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Thursday, 14 May 2015

You're paying for the price tag

If you have come to this blog looking for the answer to whether masturbation is harmful, the answer is no. The picture above is a lie and you will suffer no ill-effects from masturbation, no matter if you are male or female. 

I remember a long time ago studying philosophy and aesthetics and juggling the precepts of beauty, form and ethics around till my arms were all ahither and my brain was all athither and I didn't know what to do.

Maybe instead of considering the making, showing and selling and affecting of art, I should have thought about the conditions whereby something stops becoming an art work.

The other day Picasso's Women of Algiers sold at Christie's for $160 million, and event in which the painting became something quite divorced from any meaning its original production, showing and affect might have had. The painting in effect become a tag on the pricetag, the pricetag the main event.

The pricetag is the art work and at best the painting is just a bit player in some grand art market performance in whatever private home, office or museum in which the painting is shown. It's a corporate fetish at best, the art equivalent of an LV suitcase or a noughties bottle of Cristal, something over which the new owners and their guests can gratify themselves in a self-congratulatory, transitioning to bewildered and ultimately degrading way (see picture above for how this ends).

It's the Sotheby Effect, which is the opposite of the Midas Touch, inasmuch as the top end of the art market turns gold to muck. That price tag is an act of vandalism on the works of Picasso and its preservation in the world of the super rich is a symbolic sterilising of the real political values that Picasso held that were expressed through his art.

Everything that gives the work potency is stripped once it enters the world of those that reserve their caring and compassion for works of art as entities in and of themselves, yet somehow lose that caring and compassion for people who are living and breathing examples of real flesh and blood.

But there sitting in the middle between the painting and the buyers are the poor auctioneers. Or the poor gallerists. They are aware of where the work came from and the ideals and the thought that has gone into it but they are also all acting as a kind of decompression zone before the art work is blasted into the hyperspace world of those rich enough to afford expensive art, most of whom beneath the liberal veneer are deeply conservative in outlook and/or action.

It's a dilemma most artists would love to have, but one that really bites when a) the artist is still alive and has never received anywhere near the financial rewards one might expect and b) when it is apparent that there is no real interest in the artist and their work. It really is the price tag that matters. Gerhard Richter wrote about this in connection with the sale of one of his works for £30 million, and his bewilderment with a market where price is all that matters.

“It is really quite alarming, particularly when you take a look at the catalogues. They always send them to me and they get worse and worse. You cannot imagine what rubbish is offered, at prices that are rising all the time,” he said. He said that both “serious galleries” and young artists were suffering as a result.
“Many of the young artists go straight to auctions in order to earn the big bucks. So in contrast to the past artists cannot develop slowly. And the business is getting more anonymous. In the end it just comes down to the price.”

It's a dilemma most gallerists have. It's always surprising how affectionate gallerists are to those patrons who really love and care about their art (as Richter is to those collectors who have a passion for their art). It's like watching professional hobbyists meet, albeit with a financial arrangement added. But then you get the ones who collect for collecting's sake, for whom a piece of art is basically the equivalent of a Baby Bentley on a reception room wall. How can you sell work to people you essentially despise. And I know a gallerists that do despise their clients, or some of their clients. It is a delight watching politically minded gallerists wriggle with the contradictions of their job. But it's a job isn't it and and having the ability to carry on while pretending there isn't a smell is not such a rare skill - if you work in a restaurant, a supermarket, a bookshop, a school you do the same thing on a daily basis.

But where else does this decompression occur. I guess in publications too. They're essentially vehicles for advertising with contradictions that are quite transparent in the regular juxtaposition of diametrically opposed advertising and content. Or they are publications where the art and photography acts as a liberal counter-balance to the reactionary content. If you're in advertising you pretend the other side doesn't exist and if you're in editorial you pretend the advertising doesn't exist. And if you're a writer, well you're just in La-La land anyway so what does it matter. It's a convenient arrangement.

What is the upshot of all this. Well earlier this week, Lewis Bush lamented the disastrous election result in Britain (unless you're  either a bit simple, or wealthy and a psychopath, in which case it's a fantastic victory and mine's a treble) but also wondered at the lack of photography that details the great depths of poverty, despair and hypocrisy in the UK at present.

In the past he's also wondered if photography (and by extension the art world and non-commercial galleries) isn't a bit too cosy with financial establishments and what the cost of this cosiness might be if it shapes what is shown in galleries.

One possible cost is the possible the filtering (or censoring) of work by non-commercial galleries. Then there is another cost - you get the feeling we censor ourselves. Instead of relying on gallerists, publishers and auctioneers (chance would be a fine thing) to act as a decompression zone for our politically-minded art, art which in the past really did offend and say fuck you through work that hit the race, gender and economic high notes, we are doing it ourselves. We're castrating our own work because we're afraid of offending those who might offer us a crumb of comfort, a job, a payday. And if we're not afraid of offending, then we're working beneath the radar somewhere so nobody gets to see our work anyway because we're just preaching to the already converted.

And that's why ultimately just about everything is a bit crap and dull and rather missing the point of what is happening in the world around us. Because we're all terrified of losing the money that nobody is paying us but we imagine is our due. It's not. Nobody owes us a living and if you want to earn it then you have to play the game, or one of the games (there are many). Which is far more difficult, and involves far more compromises than one would care to imagine.

But as we've stretched things so far, let's stretch them a little more; there are silver linings. Last year I interviewed Ricardo Cases about the upsurge in Spanish photography. One of the reasons there was so much interesting work coming out of Spain (although not that much that is really vicious) is because all the markets in Spain disappeared, because things were so bad nobody really cared anymore. And because all the markets were gone, there was nobody to offend, nobody to kowtow to, nobody who would give you a job anymore. So people were free to do what they wanted. Whether that will happen here is another matter. Here's hoping that out of all the outrage and fury something concrete will emerge. Hoping...


joel said...

As someone living outside the commuting range of gallerists (well, we have many of them but not commanding the type of work I'd like to see in person) as most all of society does I'm surprised to hear people speak of galleries with such prestige and as anything other than retail stores to begin with. Although it all feels a bit depressing considering the value many of these pieces hold relative to history, I can't say it works differently for anything else we hold dear to our culture and history. It even works exactly the same for housing, access to good schools & transit(in the US at least), parks and everything we value within our cities. I'm sure for many collectors art is simply just another hedging bet to diversify their investments, but I'm okay with that. If i want to feel involved with something I sit down with a cup of joe and fire up a bunch of tumblr/instagram/twitter streams. If I want to feel poor I go to a gallery opr museum with all their aspirational bright white walls, perfectly tidied corners and the lot.

I think the reality is that most all of the historical/cultural meaning of a painting or piece of work is stripped from it within the first generation. Beyond that for most folks, and even hobbyist, it's just something you saw in a museum that one time. Fortunately the internet is slowly creating new ways to support young artists. I feel I can see it already, and certainly hope that it can continue, that the same forces devaluing the cultural artifacts we used to hold so dear are mining new artifacts to find value in and to recreate the history we thought we knew so well. As we devalue the old, we reappraise the forgotten. There is a light at the end of the tunnel (or should we say interweb).

colin pantall said...

So the art market is a force of conservatism, sure why not.

Joerg Colberg referenced a book (in German) that says exactly that.


I think there is plenty of protest art beneath the radar, but we are so brainwashed that it doesn't become art until it sells as such. But it's art when it isn't recognised - I think I'm going round in circles here but you get the idea...