Cappuccini
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Cappuccini

How the Art Market Shows us to Ourselves in all our Staggering Greed

Our cultural legacy is being stripped away from us one layer at a time.

Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyns

We’ve been watching a lot of art world documentaries lately.

Not just biopics of famous artists, but windows into the horrifying avarice of the art world itself. Chief among them is the 2018 documentary, The Price of Everything, which I highly recommend. Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World is another horror show tricked out in bright, canvas-y colors. But the takeaway is the same: the moment art and commerce starting having unspeakable congress, gallerists, auction houses, the nouveau riches, Saudi princes, hedge fund managers, Silicon Valley oligarchs, celebrities, and the desperately parvenu became our overlords.

Art matters. It shouldn’t be up to those people to decide which art matters.

There are 2,189 billionaires in the world with a net worth of 10.2 trillion US dollars, at least 200 of whom own a billion dollars’ worth of art each. According to ARTNews, roughly 14 billion dollars in art is sold every year at auction and about the same amount is sold privately. Galleries and online sales throw another 36 billion dollars into the mix, giving us a grand total of 64 billion dollars. For work like this:

Rabbit by Jeff Koons. Photo by Fred Romero.

Lest you think this Cappuccino is a screed against contemporary art, it’s not. I happen to love contemporary art — a great deal of it anyway. But this stainless-steel rabbit, one of a series of three identical rabbits by artist Jeff Koons, sold for 91.1 million dollars in May of 2019, making it the most expensive work sold at auction by a living artist.

91.1 million. Take a moment to let that settle in. It’s Donnie Darko as a coffeepot. Do you think it’s really worth 91.1 million dollars?

Oh, and by the way, Koons didn’t make it. He has a cadre of starving grad students to do all his work for him so Koons can dedicate himself to what he does better than anyone on this planet: market Koons.

One of many problems with the art world is that it is opaque and unregulated, making it a cesspool of money laundering and market manipulation. Take the Nahmad Brothers, for example. They collect art, only they collect it purely for the investment. That’s why they have 300 Picassos — not on a wall or in a museum for all to enjoy, but in a vault in Geneva. That’s also why they, and others like them, are rumored to bid up the price of every Picasso that goes to auction, even if they don’t necessarily want to buy it. Why? If the price of Picassos starts trending down, their investment isn’t worth as much.

Trailer for 2018 documentary, The Price of Everything

It is said, not without reason, that art must be expensive; otherwise, no one would take the trouble to preserve it. I’m all for the preservation of artwork and the remuneration of artists. But it’s not the artists who are getting rich. Not most of them. It’s the dealmakers and auction houses that are grabbing headlines — and wallets. Moreover, when art enters the dark waters of shady finance, its cultural value is degraded. It’s no longer art; it’s art for investment, and therefore judged by a different set of criteria, which then determines which kind of art will be created by the next generation of artists.

When the financial value of art becomes more important than its artistic value, we’ve effectively slaughtered our cultural heritage and set it on the sacrificial stone of the free market. What we end up seeing in public museums isn’t the best of the best; it’s a representation of the skewed tastes of soulless investors.

There are some who believe it is too soon to dismiss contemporary art simply because there are investors willing to pay billions of dollars for it. I disagree. If we don’t start regulating a very corrupt and purposely opaque market, there’s no telling what the long-and-short term ramifications will be, not just on artists, but on a global economy starved for the tax dollars of the super-wealthy.

Here’s the game they play, per ARTNews:

— If you donate 30%, of your income, the maximum, and you make 100 million a year, you have 30 million to give away, tax-free, to the charity of your choice.

— That leaves you with a taxable income of 70 million.

— 100 million minus 30 million = 70 million. At a 40% tax rate on 70 million, that’s 28 million in taxes, leaving you with 12 million in savings because you’re only being taxed on 70 million.

— That’s 12 million, tax-free, and it’s all legal. 12 million that could go to schools, roads, or even art scholarships.

— With that 12 million, you can then buy works of art with the expectation that they will appreciate in value over time.

— Or you can sell or “flip” that artwork for a profit, buy more art, sell it, do it again, presumably until you’ve accrued billions. And no one can say “boo” about it.

In other words, we, the taxpayers, are funding the high-stakes gamble of the wealthiest people on the planet.

That’s what the art world is really all about: money and gambling. Art is merely the beard for a seedy underworld of investment jackals. And no one understands that better than two masters of the game: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Koons is a self-promotion juggernaut who rose to prominence in the 1980s. In truth, he merely replicated the success of another mass-production, pop-culture magi, Andy Warhol. Like Warhol, Koons is a brand first and an artist second. Both men created factories and then staffed them with underlings willing to churn out “art” on demand.

Critics fall into two camps: those that see Koons as someone levelling a j’accuse at the patent narcissism of art collectors, and then people like me who abhor his production-driven, McDonald’s-like approach to creating art, his flagrant self-promotion, and the destructive prices he sets for his own work — work that buyers are finally dismissing as “lobby art”.

A porcelain Michael Jackson and chimp, Bubbles, compliments of Jeff Koons.

But it’s British artist and Koons’ contemporary Damien Hirst who gets the trophy in the “Underhanded Dealings” event. In 2007, Hirst’s minions produced the most expensive artwork ever created: For the Love of God, a human skull encrusted with real diamonds, clearly designed to appeal to the cream of the one-percent. His asking price? 100 million dollars.

Hirst eschews auction houses, preferring to sell his works directly from his own gallery. As a “name brand” artist, he has the luxury of doing so. But the skull wasn’t selling. Hirst Gallery must have been sweating blood, knowing that a failure to sell the skull would result in a downward spiral of all of Hirst’s works.

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst. Photo by John LeKay.

After a few months and no bidders, Hirst Gallery announced that For the Love of God had finally sold for its asking price of 100 million dollars to a “consortium” of investors. It didn’t take long before the truth leaked out that this consortium was majority-owned by Hirst himself.

British artist Damien Hirst who once stuck a cigarette inside his penis and presented it to assembled journalists

You might think such a maneuver would result in at least a reprimand. But that’s not how it works in the art world. What Hirst did was perfectly legal. The lack of transparency is the art world’s very allure, especially to investors eager to hide money, avoid taxes, and enhance their status among equally wealthy friends.

And here’s the truth. I’m too honest not to admit it. If I were in a position to accept millions of dollars for work wholly produced by other people, I wouldn’t say no. The Warhols, the Koons’s, and the Hirsts of this world aren’t really the problem; they are manifestations of a sickness shared by all of us. They didn’t make the rules; they merely exploited them, and for enormous personal gain. Even the obscenely wealthy nitwits who wouldn’t know good art if it knotted their bowties, who buy what they are told to buy, can’t really be blamed for taking advantage of the system. People are hardwired to take advantage.

I’d like to think I’m immune to greed, that I would take the high road and not the expedient one, but who am I kidding? I have a couple of hundred dollars to my name and a handful of bills to pay. I would do the SAME. DAMN. THING. The only difference is, I might hate myself for it. Only for a morally appropriate amount of time. Enough time to convince myself “I’m not that bad”. Then I’d book a room at the Georges Cinq in Paris and be done with it.

Notary by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s the kind of art that engenders a feeling of resentment among art world outsiders who believe (mistakenly) that they could produce something as good and that artists are a bunch of fakes and cons, which is far from true.

Like Bitcoin, the art market must be regulated; otherwise, it will be always be subject to gross abuses. The art world must have greater transparency, and those who try to manipulate it must be punished. If we want a cultural legacy to leave to future generations, then we must start by providing affordable housing for artists and funding for their work. The market is going to market. People will always follow profit. But at least we can squelch the worst excesses and give artists a safe place to create.

The cost of doing nothing?

It won’t be art we bequeath to our children, just a glittering array of corrupted and unrealized potential, and the shame of knowing we could have done a lot better.

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Stacey Keith

Stacey Keith

Culture, Lifestyle, Travel, Thoughtful Entertainment.