How Does the Critic Measure the Value of His Fake Richter?

Let’s admit it upfront. We’re beating a dead horse here. But Jerry Saltz’s post today at NYMag.com about his quest for someone to make him a “fake” Richter wraps a bow around this whole issue of blaming the art market for ruining art.

Saltz wants a Richter but doesn’t have the money to buy one. Spending a lot of money to buy art is “about a collector trying to make art history by spending money. Or big-dick-waving. Ugh.” (How Saltz knows the intentions of the hundreds of anonymous buyers of Richters isn’t explained.)

As an alternative, Saltz puts it about that he would pay $155 plus materials to anyone who can make a work in the style of Richter’s abstracts for him. (It’s a shame Art.sy hasn’t progressed enough to allow Saltz to find a viable substitute.)

Eventually, one artist, Stanley Casselman, rose to the challenge and was able to provide Saltz with a work that beguiled the art critic using methods similar to the German master’s. All of that’s fine and good. Saltz got what he wanted without paying the market price for a Richter. Indeed, Saltz seemed to validate his own idea that art should be sold for a fixed price so as to neutralize the negative effects of the art market.

Except that Saltz, the anti-market advocate, can’t help but measure the quality of his Casselmans without making a completely unnecessary reference to what he thinks they might be worth on the open market:

We had a deal: Stanley signed his name prominently on the back of each, and I paid him, put them in my car, and drove home.

I don’t think Stanley understands that he could get pretty rich making these things. I suspect he could get $8,000 a pop.

A charitable reading of this little Freudian slip is that market ideas so pervade our culture that even those who wish to exempt themselves from the market are drawn into it. Another reading is that Saltz, like many sincere collectors likes having his taste and foresight validated by seeing others willingly pay a greater price for the work.

To be fair, Saltz calls his new-found taste for commissioning and collecting “fakes” a case of “little-dick’ waving but that doesn’t make it any less being a dick.

Saltz Challenges: Produce a Perfect Faux Gerhard Richter Painting, and I’ll Buy It (NYMag.com)

Critics v. The Art Market, Pt 112

Time again for one of our favorite games where art critics bitterly complain about the values and volume of money in the art market. Today’s episode features Dave Hickey and Will Gompertz bemoaning the confusion of price with quality. The art market is a distribution system. It’s a voting machine. Art History is a value system or a weighing machine.

Paying a lot of money to own a work of art doesn’t make that work more important or even more valuable. But Gompertz puts his finger on a far more dangerous problem: institutions that are supposed to stand apart from the distribution system like museums seem to be getting sucked into the influence of the market and following its agenda.

Hickey’s comments, on the other hand, are simply an expression of bitterness over lost status. However, top prize for dissembling goes to Laura Cummings  (see below):

Dave Hickey […] is walking away from a world he says is calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing.

“They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” he told the Observer. “Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.” […]

Gompertz, who recently wrote What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art, sympathised with Hickey’s frustration.

“Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore,” he said yesterday, adding that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed open debate on art.

The Observer’s Laura Cummings seems to to have forgotten the major museum shows for market-favored artists Damien Hirst and Gerhard Richter run recently in London:

“The palace Hickey’s describing, with its lackeys and viziers, its dealers and advisers, is more of an American phenomenon. It’s true that we too have wilfully bad art made for hedge fund managers, but the British art scene is not yet so thick with subservient museum directors and preening philanthropists that nothing is freely done and we can’t see the best contemporary art in our public museums because it doesn’t suit the dealers.”

Art’s Lowest Denominator

Our intrepid correspondent, Kenny Schachter, tunes into the latest reality TV show set in the art world:

I am like so stoked to catch the new reality TV show entitled Gallery Girls. Like wow! I am so excited to slip on my Jimmy Choos and really discover something about art and the art market. Come along for the ride, I’m sure we all have a few things to learn. The slight problem being that Bravo is restricted in my jurisdiction and I don’t have capacity to view just yet, still waiting for word if there is a way around this. Otherwise, can someone Skype me and we can watch (suffer) together in real time? Maybe I am lucky I can’t watch, this is like writing a book report without having read the book but I think I get the picture!

From what I’ve read, apparently one has the propensity to go topless according to a preview, so perhaps the cards are…stacked; for anyone worth their salt in art knows how to get ahead—with gratuitous nudity! Too bad Lucien Freud is dead, she could have interned for him too. Interning is the key phrase, as these girls seem utterly incapable of securing a job other than to work for free. One girl is the daughter of mega collector Marty Margulies, seeking, in her own words, a role of her own outside of sphere of daddy’s influence. Call him Mortified Marty for now on. Sadly, I don’t foresee much of a role for art in this program, other than for a few cameos.

What we seem to have is yet another reductive ploy, in the name of art, to reach out to the lowest denominator, and we are talking low, like playing handball against a curb (sorry, couldn’t resist). This could have been a lot more, like the market mocking itself, which would amount to much better programming. Instead, we are faced with something far more insidious: a new form of lowbrow entertainment couched in name of art, but they left out the art! It’s nothing more than a little T&A, in this instance, Tits and Art.

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Olympic Opening Ceremony Part 2: Hi, I’m Kenny.

On the tube ride over, there was a burly construction worker with a paint-splattered rubber arm and oversized duffel. Switching stations he hoisted the bag onto his shoulder with his artificial limb and shoved off. That alone defines Brit grit as much as any sporting competition. The hospitality structure was as disappointingly bland as the food. Of the more than a hodgepodge of nationalities represented, there seemed to be primarily Chinese (more on that later); fascinating, and partly due to a major congregation of businesspeople in London for a summit. Conversing with a female property developer about a high-powered, strong-willed designer joining us, she replied: “ah, New York Jew.” Another man was wearing a head-to-toe chiffon ruffled suit but still managed to look cool, we are behind in fashion too I guess. A British friend met the singer Cliff Richard, and couldn’t wait to tell his mother; in America, I didn’t know who the odd looking national treasure was.

The backdrop was filmic, and the show altogether epic, with some painstaking yet unavoidable interludes, and a real sense of wow, surprise and wonderment—something rare (for me) in theater or live events, or film or TV. Like a cartoon, you never knew what was going to burst out from where, like the Queen, for instance. Even Rowan Atkinson, who normally grates, was hilarious and entertaining. What mattered more is that we all wanted it to be funny and enthralling, and I say we because there was a corny and palpable sense of community, all for one (cliché quota), and borderless camaraderie, which was delicious. I felt like speaking to people I didn’t know, which for me is unusual. Rest assured, the inclination faded fast.

I won’t get into the show I’m sure enough saw it except for those that dosed during the roll call of countries and their athletes and lackeys. One small rich unnamed country had 15 such hangers-on and one plump athlete who must have cried to daddy, “I want to go to the Olympics and I want to go now.” To reiterate, I am not political but its strange how some countries that are not on my map were represented while other places I can identify on a globe (and I’m American with our inbuilt lack of a sense of geography) were noticeably absent? And the countries they called, more than a few I legitimately could not be reasonably charged with knowing, never ceased, like they enlarged the alphabet for the night. Ugh. Partly responsible for the school lesson tedium of the endless ejaculation of teams was the fact China had three and America had more players than the 1 billion watching the event. Isn’t that cheating sideways? One team was called Independent Olympic Athletes, I never heard of that country, maybe they were from Long Island or Sheffield. I won’t get into the quality of the UK healthcare system either or the routine extolling it, all that was missing was some dancing MRSA superbug bacteria cells.

I am not usually one for pomp and circumstance, but the hair rose on my arms on many occasions and is doing so now, pardon the sappiness. The two and a half hour ride home, which normally should have been 30 minutes, didn’t even register. I had a full on Olympic buzz and as the night before, after returning at 3:30am, again lost sleep. God Save the Queen—was cheeky of Danny Boyle to stick one by the Pistols in front of the Royal Box, and he did it with aplomb. A long video projection onto the prop of a building lifted to reveal Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said to be the inventor of the web typing away. Strange and stranger still, I thought it was Al Gore? The ingenuity and industriousness of the team that orchestrated such a monstrous undertaking I still can’t comprehend. And, as far as I can remember, the Illuminati failed to execute their plot or were thwarted.

Image: An Illuminati Christmas

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The Strange Case of the Caravaggio Discovery

The Telegraph reports that the ebook claiming to have re-attributed a cache of works owned by the City of Milan as works by Caravaggio has been withdrawn from Amazon (though it remains for sale on lulu.com.)

The claim itself was outlandish but some of the reaction is ante-diluvian in its starched skepticism that any valid claim could be made outside of the academic establishment:

The withdrawal of the book raised questions about why the historians’ claims, which garnered worldwide media attention, had not been peer-reviewed. […] A panel of heritage experts from Castello Sforzesco, the castle where the archive of sketches and drawings is kept, would scrutinise “with rigour the ideas advanced by the authors of the e-book,” he said. […]

Maria Teresa Fiorio, the former director of the castle’s collection, said last week that she was “perplexed” by the claims made in the book. “A serious scholar doesn’t produce an e-book – they would publish their findings in the appropriate journals. Everyone who has studied the collection has asked themselves – is it possible that some were drawn by Caravaggio? No one has drawn that conclusion.”

The authors claim their work’s many images are essential to making their case. Of course, the publication and publicity surrounding it has generated exactly the sort of “peer review” one would want if your case was convincing.

Amazon Withdraws Controversial Caravaggio Book (Telegraph)

Schjeldahl Confesses

In what first appears to be another wailing complaint about money ruining art, the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl finally fesses up to what really bugs him about art fairs:

The triumph of commerce that art fairs advance and symbolize—the subject of my most recent piece in the magazine—gives me philosophical indigestion. The very wondrousness of Frieze New York’s production values made it worse. The spectacle seemed a gesture of noblesse oblige from King Mammon to the non-collector masses, or else a potlatch bonfire of profits that accrue to the Frieze folks, from facilitating intercourse between art and money. The signal drama in new art lately involves a struggle not for esteem and influence—the wonted dreams of artists—but for commercial viability. If you like a certain artist now, it’s hard not to be caught up in rooting for him or her to sell. Simply no other way to gauge, affirm, and discuss quality is in working order. [Emphasis added]

Set aside the misuse of the potlatch analogy (neither the art nor the money involved is destroyed so it’s not a potlatch at all.) Ignore the fact that an art fair is no different from an art district except a few more walls have been eliminated. Schjeldahl’s complaint comes down to feelings that no one listens to him anymore. That’s a shame. Schjeldahl’s a fascinating writer about art. And it isn’t clear why he thinks “no other way to gauge, affirm and discuss quality is in working order.”

More to the point, it seems that he’s lost confidence in himself in the face of mere money when surely his work will be better remembered and more impactful long after the prices paid at Frieze are forgotten.

WHAT IS THE FRIEZE FOR? (New Yorker)

The Scream Provokes a Barbaric Yawp

The exceptionally talented New York Times art critic Holland Cotter produces a predictable display of status anxiety. Threatened by the attention these outsized prices attract (and really what does it matter that someone spent $120m on painting? Have you seen some of their silly boats?) critics feel compelled to display their aesthetic, moral and political superiority with comments like this:

Is a version worth $120 million? The only way I can answer is by asking another question: If I were suddenly handed the same amount of money for art, is that the way I’d spend it? No.

After studying and writing about art for 40 years I see too many other options, options that would allow me to put together an encyclopedic mini-museum for the same dollars. That museum, filled with art that could be bought, even in these over-the-top times, for comparative bargain prices. It would begin with early Indian Buddhist art and go on to French  illuminated manuscripts, African sculpture, tons of old master paintings and drawings —  art that a new generation of collectors, fixated on thoroughly branded modern and contemporary art, doesn’t even know exists.

What Mr. Cotter is trying to say is that there is great art that is under-valued by the distribution mechanism called the market. Why is that a bad thing?

It’s easy to forget that this is what Dr. Barnes faced when he assembled the world’s greatest collection of Impressionist art. The core of Barnes’s collection was a group of paintings that had been offered to the French government—and rejected. Barnes bought what was equally overlooked and undervalued in his time.

Someone can—and eventually will—do the same with works that Cotter mentions here. In fact, there’s no reason he cannot do it himself. The Vogels did something nearly as impressive as what Barnes accomplished using the proceeds of a civil service salary. Surely a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist could do as much on his salary.

If I Had Cash, I Wouldn’t Buy That (New York Times)

 

Spinning the Scream

Carol Vogel’s preview of this season’s art auctions contains this head-scratching paragraph about the top lot: Edvard Munch’s The Scream:

Some art historians, who declined to be named for fear of offending Sotheby’s, laughed at the astronomical price predictions for “The Scream,” even the seemingly lowball house estimate, calling the work too ugly to live with, depressing or mere kitsch. Whoever buys it will have a hefty insurance bill, not to mention round-the-clock security, to worry about. But were any new museum to add “The Scream” to its collection, that institution would become an immediate destination.

  • Why would any art historian fear offending Sotheby’s? Art advisors, art dealers and art collectors might be understandably circumspect. But what penalty could Sotheby’s exact on a doubting art historian?
  • Why would anyone be interested in an art historian’s opinion of the estimate—or final selling price? The art market is only loosely correlated with art history (and isn’t that a good thing?)
  • If a museum would immediately promote itself to a destination institution by purchasing the work, wouldn’t that be incentive for a buyer too? Doesn’t that validate the idea that the painting—whatever one’s view of the work’s art historical value—would be viewed as a trophy?

Sure Bets (New York Times)

Sensible Thoughts About Art & Money

The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones offers a remarkably clear-sighted and detached assessment of the confusion of artistic value and market value:

Art has been a luxury good ever since people started to make “art” as such, and artists have been getting big money for centuries. If I say that Raphael was just as mercenary as Jeff Koons, a few answers are possible. One might be that he deserved his money and Koons does not: another might be that Raphael was more grasping than other artists in his time – but Michelangelo and Titian got just as rich. Another answer is that even the fortunes of these artists pale in comparison with contemporary artistic profits.

The last argument, that art’s relationship with money today is more out of control than it ever was, makes little sense. Money itself is different. The economy is larger. The fact is that great artists in the past could earn sums that shocked their contemporaries just as they can today. Making a fortune from art is making a fortune from art.

The only honest reason to be disgusted with today’s highly paid artists is that you believe their art is not worth the money. Thus opponents of conceptual art are not really appalled that a Koons makes so much money, but that he gets so much for doing what they perceive as so little. It is an argument about artistic quality disguised as an argument about morality. But some people can’t see why painters should be paid, either. A footballer opined on the Guardian site last week that a Lucian Freud painting, although he liked it, wasn’t worth the money paid for it. Er, how much do football players make again?

Lindemann v. Saltz, the Re-match

Petty art world feuds are the stuff that entertains us. And Adam Lindemann is happy to keep his tit-for-tat with Jerry Saltz going. Today it’s a review of the reviewers of Cindy Sherman’s retrospective at MoMA. Lindemann praises Bloomberg’s Lance Esplund as the only critic willing to pan the show but picks this little fight over Saltz’s preference of the “difficult” pictures that Sherman made:

“For a decade I was cold on her art,” he writes. “The so-called ‘centerfolds’ … and the lurid scenes that followed struck me as pictorially dull. It was obvious noir, New Wave negativity, overconstructed self-consciousness, I thought; it oozed sleepwalking eighties hipness.” That’s really funny, because anyone who follows the art market knows that Ms. Sherman’s “centerfolds” are her single most successful body of work, the one most coveted by museums and collectors. Isn’t it funny that those are the images he trashes for being too hip? One of them (nicknamed the “Orange Girl”) sold for almost $4 million at auction last year, so perhaps it’s best not to hire Mr. Saltz as your art adviser.

He eventually chimes in with his critic peers: “I went the full Sherman (in 1992), when she made darkness visible in her horrific-beautiful ‘sex pictures’—­images I’ve always called, after Goya’s paintings of war, ‘The Disasters of Sex.’ […] It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Mr. Saltz dislikes the “commercial” work (the “centerfolds”) and favors the least commercial work (the “sex pictures”). His method, generally, is to try and sound smart by liking what the market doesn’t.

All Hail Cindy Sherman! Once Again, Unanimity Rules Among New York’s Longtime Critics (Bloomberg)