Morley Safer's Tetchy "60 Minutes" Report on the Contemporary Art Market, Assessed

Morley Safer's Tetchy "60 Minutes" Report on the Contemporary Art Market, Assessed
Morley Safer questions the artwork at Art Basel Miami Beach
(Courtesy 60 Minutes)

Yesterday evening, newsman and notorious art skeptic Morley Safer revisited one of the most controversial reports of his career on CBS’s “60 Minutes”: his infamous 1993 takedown of the contemporary art world, entitled “Yes, But Is It Art?” This time, Safer traveled to Art Basel Miami Beach to investigate the art market, which, as he notes, continues to boom even as the stock market plummets. Though the art market has grown substantially since Safer’s 1993 report, the journalist’s regard for the industry has, well, not.

What seems to offend Safer most — beyond all the posturing, the competition, and the dubious (to him) aesthetic value of the art on view — is the obscene amount of money changing hands. “There is very little sense of an aesthetic experience here, not the silence or even the suppressed hush of a gallery or museum. What you hear, or imagine you hear is the cacophony of cash,” he said. (It should be noted that Safer is not the only person expressing discomfort with the inequalities of the art market today — a wide range of art critics have been talking about the effects of money on art for years, minus the general air of hostility that Safer brings to the subject.)

Indeed, it seems that, for Safer, little has changed since 1993. As he overheard a Guggenheim curator describing a sculpture by Korean artist Haegue Yang (which he incredulously reported cost $33,000, despite the fact that it was “a tangle of extension cords”), his voiceover repeated a refrain that will sound familiar to those who tuned into his original report. “That’s artspeak,” he said, “the descriptive language of contemporary art that can seem as opaque as spilled alphabet soup.” The zinger recalled his earlier definition of “artspeak,” from 1993: “The same thing that persuaded the emperor to buy new clothes.”

As Safer strolled through the aisles of the art fair — which was intended to stand in not only for the entire art market, but also for the entire art world — he captured the requisite dealmaking and handshaking on film. Russian heiress Maria Baibakova admitted that $4.8 million for a Gerhard Richter abstract painting was “a bargain,” to which Safer replied (in voiceover, of course), “Certainly a bargain if your daddy’s a billlionaire and you’re playing in a market where there are no rules.”

To his credit, Safer managed to get a comment out of Larry Gagosian — a rare feat, even if the megadealer didn’t reveal anything we didn’t know already: “For me they are a place to sell, to make money,” he said of art fairs. (As the WSJ reporter Kelly Crow noted on Twitter, the best part of the whole segment might have been that Gagosian didn’t even bother to get up, staying firmly seated in his chair for the duration of the exchange.)

The best moment of the segment, however, undeniably belonged to dealer Tim Blum, one half of the Los Angeles outfit Blum & Poe. A straight shooter, Blum acknowledged that the market is cutthroat, unregulated, and filled with speculative buyers. “We’re from Hollywood — we’re in the acting game. It’s theater. This is all theater,” he said.

Yet self-awareness major players like Blum might have displayed was not enough to win over Safer. He left the audience with the sly suggestion that even if the art market crashes, at least rich collectors will be left with appealing baubles to look at. Then, with a rueful parting shot of a Nick Cave soundsuit installation, he quipped, “…Or maybe not.” 

Among those who took immediate umbrage to Safer’s screed was New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who was an unwitting participant in Safer’s PR tour promoting the piece on Friday: The newsman told Charlie Rose that “even Jerry Saltz says 85 percent of the art we see is bad.” But as Saltz notes, “I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn’t only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn't that good either. It's just that we never see it: What is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn't get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we're all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere.”

Click here to watch or read a transcript of the segment, or check out the video below.

The 1993 segment “But Is it Art?” on 60 Minutes: