Monday, October 22, 2018

The Price of Everything; The Value of Nothing

The movie has been screened, but not released. It is called: The Price of Everything. It casts a cold eye on the world of contemporary fine art, that would be, the world of painting and sculpture. Evidently, there’s art in writing and in music… but true glamour seems to reside in the world of fine art, what with its mega-priced work bought by hyperrich collectors.

To be more explicit than need be, there is no monetary barrier to owning a copy of a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play. If you want to hear Glenn Gould playing Bach you do not need to spend a fortune on it. And, the recording you hear will be precisely the same as that of the tycoon who lives in the next county. And yet, if you want to have a Jeff Koons sculpture in your garden, you will need to lay down millions… for something is of highly dubious artistic value.

It is worth mentioning, but much great art can be yours to see at a museum or a gallery. You cannot buy it; you cannot live with it; you cannot even rent it; but you can look at it and experience whatever you experience.

As Jerry Saltz reminds us-- did you really need a reminder?-- the movie title is a short form of Oscar Wilde’s famous dictum: namely that cynics know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Saltz will, at one point in his essay, remind us that the creator of The Price of Everything is nothing if not a cynic.

In the art world too much money is chasing too few goods. And many of the goods are not very good. This produces price inflation, among other deviant behaviors. Better yet, for some, buying art signals status. But for others it is a gamble, like buying a boatload of different penny stocks, putting them away, and hoping that a few of them will have appreciated astronomically over time.

Because, it appears, most of us are not very good as evaluating an artwork in present time. We know that Giotto and Ver Meer were great; they have withstood the ravages of time. And yet, as Tom Wolfe reminded us, when the assembled eminences of the Paris art world convened a century ago to vote for which of their contemporary artists would most likely be revered a century later, they chose: William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

True enough, some people, that would be people who live, eat, sleep and breathe art have a better eye than those who do not. They have better taste. They probably make better investments. And yet, in the short term, they might be right or wrong. And for reasons that need not have anything to do with discerning taste.

But, what about aesthetic value. What about the aesthetic emotion you feel when you gaze on a Velasquez? Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing must mean: not being able to appreciate the aesthetic value of a work of art.

How do you develop your eye for fine art? Simply put, by exposure, by the exposure you can only gain by living with it. This means, to put a finer point on it, that wealthy people, especially aristocratic families that have collected great art for centuries, have a decided advantage. Their children might not be aware of it, but if they grow up surrounded by Rembrants and Cezannes, they will have a better eye than will those who have taken an art history course and have gone to a few gallery openings. Thus, a form of snobbery built into the art world. Those who have a better eye are more likely to have grown up surrounded by great art. Arrivistes and the nouveau riche do not have the same level of taste.

Again, the same does not apply to music and literature. If your middle class parents were always playing Bach on the stereo you will have a better developed taste in music. If you spent your childhood afternoons reading Jane Austin of Henry James your literary sensibility will be better developed than will that of someone who read comic books and package labels.

Thus, new collectors who were not brought up surrounded by great art are more likely to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They see art as a commodity, to be traded in the marketplace.

Surely, the artists know their audience. They no longer seem to aim at sophisticated collectors but at collectors who do not know any more than what their advisors have told them. Except that advisors have an interest in recommending the purchase of works that they believe will appreciate, and will do so before the next millennium.

In many cases, artists seem to be mocking collectors, selling them arrayed junk and claiming that it has great artistic value. Recall Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In other cases, knowing that collectors do not really have trained eyes, artists dub themselves to be intellectuals and pretend that their work embodies a great idea. They can then sit back and watch neophyte collectors pretend to believe that they understand the great idea. Anyone who does not like the work is attacked for belonging to a species of inferior minds who lack intellectual acumen. Thus, poseur collectors do well to claim that they really get it and that they are willing to spend gobs of money to show how deeply they feel it. Eventually, you see bands of poseurs throwing enormous amounts of money at mediocre works, thus increasing the value of their holdings and making them feel like they are great thinkers. Yikes.

One does well to remember that artists are not intellectuals. Any more than hedge fund billionaires or tech oligarchs.

In the meantime, Jerry Saltz describes the scene in the movie:

The Price of Everything is a portrait of this damaged system — a place where big-ticket art made by only a handful of people — maybe 75 mostly male artists — appears in high-end galleries, auction houses, and art fairs before being sold off at astronomically inflated prices. Art and money have always slept together; they’re just doing it more profligately now than ever. The patter of the high-enders in Price is so imperious and spiteful that it’s no wonder the public — and many art-world insiders — have grown cynical about it all. I left the premiere feeling sick to my stomach and ashamed.

The price of admission is so high that very few can really play in the game. Most of those who do seem to have little idea of what they are buying. They know that they are now playing with the big boys… and apparently that suffices. Or better, it will suffice until the bottom drops out of some artists’ markets:

Throughout Price’s 98 minutes, alpha dogs talk money, plot prices, and act snarky about those not as upper echelon as they are. An insane earmark of this film is that all the potentates in it think their behavior is better than that of all the other potentates. Collectors with cookie-cutter collections grouse that no one else is a connoisseur anymore.

Saltz sees it as  a danse macabre:

It’s a modern danse macabre where the superrich buy their art in public — a performance of power, clout, social status, sublimated sexuality, and price manipulation. The auctioneer is the pole-dancer/dominatrix of the proceedings, cooing and moving in mannered ways, pointing to bidders, calling some by their first names, being cheeky, coaxing, cudgeling, always closing, reciting ever-climbing prices. He intones, “That’s $600,000 in bid to my left; there’s $700,000 in the back of the room.” Soon, “I have $1 million on my right.” The magic number; a murmur goes over the crowd as he looks up at a skybox or a chandelier and crows, “I have 1,200,000.” He gives “fair warning,” hesitates, counts to three, cracks the hammer down and shouts, “Sold!” The crowd erupts in applause; your skin crawls. Mine did, at least.

Some of the work being traded has artistic value. Most of it does not. Do the collectors know? The movie shows that an atmosphere that is more like a gambling casino than a museum:

The thing is, much of the work on these trading floors is great. Most of it, however, is either middling, iffy, or bad. One collector says, “We’re lemmings”; another that she “always wants more;” another that her friends now own the same sculpture she proudly displays in her home. Then she tells us her friends’ versions are “different colors.” The craziest thing about Price is that while all the artists in it acknowledge the stresses and powerful presence of the market, those in the market, on the other hand, seem not to even notice artists anymore.

As for the artists, precious few make any money at all. The same applies to dealers. Since he was interviewed for the film, Saltz recalls some of his comments, even those that were cut from the final version:

I kept saying I hate all this stuff, too, but that galleries are still where new art comes from and that I love going to them. Most dealers have no money. Only about 1 percent of 1 percent of all artists make any money. I told him he’s really asking about a teeny sliver of the art world. I talked about artists living on the edge and said that a lot of good art is still getting made and shown. At one point I got carried away and I think I said we’d all stand over the imaginary caskets of all the speculators until we were sure they were dead, then dance on their graves. Thankfully, this was cut.

In the end, he really liked the movie:

Welcome to the art world of 2018. A place of cravenness and tropospheric wealth, yet a world that still provides comfort, safe spaces for people to do their work, take chances, assert themselves, step outside themselves, act, and maybe do “something meaningful.” A place where Koons can make you crazy and still make good work; where Cappellazzo can act batty but shine with intelligence; where former art-star octogenarian Larry Poons — cast as the film’s Tiny Tim battling against the evil Scrooge art world — might be on famous-male-artist automatic-pilot, not really pushing his work enough, but is obviously still following a deep calling.

The movie is amazingly well made. A masterpiece of its genre, a blinkered picture of a very big, very knotty ball of art world wax. Oh, and it also never mentions that its title is taken from Oscar Wilde, talking about cynics who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”


Sam L. said...

I don't know about "art", but I know I don't have enough money to care about it. You can call me a philestine; I don't care about that, either.

Anonymous said...

"One does well to remember that artists are not intellectuals" a rather broad generalization, even if the stereotype is often true.

Often this is what makes Outsider art so fascinating. These Outsider artists couldn't give a damn about what the rich will pay them for their work, what their peers think of their work or even if others will ever observe their art. There are no impositions or impediments in the way to cripple where these artists aesthetic visions go.

Anonymous said...

This is not a discussion of artistic skill.

Outsider art is a strange animal. Sometimes there is *no work of art left to buy trade or sell* after the fact, especially when the outsider artist himself uses rapidly biodegradable medium such as meat, in this case being Ricardo López. Ironically it was the character and (lack of) ability flaws of Ricardo López that made his actions turn into art rather than being acts of pointless terror (as you often see in stupid senseless terror acts such as school shootings and Dahmer-esque cannibalistic serial killers - who are not accidental artists but rather murderers).

There is a fine line between meat and art.

Ricardo had true meatlike intentions therefore his impossible aesthetic aim remained realizable in the other dimension, but his lack of IRL agency/mental ability allowed his malicious intents to never manifest fully in reality (thankfully), instead He became a tragically weird Outsider artist's form of 'Reality art'. The only IRL victim was himself being consumed by his own wildly misguided aesthetic drives and impulses - a true artist at the core.

Meat is a strange medium. Meat is inherently a repulsive glob of matter, especially when disembodied and the location is way off (like waking up with a raw chicken as your pillow), but when meat's repulsiveness as if by magical brute force transforms by an act of excessive transcendent will into a transiently uncanny indescribable thing that escapes any accurate means of definition.

I am not meat obsessed, but have noticed that the meat medium excels at exposing this thing in particular. I wish there were a better name for it than meat.

Anonymous said...

Comfort is key, and enjoying it all year long is essential. In verso

Clicking not a robot feels like murder every time

Dr. Irredeemable Dreg said...


'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

For the Outsider whose medium happens to be meat, the Outsider can never fully overcome the inherent limitations built into the medium. Meat is beautifully obtuse. The essence of Meat does not masquerade as anything other than having a trash bin destiny.

Trash bin art genre examples; Thomas Kinkade and Alex Grey, and other such 'visionary art' being fairly commonplace self infatuation, gimmickry disguised as shoddy works of art.

Sam L. said...

Anon at 1:44: What he said. Whatever he meant. Aces, deuces, and Three-Eyed Monty.

How could I write that and be a robot? Null set.

Anonymous said...

Meat is inherently repulsive. I wish there were a better name or concept for it rather than just 'meat'.

A monkey whose mental state is completely severed/disembodied from any autobiographical recollection suddenly finds itself in a pitch black chasm. The monkey wanders aimlessly in each direction for hours on end without encountering any discernible boundaries.

This monkey has a battery powered soldering iron it miraculously understands enough to operate in a rudimentary fashion. Unfortunately, this tool still remains useless to the monkey as the chamber itself contains no combustible fuel to create a fire to light the seemingly endless cavern.

That is pretty much all that is needed to know to infer the remainder of the story, the nature of what follows next should be fairly obvious.

Anonymous said...

It was an interesting article to read, as an example I suggest. My therapist advised me to encourage others in their paths towards wellness, in short. become the monkey.


Ares Olympus said...

I'm certainly glad to avoid that strange world. I don't know if the love of money is the root of all evil, but it does make sense that it is corrupting. It would be fun to meet an artist who could sell one 50 hour painting for $1 million dollars, and then sell 100 more 50 hour paintings he really wanted to paint and sell them all for $1000 each because he no longer needed the money, but status generally doesn't work that way. It's hard to go back without insulting your vanity.

I read Leon Lederman sold his Nobel Prize medal for $765,000 to pay medical bills, but I imagined it wasn't exactly like that. Rather it was a matter of pride, so the payment was an act of charity, and accepting the medal in return was a way for him to believe it was not charity.

And a part of me might hope large payments to artists work the same way, as long as they use their newly found financial independence to make the art they really want to make, rather raising their decadence in drugs and fake friends and needing to continue catering to the bad tastes of people with too much money to keep up their habits.

Anonymous said...

Eating versus throwing up.

Craftsmanship is transactional. Outsider art in its purest form is involuntary.

If a craftsman of fine art were enslaved by a wealthy patron and then forced to produce art commissioned by the patron-tyrant, would the core nature of that art being produced still be transactional?

The patron demands an aesthetic goal be met by the craftsman. The crafstman still has freedom to create the art in a way that seems to meet the patron's demands and expectations and perhaps the end product is convincing enough to meet those external demands.

In its most extreme form, Outsider art truly is an involuntary process, there is no free will, unlike in the craftsman-enslavement scenario. The craftsman can still refuse to produce the requested art and suffer extreme penalties for disobedience or commit suicide to escape the scenario altogether.

For extremist Outsider art, the pathological obsession of the 'artist' is to re-create the aesthetic image infecting the mind and manifest the curse into the physical world as a futile attempt to purge it.