pick up their work.” A half-dozen spaces have closed this year, and dealers like Zach Feuer have culled their stables.

The art world’s “brand names” have it easier—they can experiment in a recession, try new media, ride it out—but they aren’t immune. Photographer David LaChapelle says he worries about having to cut back. “I worry about the people who rely on me”—his staff and studio assistants.

The thing the bust fans are missing is that art in good times can capture those good times (even when artists sometimes become overly intoxicated by them). Andy Warhol’s soup cans came out of the postwar era, when cupboards opened to bounties of food. “There’s no correlation” between the economy and the quality of art being produced, says John Good, a director of the Gagosian Gallery. “The great artists transcend.” The art world’s romantic Van Gogh myth holds that starving artists toil anonymously until they’re eventually (or posthumously) discovered. But he was the exception: For centuries, many great artists were patronized in their lifetimes, generously, by popes and kings. (King François I paid for the Mona Lisa.)

Certainly, with things like shows in empty buildings, and a good deal of scrappiness and human suffering, art will adapt, survive. Perhaps it had gotten too easy, too publicized, self-involved. But not any more than anything else during the boom. Maybe it wasn’t such a terrible place to spend some of those now-fanciful-seeming billions. And the level of excitement that a boom brings to art—the sheer number of people paying attention, trying to learn the new names and debating who matters—is itself an engine of creativity. In a boom, it’s cool to love art, see art, buy art. Art is taken seriously. A bust dismisses it as a luxury.

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