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The U.S. Art Market has all the Charm of a Urinal Cake

I hope your floor’s clean because your jaw is about to drop on it.

Comedian by Italian artist/sculptor Maurizio Cattelan. It sold at Art Basel for $120,000.

I spend a lot of time thinking about things. My most recent obsession has been cosmology in general (the origin and evolution of the universe) and loop quantum gravity specifically, which makes me sound like an odious twat, but my fascination is both humble and genuine. If general relativity is the language of the warping of space-time, loop quantum gravity is the idea of space-time is quantized (subdivided) — basically, space-time as discrete pixels. It’s involved. I haven’t grasped enough of it yet to properly explain it to anyone, but there’s a possibility that time doesn’t exist, and my brain is doing somersaults trying to osmose that one.

Let’s just say that I love cosmology enough to wish I were better at math and science. Which I’m not. At all. In fact, me toting up even a small column of numbers is like watching Mr. Ed count to three by stamping a hoof.

Another thing I think about is who has it worse these days: performers, musicians, writers, directors or visual artists? Don’t get me wrong — we’re all screwed. We live in this 21st century world. Arts and artists are treated like a hemorrhagic disease. They’re underpaid, under-supported, and looked upon with a fair degree of suspicion by members of the “straight” community. Few people actually value what artists (in the broader sense) do, and yet we collectively yearn for truth and beauty. But which classification of artist is actually suffering the most?

For a while, I thought it might be musicians. And to be fair, they will always medal in the “competitive suffering” category. They spend their entire lives mastering an instrument, figuring out what they want to say musically, and barely eking out an living playing one dive joint after another — and that’s if they’re lucky. Live music was already on life support before the pandemic; it has all but flat-lined now.

Spotify ruthlessly murdered musician pay, which is .003 cents — a third of a cent, not even a full penny — each time one of a musician’s songs is streamed on its platform. That’s 350 plays to make just one dollar, and if the musician is under contract with a music label (increasingly rare these days), the label gets up to 100% of that pittance. To rub additional salt in the wound, most labels are part-owners of Spotify.

If that weren’t janky enough, Spotify now demands that musicians pay a fee to be added to their algorithm and playlists. The shorthand is this: if you want anyone to hear your music ever again, you’d better pay up. Gee, we’d hate for nothing to happen to you.

Besides, while you were slaving away at music conservatory, “songwriters” like Doja Cat were doing bong rips and stealing music samples from legitimate musicians. With the right surgeries and the right backing, any stoned eleventh-grade dropout can become rich and famous.

How do you like your hot plate and your Velveeta now?

Writers have it rough, but probably not as rough as some others. It’s a damned difficult art form. Everyone thinks they can write, but very few actually have the chops to do it professionally. Once you reach a level of basic competence (for fiction, on average, it’s about ten years), you get your two book deal, and then you’re out. Next!

But in the Olympic category of “most damage sustained while being dragged behind a truck,” I’m going to give it to visual artists. You won’t believe what’s going on at galleries and auction houses these days. The only scientific word I can come up with for it is gross. This is, of course, what happens when you let obscene amounts of laundered money set the tone for any market, art or otherwise. The lack of oversight and regulation is irresistible to these people; the impact their business practices have on artists themselves is not to be thought of. There is a type of investor for whom the smell of steaming intestines will always be an aphrodisiac.

When considering the plight of the art world, I’m reminded of a type of Parasitoid wasp that injects its eggs into live caterpillars. Their offspring slowly devour the host from the inside out before bursting like Ridley Scott’s alien out of a human chest. Apparently, life is a raw Darwinian struggle for artists and butterflies.

It’s the opacity of the art market that makes it so appealing to money launderers (cryptocurrency, too, by the way). Buying a high-dollar painting anonymously — and paying cash for it — is de rigueur at galleries and auction houses. In fact, the more expensive, the better. What’s shocking is how little money, if any, actually goes to the artist.

In the early 2010s, when the Mexican government placed a limit on how much cash could be spent on a single piece of art, the market went into freefall. Sales tanked 70% in less than a year, in large part because the Mexican drug cartel had been washing their dirty undies cash in the art market.

Opacity = bad. Transparency = good. It’s really that simple.

But it gets even better. All these priceless works of art by Modigliani, Picasso, Van Gogh, pieces with fancy provenances (histories of ownership) that have hung in museums all over the world, that by rights should remain on public display, are bought at auction for, say, $50 million and then whisked off to a special high-security storage facility called the Geneva Freeport, never to be seen again. Why? To avoid import taxes, of course.

Then the new owner can re-sell the piece (at a handsome profit) to someone else who simply retrieves the painting from that same freeport, a building that holds well in excess of $100 billion dollars’ worth of art and openly functions as a tax haven. Try getting that kind of return on your IRA, you loser.

So, what impact does this have on artists who produce within this fun new paradigm?

It no longer matters whether your work is any good. It’s not about the aesthetic quality of the work, but its perceived value in dollars and cents. Or rubles, yuen, and pesos, if you will. And since the best way to artificially inflate an artist’s monetary value is through endless amounts of bombast, bullshit, and hype, that’s exactly what the art world has come: bombast, bullshit, and hype.

Time was, artists used to work their fingers to the bone just to get picked up by a gallery. Then those galleries got squeezed out by astronomical rent increases, or swallowed whole by bigger sharks, and the artists who’d been with them for decades found themselves left out in the cold. This is how too much power fell into the hands of the very few. One of those few owns a chain of galleries. His name is Larry Gagosian.

Larry Gagosian. Kind of looks like a mugshot, doesn’t it?

Gagosian, 77, is more than a wealthy gallerist with 16 locations across the world. He’s a kingmaker. Make no mistake — he’s a crook like most of the rest of them — but he has such outsized influence on the art market, anyone lucky enough to sign with him, regardless of ability, is guaranteed success. That goes doubly true for rising art star Anna Weyant, the youngest artist in Gagosian’s stable. She’s getting a solo show in New York this fall. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that she’s sleeping with the guy?

Artist Anna Weyland wearing a metaphor.

It’s human nature, perhaps, to want to shove your way to the front of the line, but this is some next-level savagery. I mean, damn. Sure puts a different spin on “doing anything” (or anyone) for your art. It demonstrates, as words cannot, just how cutthroat and mercenary the art world has become.

Sometimes you don’t even need a Gagosian contract in order to succeed. You just need to know influencers (Lord, how that word makes me gag) like Gigi Hadid. Behold the wonder that is Austyn Weiner. Because of her high-profile contacts, Austyn had the advantage of having turned her garage into a by-appointment pop-up gallery. The press showed up because Gigi Hadid showed up. The more press, the more attention for Austyn Weiner who, to be fair, is not necessarily without talent. It’s just that everything she’s done so far is wildly derivative of other artists. Basquiat, for instance. Or Tracey Emin and Francis Bacon.

Oh, and there’s this pesky “tone-deaf cultural appropriation” thing, which might be exemplified by this photo of very white, very rich Austyn Weiner standing in front of her “street art” (sale price: $225,000) whilst rocking an elegant black ballgown. Nothing says “I feel you” to penniless street artists than that photo. Coloring in her comfortable, air-conditioned studio, Austyn obviously knows just what it’s like to stand all sweaty and desperate under a bridge with a can of spray paint in her hand. You can see that she’s a woman of the people.

From Austyn Weiner’s very own Instagram feed. Tell me, is this objectively better than what you see on the underpass of any New York subway?
Austyn Weiner and model-influencer Gigi Hadid: just two crazy gals out on the town being besties n’ stuff.

If I sound a little bitter and frustrated, I am. Not because I have any skin in the game. But because there are some incredible artists out there who aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Who can hear above the cretinous din of Anna Weyland’s howling vagina?

In a way, I can’t even be mad at her. When you barely have any power (women the world over), you go with the time-honored tradition of sleeping with Rumpleforeskin who’s fifty years your senior and hope when the relationship ends that nobody noticed you cheating to get ahead.

Are these the choices? Really?

Until we get some kind of regulation or transparency in the art world, schlock art made by schlock people is going to continue hogging up all the oxygen in the room. More clueless blonde white women (I’m one, by the way; well, blonde and white, at least) and fewer artists of any real substance. Our culture will suffer. Our legacy to our children and grandchildren will suffer. All because we refused to stand up and say:




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