It didn’t take Holland Cotter to point out the art boom of the past six years is over. Galleries in NY are shuttering, art fair attendance is sinking and established artists are selling little or nothing. The art world, this tiny fraction of society, is suffering its third decline in the past forty years. Each art boom and subsequent bust since the rise of the New York School in the early 50’s has been more exaggerated, the latest a clear example of this exponential cycle. These cycles affect all aspects of the industry from teaching to practice, and indicate a failure on the part of its participants to learn from previous experiences.
Carter’s February 15 New York Times article is written from the vantage point of the markets’ apex, Chelsea. He points to a cynicism that emerged, dominating the art world, culminating in mundane, banal work that fails to provoke the dominant paradigm or evoke a new one. Carter suggests this is largely due to the emphasis on the capitalization of the art market, a point reinforced in Sarah Thornton’s 7 Days in the Art World. As the financial markets were imploding and the global economy slipped into a deep recession, Sotheby’s held an auction exclusively of Damien Hirst works in London that circumvented the gallery system and netted record sales of $200 million. This behavior directly mirrored the tremendous payouts CEO’s chose to award themselves in the midst of their own incompetent behavior. The analogy should not be lost on us. Hirst and his predecessors in the art market, Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel, and Jeff Koons to name a few, share in the responsibility for the art market cancerous manifestations over the last twenty years. This of course began in the sixties with the rise of Andy Warhol. Warhol’s radical contribution to art was not only his recognition of art as commodity, but his wholehearted embrace and exploitation of the concept. He famously said; “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Warhol’s ideas were embraced and continue to hold sway over the art world today witnessed by the enormous prices Warhol’s still command. In fact Warhol’s business as art signaled the beginning of the end of arts special kind of knowledge and its real societal value.
Warhol undermined a core component of art that had made it central to civilizations since at least 25,000 years ago. Art has always operated as a form of communication. It transmits key pieces of knowledge gained through experience and close observation. It is the lasting residue of civilizations past and our gateway to understanding human progress. This is because the artistic life steps outside of the lives of the society at large and is able to observe without the constraints of societies’ rules and routines. Unfettered and uninhibited artistic observation provides society a kind of sanity check on its behavior, an opportunity to contemplate, especially in times of rapid technological advancement, it’s own actions. Warhol disrupted this by shifting the artist’s role, making it complicit with rather than observant of societies behavior. Warhol turned the capitalization of art into an endgame rather than a descendant of the process necessary to support the practice. This self destructive seed has spawned a generation of artists who bahave more as court jesters than social scientists. The American myth of rags to riches was latched onto by a generation of artists who, fairly or not, felt artists shouldn’t get short economic shrift anymore and deserved the same riches that other so-called lesser forms of entertainment — rocks stars and actors, had already received. Art school attendance rose in response and art schools grew in prominence and expense, quick to capitalize on the new craze for art making. This mutated, reaching an apex when dealers, collectors and gallery owners trolled prominent art school MFA studios and scooped up unformed work. This feeding frenzy created an art market whose foundation was increasingly built upon shifting sand. Damien Hirst and his peers are particularly reprehensible, because they have refined the Warhol model into a manifesto on greed. They make art that is a parody of their own non-practice, and in fact, they physically disconnected from art making in order to meet demand and maintain high prices. In order to do this they employ cadres of starving young artists who slave away on works not their own for the wages of museum docent. These art stars give nothing back to the art community at large, and reinforce a capitalistic, dog-eat-dog approach to art making that trickles down through the system. Their cynical reproach for art making is cloaked beneath a veneer of conceptual doublespeak. Jeff Koons once said “I believe that my art gets across the point that I’m in this morality theater trying to help the underdog, and I’m speaking socially here, showing concern and making psychological and philosophical statements for the underdog.” The underdog? The only thing truthful about that statement may be the first two words. So entrenched in the conspiracy of their own making, artists like Koons actually believe their own rhetoric and the praise and wealth bestowed upon them only serve as reinforcements to the delusion. I think the emperor has no clothes.
As with the economic collapse, the blame for its occurrence rests not on one party only. The art boom and now bust, could not have occurred without the complicity of other players in the art world. Curators put young art stars into shows in the hopes of elevating their careers and filling the coffers of their institutions. Dealers and gallerists are complicit as well, courting the nouveau riche’s desires for status and spiritual substance in a materialistic world. This translates to inflated prices, the only true form of validation understood by the wealthy in America. Auction houses deal in younger and lesser known artists to maintain their cash flow as they run out of modernist classics. Finally there are the critics and the institutions that support them. Peter Schjeldahl, Jerry Saltz, Robert Storr, Roberta Smith and Holland Carter all contribute to the frenzy. Saltz in a moment of clarity revealed the conspiracy of the critic when he reviewed his friend, Carroll Dunham’s show for The Village Voice, “By now I no longer know if I like Carroll Dunham’s paintings because we’re friends or if we’re friends because I like his paintings.” So in every case the art maker (the artist) is surrounded by a swarm of taste makers, critics and co-conspirators who make nothing of value themselves. It is a puerile and self serving environment that inevitably leads to art that is the same.
Carter is exactly right that “in every case it has been artists who have reshaped the game.” This recession and Roman-like collapse of greed that has supported the art market is a welcomed arrival for those of us who practice not for art stardom or money, but because we must. We must because we feel compelled to translate and communicate that which we see from outside of society looking in. Civilization is on the verge of tremendous change as it contends with global warming, the end of oil and now the end of unbalanced prosperity in the first world. More than ever before art is needed to supply insight and creativity to evolve into our next human state. Shuttering some galleries, museums and art schools is a small price to pay in order to re-establish arts’ cultural importance. The U.S. has been flooded with a plethora of people calling themselves artists who have little patience or intellectual curiosity for the hard work required to make art. Attrition breeds a refinement of ideas. Artists are the perfectly suited in a time of crisis because they have already been making a daily practice of creative problem solving and close observation.
Time will tell how the art world will shake out of this bust. I agree with Sarah Thornton when she says that art making won’t go away anytime soon. My hope is that artists will recognize this time as a great opportunity, not to return to old paradigms or simply destroy the most recent one, but rather to start from scratch and rewrite the book on art making and its place in society. Already a seldom understood practice, art making will not be aided from the outside. It will not be rescued by the elite believers who have supported the art market to date. Rather it will need to be reinvigorated and reformed by artists themselves and this time I hope we get it right.