We generally don’t agree with Felix Salmon’s rote assumption that Contemporary art is a bubble. But there are two good reasons to start to worry: Greed and the Magazine cover signal. Two old saws about markets seem to be coming together this Fall. The first is the idea that magazine covers (or, in this case, a book) are the signal of a top. When a subject appears on a magazine cover, it’s not news to anyone anymore. Does Thornton’s book signal the top for Contemporary Art? (Video after the jump.)
In general, we concur with Salmon’s take on the book. The central conceit doesn’t work. The problem is that Thornton has made herself the organizing principle. She fancies that makes her a participant observer and the book is a work of anthropology. But in practice, that simply means she’s a passable but not inspired journalist. Writing about oneself is always the easy way out and it takes enormous amounts of talent to violate that simple rule. This video doesn’t do her writing style justice but does give you some sense of the author:
There’s also the issue that it took her five years to write (and the book doesn’t really show why) so that many things are out of date. As Salmon points out, if you went to the Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, you would know who bought 727-727 –and if you follow auction prices (as we do) the numbers in Thornton’s meant-to-be-attention-grabbing opening chapter are small beer. A lot has happened in for years which buttresses Salmon’s point that this must be a bubble. Too much has happened as far as prices are concerned.
Having made that quibble, we would prefer to emphasize the many trenchant insights Thornton makes about the art market, artists, collectors and dealers often in passing. Though she should credit Tom Wolfe with the insight that art is a belief system for atheists, he wrote an essay in Harper’s Magazine 20 years ago making that point. For her actual insights, you’ll have to get the book in a couple of months to see what these are. In the meantime, here’s another taste:
The second sign of a market top is when Greed outweighs fear. The Hirst sale looks like a indicator of that trend. When the artist cuts out the middleman by going straight to the collector, he is making the statement that he wants to keep all of the value of his work for himself. Greed may not be a fair word for that move but it certainly shows a lack of fear on Hirst’s part.
Salmon has another interesting post on the “news” coming out of Hirst’s Sotheby’s interview that he is stopping Spin, Butterfly and Medicine cabinets after 2008. Watch the video to see that he also says he only has a few more ideas for formaldehyde works. But pay close attention because Hirst makes some contradictory statements about his Spot paintings. Hirst says he’s working on such a fine scale it will take him 20 years to complete the spot painting he’s currently doing (though he makes it sound like he’s painting the Spots and he’s already said he doesn’t do that very well.)
Supply and Demand in the Hirst market sounds like a topic, however, for a later post.