With apologies for continuing to harp upon Blake Gopnik but his essay on why the art market must fail on The Daily Beast seems an object lesson in the envy critics show toward the art market and the confusion about what a market is. Like many of his peers, Gopnik finds the art market repugnant because he feels it valorizes the wrong art.
Indeed, in this essay he feels vindicated when art dealer Marc Glimcher happily tells him about the artists who were once famous and market leaders who are now forgotten relics:
We’ll make the bubble pop in the normal course of things, as all of us—critics, curators, and art lovers of all kinds—decide that today’s market darlings are tomorrow’s also-rans. We’ll prick the market’s bubble by deciding that a Richard Prince nurse is about as central to our culture as Ernie Trova’s sculptures turned out to be.
Well, yes. And one might add: obviously. The central problem with Gopnik’s approach is that in his envy of the attention people pay to the market, he gives it far too much credit. The art market isn’t a measure of art historical value or worth. The nominal monetary values assigned to objects at auction are measures of distribution. Those prices are indicators of demand but not worth. And demand is evanescent.
What’s interesting about the art market is not which artists it validates but what it tells us about the demand for certain objects. Wrong-headed demand (would somebody please explain the market for Tamara de Lempicka?!) is often more interesting.
After a record setting price is achieved, you often hear griping that the work in question isn’t the artist’s “best” work. But what the head-scratchers miss is that the “best” work may not be available for purchase … ever. Or what makes a work valuable to a very rich person is not what makes a work meaningful art historically, one does not negate the other.
Another complaint is that auctions are not about the art. This was captured perfectly by Gopnik in an essay on the November sales:
Actual pleasure in significant works seems to play a pretty small role in auction-room calculations: I couldn’t help noticing that, when the big Kline came up for sale, all eyes stayed glued to the auctioneer and to a huge monitor displaying the work. The “masterpiece” itself, filling most of one wall of the room, seemed utterly forlorn and neglected.
Well, duh. Of course it’s not about the art. An auction is an event about the buyers, not the art. The art comes and goes, literally, on a turntable for the ease and expedience of the buyers. An auction isn’t an event where works of art are weighed for their worth, it’s a place where buyers vote—sometimes raising their hands.
Just as a conference of art historians is about the ideas and scholarship being presented, an auction is organized for the convenience and enlightenment of buyers. The sale room gathers in one place all of the interested parties physically or virtually. It also happens to gather a group of objects together randomly just as they are gathered randomly at storage facility.
It would be silly to go down to Crozier and stand in the street shouting, “the art in this storage facility is utterly forlorn!” (The complaint is probably more relevant but still silly.) When art is hanging in a collector’s home or on display in a gallery or museum talking about its price is mere gossip. But for the rare and brief moment that it may be on an auction house turntable, that’s the one time its price really matters. All that price tells us is how much demand exists for that work.
Demand, as Gopnik has just discovered, is a fickle thing. One year it’s this artist; the next, it’s another artist. Prices falling for individual artists can and does happen during a boom. It’s happening now. For Gopnik that leads to this extraordinary feat of tortured logic:
The hundreds of polka-dotted paintings turned out by Damien Hirst’s assistants are likely to be important, in the long run, because they undermine the clichéd values of uniqueness and “authenticity” that the market feeds on. The less Hirst’s spots turn out to be worth on the market—and they seem to be dropping like stones—the more they may matter as art.
Gopnik need not have bothered. It’s okay for artist’s work to go down in value. And falling prices don’t mean the work is less important or not as good. Great collections were built upon works being out of favor. Albert Barnes bought a substantial number of Impressionist works from Gustave Caillebotte’s collection because the French government refused most of it … twice … for free.
Blake Gopnik: Pop Goes the Art Bubble (Newsweek)