It’s always sad to see a smart and perceptive writer struggle with concepts that are unfamiliar and irrelevant to his work. This week, Peter Schjeldahl feels compelled to comment on the art market instead of using his valuable and vaunted perch at the New Yorker to write about art. What’s caught his eye is J.J. Charlesworth’s essay recapping half a decades worth of conventional wisdom on why the art market has grown and persists.
Charlesworth’s essay is fine but it addresses an irrelevant question: Is the art market going to crash? We have known there’s a substantial market for art since 2010. The market crashed along with the world’s financial system and recovered faster than anyone—even the most ensconced participants—had guessed. We’ve know the art market isn’t a bubble and won’t crash for five years now.
The more interesting and pressing question is whether the market, like all markets, will retrench. Have market dynamics pushed buyers and sellers too far apart? Is the market too concentrated in one collecting category? Are there enough artists to feed demand at all levels? (There are more questions but you get the point and we’ll save the others for another time.)
It’s not just that Schjeldahl is wasting his time and talent gnashing his teeth at the market and trying to mock simple ideas like a “store of value.” The bigger problem is that he’s backing himself into a ridiculous corner. Here’s how he concludes his piece:
Sensing that people will one day look back on this era as a freakish episode in cultural history, why not get a head start on viewing it that way? Detach and marvel. Meanwhile, art goes on making meaning for those who are rich only in the desire and leisure to engage with it. And a tonic reaction seems afoot in the form of a quickened appetite, among art lovers, for deep continuities: what art has lasted and will outlast us. (This doesn’t entail spurning newness, which should, as it must, be relished promptly, before its shelf life expires.) The past feels unusually and urgently present right now, as a fund of alternative ways of dreaming and, perchance, of being.
To test this effect, drop in at Frick Collection and observe the undying freshness of its legacies from the last Gilded Age—when often socially sinning millionaires performed as saints of high culture, filling American museums with European treasures. That species of benefactor is sparse now though not extinct, as witness Leonard A. Lauder’s gift to the Metropolitan Museum, last year, of his fantastic collection of classic Cubism. More generally, the private museums that are popping up everywhere run to cookie-cutter amassments of recent art, which at some not far-distant point will date abruptly and forevermore.
Blinded by survivorship bias, Schjeldahl wants to venerate the gilded age collectors because a very small number of them created lasting collections. Does he really believe that Frick, Mellon, Havenmeyer and Kresge were the only collectors of that era? Does he want to pretend that for every Frick there wasn’t a dozen other collectors who were dazzled by the “cookie-cutter crap’ of the era?
Speaking of museums, can Schjeldahl write with a straight face that “socially sinning millionaires performed as saints of high culture, filling American museums with European treasures?” They filled their homes—their palaces—with European art. (The Frick Collection, after all, is still preserved as a home. It’s not even called a museum.) Later, some of those works went into museums but rarely for the selfless reasons Schjeldahl wants to imagine now.
And what of the art dealers who trafficked in these treasures? If we venerate collectors like Frick, it is hard not to put Joseph Duveen beside him on the pedestal. No one figure in the modern age matches (or surpasses) Duveen’s market dominance than Larry Gagosian. So by Schjeldahl’s own logic, we must inevitably place Larry Gagosian in the same exalted position.
Saint Larry, who would have thought of that?
A Fearful Frenzy: The Art Market Now (The New Yorker)