Art + Money

Thirty-five years after Robert Hughes famously lamented the state of the art business, John McDonald says his recent visit to Art Basel Hong Kong revealed that prices are reaching absurd new heights at the same time as taste in contemporary art is plumbing new depths.

When Robert Hughes delivered his jeremaiad, Art and Money, in 1984, it seemed as if the earth would surely open up and swallow the greedy dealers, the opportunistic artists, the vulgar, nouveau riche collectors who had wrought such pestilence upon the fair face of Art.

The gist of Hughes’s argument was that art was being corrupted and debased by the huge sums being paid for works by a new set of superstars whom he viewed as decidedly second-rate. Artists such as Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring left him stone cold, as did the growing adulation for Andy Warhol, who was being treated as the prophet of a new era.

He snorted at ‘the art starlet one sees waddling about like a Strasbourg goose, his ego distended to gross proportion by the obsequies of the art market.’ Art had always been ‘inherently irrational’ as a commodity, but the new stars were devoid of talent and vision. What they had instead was hype, irony and gimmickry, supported by galleries whose clients had made their fortunes from a booming stock market.

Ever since the first bison was drawn on a cave wall, art has been a status symbol, but the art of the early 1980s seemed to be only a status symbol – a luxury commodity, a set of recognisable brands. Artists were viewed as celebrities, like Hollywood actors and pop stars. The gallery scene had become as cool and exclusive as Studio 54.

The progress of Modernism had reached its logical conclusion in the 1970s, with Conceptual Art and the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’. The monochrome, the empty room, the blank canvas, the walk in the woods: all were signs that the end had come. What followed next was the brief, parodic interlude called Post-Modernism, in which all earlier artforms returned inside inverted commas.

If nothing else, Post-Modernism destroyed the idea of Modernist purity. It opened the doors to the ‘anything goes’ mentality that characterises that amorphous entity we call ‘Contemporary Art’. But if progress in art had ceased, the art market still needed something to sell, and by the mid-1980s a host of new names and mini-movements had arisen. Possibly the most cynical was the TransAvantGuardia, invented by the Italian critic, Achille Bonito Oliva. It was a movement that drew freely on previous avant-gardes, with membership determined by whether Achille liked you or not.

This was the art scene that inspired Hughes with such righteous indignation. He felt that everything passionate and idealistic in art was being sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. The new art was sheer dross in the most glamorous wrapping paper.

Thirty five years later, one wonders what Hughes would say about an event such as Art Basel Hong Kong, in which art and money have grown so close that it qualifies as a co-dependent relationship?

By 2008 he had made the television documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, in which he reiterated his arguments against the rampant commercialisation of art. In that film we learnt that sales of contemporary art were valued at the staggering sum of US$18 billion in 2007. According to this year’s Art Market Report, commissioned by UBS and Art Basel, sales of contemporary art in 2018 reached US$67.4 billion. In the film we hear about a print by Andy Warhol selling for an amazing US$6 million. Warhol’s top price today is US$105.4 million.

Since Hughes died in 2012 the contemporary art market has become so supercharged that the leading dealers resemble multinational corporations, with branches in all the major cities where art is bought and sold. Gagosian has sixteen outlets at last count. Hughes saw the rise of the über dealer as a parody of the multinational, but now they are the real deal.

As multinational companies tend to squeeze the life out of small, local businesses, so too do the big galleries make it difficult for the little ones. This means one can have a reasonably successful grassroots enterprise, but the next step up the ladder is increasingly fraught. When a small gallery wants to grow it exposes itself to much higher rents, and risks losing its loyal, non-affluent clients. If your two or three best-selling artists are poached by bigger galleries, mere survival becomes an issue.

This scenario is now so widespread that even Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, referred to it in his remarks at this year’s press conference. It’s a matter of concern to the Art Basel group because their prosperity depends on a steady stream of galleries that will pay the high prices required to take a booth at one of their fairs – the three major venues being Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong. The art fair model has become so pervasive that artists will ask potential dealers about which the fairs they attend. If they don’t do fairs it’s likely the artist will look elsewhere.

This means that many dealers feel obliged to take part in a fair even if it’s beyond their means. One big sale made in the first few minutes will pay for the booth of David Zwirner or Hauser & Wirth, Pace or White Cube, but a smaller gallery can sell everything and not break even. The danger is that the contemporary art market may wither from the roots if the smaller galleries are forced out.

Robert Hughes was disgusted by collectors such as New York’s Mugrabi brothers, who treat art as a form of high-end investment. The latest wave of collectors is so rich – three new billionaires are created in Asia every week, according to the Art Market Report! – they seem relatively indifferent to art-as-investment. They are buying for fun. Buying expensive trophies because they can. Buying to be part of an exclusive club that gets pampered and flattered by the big galleries, albeit with the implict understanding that if you stop buying there’ll always be someone else to take your place in the queue.

This was exposed most dramatically in Hong Kong by a Sotheby’s auction in which a group of works by the American Neo-Pop artist, KAWS, sold for a total of US$28.6 million. With his plastic cartoon figures and paintings based on the Simpsons, KAWS is the latest global art sensation. The work is stunningly superficial – he makes Keith Haring look like Michelangelo – but it has become popular among cashed-up millennials. Industrial-scale productivity is a large part of his appeal, and it should be noted that one of his most dedicated collectors is Alberto Mugrabi.

What’s most alarming is the speed at which this former street artist has been picked up by major galleries, auction houses and public art museums. There have already been museum shows in Shanghai and Fort Worth. Not to be outdone, the National Gallery of Victoria has just announced a KAWS survey for the end of this year.

From a critical viewpoint, KAWS is simply junk. From the standpoint of the contemporary art market, he’s pure gold. It’s obvious where art museums take their lead, as the idea of critical assessment becomes less important than popular appeal. In these days when governments are eager to hand over cultural funding to the private sector, public galleries have evolved a pitiful dependence on big attendances and private donations, making them attentive to every seismic murmur in the marketplace. The critics haven’t been arbiters of taste for a long time, but one suspects that very few curators would honestly see KAWS as someone who will leave the tiniest stain on the fabric of art history.

We all know that markets are amoral but nowadays that amorality is beginning to dictate the kind of exhibitions held by art museums, and the works they acquire for their collections – either by purchase, or more likely by donation from a wealthy, fashion-victim collector they wish to cultivate.

This is the truly corrosive effect of the marriage of art and money. It’s not just a matter of know-nothing collectors paying crazy, inflated prices for bad art, it’s knowledgeable, respected institutions setting aside taste and judgement in the search for audiences and income.

Previously the museums set the standard of what was important, but nowadays it’s the dealers. When money talks, the public galleries listen.

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