Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Art Market Bubble?

Charles Saatchi is the dean of art collectors. Beginning in the 1980s he scouted talented young artists, bought up their work, sold some of it, traded up, and eventually built a museum to show off his collection.

Saatchi considers himself a serious art lover. Today he is horrified by what he sees in the art world.

With a pungency that seems characteristically British, he writes: “Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another.

“Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich.

“Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.”

Need I tell you that art world aficionados are up in arms over this statement? It feels like Saatchi is biting the hand that is feeding him. By all accounts, it has been feeding him very well.

Then again,  Saatchi might be playing the role of the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson story who announces that the Emperor is not wearing clothes.

If Saatchi is right, he might be revealing that very wealthy people do not really know what they are buying. Even if we grant that great art has intrinsic merit, how do you know whether the work that everyone wants has true value or is just trendy hype?

Saatchi does not ask the question, but he seems to be implying that the art market is in a bubble stage.

If he is right, then the market will correct itself. Over time works that have aesthetic value will win out over the self-indulgent self-parodies.

No one’s eye is good enough to know the difference with certainty. But some people have better eyes than others.

If collectors do not really understand what they are buying, then they might well find themselves saddled with the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages.

How many of them can tell whether they are buying today’s young Giotto or today’s version of tulip bulbs?

If Saatchi is correct, you can see what the tulip bulb mania looked and felt like by checking out the market for contemporary art.

No comments: