Sunday, May 19, 2019

The $91,000,000 Toy

It’s impossible to read the news from Christie’s auction last week and not conclude that some people have too much money. As you have no doubt heard, a stainless steel replica of a toy rabbit just sold for $80,ooo,000… that would be $91,000,000 with commission. The artist, by name of Jeff Koons has now become the highest priced living artist. For having convinced the art world that a toy is a work of art.

As for the too much money angle, one believes as a general rule that too much taxation inhibits economic growth. Taking money from those who would invest it in productive enterprise and giving it to bureaucrats who will spend it on God-knows-what seems not to be good policy. And, yet, gross income disparities are destabilizing. And they are even more destabilizing when those who possess grand fortunes burn their money as though it were so much trash. Such is the case of what happened at Christie’s.

It reminds one of the old native American custom called potlatch, where competing tribal leaders burned their possessions in order to signify how powerful and important they were. It’s amusing to compare potlatch with the bonfire of the vanities, a purification ritual whereby Florentine nobility destroyed possessions to show how godly they were. The other historical analogy is the Golden Calf in the Book of Exodus. Around it the followers of Moses danced in a frenzy... hoping to return to pagan idolatry.

It makes sense for some of our born-again Socialists to declare that some people have too much money. They do not recognize that most of those who have massive fortunes have non-liquid assets. And that said assets would lose value if the government decided to confiscate them. And yet, today’s hyperrich ought to understand that they are not going to save their fortunes by giving much of it away in charity. The disparities are simply too great. Charity is merely a way to assuage guilt and to guard against confiscation.

We do not yet know who bought the Koons sculpture. We only know that the buyer’s agent was art dealer Robert Mnuchin, a man whose son is currently Secretary of the Treasury.

We do know that the art world is thrilled at the Koons event, because art critics have been touting it as a surpassing exemplar of contemporary art. If so, it is also a sign that the art world has merely become an investment vehicle indulged by people who have too much money and no ability to appreciate art. Buyers who display this stuff proudly in their homes think that they are thereby showing their aesthetic sophistication. They are in fact demonstrating that they know nothing about art. People would laugh at their philistine tastes, were it not for the fact that the piece of trash they bought for $10,000 dollars is now being sold for 10 million dollars. It makes them genius investors.

Laurel Wamsley offers us the art world dictum on the Koons:

The work is considered the holy grail of Koons works among certain collecting circles, and the bunny's allure was burnished by the fact that Newhouse was its longtime owner," Artnet writes. "It also received an extraordinary pre-sale display at Christie's with a custom-built room that perched the rabbit on a pedestal surrounded by lighting mimicking a James Turrell installation."

In its lot essay, Christie's described Rabbit as melding "a Minimalist sheen with a naïve sense of play":

"It is crisp and cool in its appearance, yet taps into the visual language of childhood, of all that is pure and innocent. Its lack of facial features renders it wholly inscrutable, but the forms themselves evoke fun and frivolity, an effect heightened by the crimps and dimples that have been translated into the stainless steel from which it has been made. ... The steel surface of the titular bunny initially appears smooth and balloon-like, the forms reduced to some abstract, Platonic ideal."

It takes your breath away. The great minds of the art world indulge in the most vacuous and vapid rhetorical flourishes, throwing in a reference to some serious philosophy that they do not understand.

Besides, the article continues, the Koons rabbit is a cultural icon. A version appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Doesn't that make it great floating sculpture?

It’s pathetic.It’s a sign of a civilization that is eating itself alive. There is no good way to interpret this.

Among the more interesting angles on the Koons phenomenon Allison Schrager writes about the market angle in the New York Times. Her point is simple: the more the art market becomes a domain where billionaires come to play-- because where else can they waste so much money so quickly-- the lower echelons of the market, the world of young artists and young dealers and young collectors… is falling apart. No one wants to invest at the low end, because they have gotten the impression that they have been priced out of the market.

Art collecting has always been an exclusive activity, but the world of contemporary art, in particular, has become dominated in recent years not by the 1 percent — the millionaires — but by the super-wealthy billionaires of the 0.01 percent.

This growing inequality threatens to upend how the market works. The small and midsize galleries that have long supported and nurtured unknown artists are finding it difficult to survive in the winner-take-all economy of contemporary art, meaning the next Andy Warhol or Donald Judd, who rose through the ranks of the gallery system, might never be discovered.

She continues:

The art market reflects and magnifies trends in the larger economy. Recovering even faster than G.D.P., annual sales in the American market have more than doubled since the global financial crisis. According to a 2019 report published by Art Basel and UBS, in 2018 art sales reached nearly $30 billion, compared with just over $12 billion in 2009.

But these numbers mask a serious problem: A small number of large galleries and artists took in most of those sales. Art that cost more than $1 million accounted for 40 percent of the market but just 3 percent of transactions. The disparity is most severe in the contemporary market, where living artists’ work is sold out of art galleries. In 2018, sales from the top 20 living artists accounted for 64 percent of the market. Bigger galleries, the top 5 percent in terms of turnover, accounted for more than 50 percent of sales. Sales at smaller galleries declined over the past few years.

As for the cause for this state of affairs, some blame it on capitalism. Others blame it on monetary policies that have flooded the world with money, often run off by printing presses. The money does not get distributed equitably in society. It has little to do with wealth creation and more to do with forestalling economic doom. Thus, it seems to congeal at the top in the hands of the very few while the many look on in amazement at sums that they cannot comprehend.

And the many look on in horror as people waste massive amounts of money in order to show off their power and prestige.


whitney said...

I read about this years ago and some tax law blog but there is a reason tax wise that they spend so much money and the prices of gotten pushed up. It's a good thing for rich people to do with their money. I don't remember all the details and I don't care enough to go look it up about every time I see one of these articles I remember the gist. They're being smart with their money that's all

trigger warning said...

Potlatch... A connection I would never have made. Thanks, S.

Of course, we all know - and have known since Duchamp brazenly exposed it a century ago - that the "art world" is overrun with mincing pillocks. An amusing gedanken experiment imagines Michelangelo's initial reaction to Koons' [ahem] masterpiece.

"[T]he forms themselves evoke fun and frivolity, an effect heightened by the crimps and dimples..." Indeed. Sounds like a toasted English muffin.

Lincoln Annie said...

I might pay a couple of dollars for the thing if I came across it at Goodwill, but that's about it. Even then I'd have to be in a strange mood.

This reminds me of the $75 cups of coffee made with rare beans pooped through civet cats (article currently at Taki's Magazine). I am firmly of the opinion that if Twinkies or Vienna sausages were to suddenly become rare and hard to come by, they'd be serving them in 5-star restaurants.

Sam L. said...

I had not heard of this. Clearly, I am not in the "right" circles.

"In its lot essay, Christie's described Rabbit as melding "a Minimalist sheen with a naïve sense of play":" They do go on, don't they.

"As for the cause for this state of affairs, some blame it on capitalism. Others blame it on monetary policies that have flooded the world with money, often run off by printing presses." Let's just blame it on government tax rules.

Potlatch: As I understood it, the chiefs gave away their possessions. Could be different tribes, different customs.

UbuMaccabee said...

I’m going to reread Tom Wolfe’s “The Painted Word.” I do not know how to understand the significance of this little sex toy.

Anonymous said...

Laundering, that's all.

sestamibi said...

In 1988 I bought a couple of old Fillmore rock concert posters for about $50 total. According to a website of someone who traffics in this stuff they're worth about $1200 now. I really don't think so, and I sure didn't buy them as a "collectible" investment, but just something to enjoy hanging on my walls.

Besides I don't think they'll hold their value anyway as the Boomer generation that have us Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and The Grateful Dead passes from the scene and those and similar bands are forgotten. But until that happens to me too, I can still appreciate the art work that went into them.