Felix Salmon, Sarah Thornton and David Galenson All Try to Make Sense of the Art World
Only in the world of blogs is it considered a compliment to argue with someone incessantly. But such is the nature of the medium, so let’s dive right in. Our friend Felix Salmon has caught the art bug bad. Over the weekend he started reading Sarah Thornton’s much-anticipated Seven Days in the Art World and found good fodder for posting in Thornton’s comment that art must maintain a motive higher than mere profit to defend its position above other cultural forms. Felix objects to this:
The purpose, I think, is that collectors never want to be reminded that they’re consumers. After all, this is a world where anybody can make their own Damien Hirst spot painting: when a collector buys one for hundreds of thousands of dollars, they’re buying the branding more than they are the object. (When Stevie Cohen bought the first Hirst shark, he even went so far as to throw the original away and get a new one flown in: so long as Hirst signed off on the switch, it was entirely kosher.)
In such a world, insecurities abound — and one way of reassuring collectors that they’re not blowing millions of dollars on the art-world equivalent of Crocs stock is by telling them that, really, it’s not about the money at all. Yes, art might be expensive, but there are lots of things which are expensive. Art, by contrast, has more profound motives. No wonder Thornton describes it as “a kind of alternative religion for atheists”.
Salmon’s basic confusion comes from the fact that because there is a lot of money involved in one segment of the art market–the segment that we see–that the rest of the structure of the art market is composed of persons acting like investors. In other words, he assumes that collectors buy and sell art to make money.
I would suggest that he has it the wrong way around and that the art market exists to make money for artists, dealers and even museum curators who all benefit when an artist receives recognition. It doesn’t exist to enhance the value of a collector’s holdings, though that might be a by-product of the market.
Why someone buys art is impossible to say. Because art has no true economic value–you can’t use it any way–no one can say for sure how a collector benefits. Yes, we can guess that it ranges from social status to a deep intellectual curiosity or aesthetic drive. There are psychoanalytic theories about collecting–most of which don’t flatter anyone involved in the activity–and moral and philosophical justifications too.
Let’s view art collecting from the basest angle. A wealthy person seeks to improve their social position by creating an art collection that speaks to their cultivation and sophistication but will eventually secure them some immortality when they donate the works to a prestigious museum or even create one themselves.
We cannot know why Steven Cohen, the hedge fund manager, has spent more than $700 million on contemporary art in the past five years. What we do know is that Cohen was a highly secretive figure about whom there was much speculation. At about the same time that it became known that Cohen was buying big, important pieces for top dollar, hedge funds were under some pressure from regulators. Cohen’s art collecting became a convenient shield–and a weapon. The more great art he bought–and you don’t have to think the pieces he bought were great to call them that–his persona turned from whispered about recluse with his own hockey rink to an ambitious aesthete.
When BusinessWeek magazine or 60 Minutes tried to profile Cohen, they had to settle for aerial shots of his house or grainy footage from a conference to show the man to the public. Yet, if you walked through the Murakami exhibition at the Brooklyn museum, you would have seen his name clearly attached to several works. Whether he got into collecting for this purpose or not, the art has given him a public persona at a time that he needed one that was more benevolent than ‘secretive financial alchemist.’
Whatever value Cohen’s collection gains over time, and it is doubtful that he will have much motivation to sell, will be ancillary to either of Cohen’s goals–the private one or the public benefit of being known as having the best art collection money can buy.
More important than this, Salmon’s casual assertion that buying art is about buying a brand needs to be addressed. Art doesn’t have to be executed by the artist to be the product of his unique artistic ‘hand.’ Most artists do execute their own works but that is less important than the finished product. And Salmon should spend some time with even a few of the multitude of Hirst spot paintings (there are said to be 1,000) or look at the difference between the shark currently suspended in the Met and the one that will be auctioned in September to see that each is a unique object. Some are more valued than others and each for a different reason.
If a collector buys the Spot painting that speaks to them most but it is one of the cheapest ones–and likely to remain cheaper than all of the other Spot paintings–has that collector made a bad bargain? Probably not. If that canvas suits his needs, he’s accomplished what he needs to do in the art market.
Sure, the collector could be buying the Hirst brand so that Hirst is represented in the collection or even so that someone coming to his home will recognize the painting as a Hirst. This is Salmon’s brand-buying in real life. But even that satisfies Thornton’s criteria for something more than the profit motive. It’s just very difficult to measure from the outside.
Which brings us conveniently to the New York Times which has a funny story on Economist David Galenson who is trying to bring quantitative data into art history. Which is funny because isn’t that what the art market is supposed to do?
“Quantification has been almost totally absent from art history,” he said. “Art historians hate markets.”
Read the Times story to see Arthur Danto and John Elderfield demolish his reasoning and methodology. Felix is going to keep blogging his reading of Thornton, so I’m sure well have more to say about that later.