This past Sunday's New York Times Review section included a multi-faceted dialogue about the contemporary art market, initiated by something of a tirade against the current state of the market by the somewhat obscure Barcelona-based dealer William Cole. Times readers were then invited to weigh in, and respondents included a number of artists, academics, and even art-world heavyweights like Eric Shiner, the director of the Andy Warhol Museum. The discussion was not without value — it included some fascinating insight into the art historical importance given to today’s auction and gallery stars. However, it was not remotely related to the realities of the contemporary art market which it purported to tackle.
The Times was perhaps trying to delve into the very fascinating price/value conflation at the top of the art world, but the writers it solicited instead wrote about topics they were more comfortable with, like art history and media-bashing. The vast majority of respondents to Cole’s original polemic — including Cole himself — completely miss the fact that buying and selling art made after 1990 (to some extent, art after 1950) has almost nothing to do with art history, and even less to do with contemporary critical reception.
The notion from Cole's opening salvo that the media is the main force to blame in the hyping of contemporary art superstars is, frankly, absurd. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Art critics generally despise market darlings like Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and Christopher Wool. They have been complaining for years, if not decades, that their work has little to no influence on the market. Who are these journalists who “uncritically gush about ‘blue-chip investments’ that many knowledgeable observers consider outright junk,” according to Cole? Any art reporter worth reading maintains at least a somewhat skeptical outlook on the market, despite writing about whichever works happen to get sold.
The key point that everyone in the dialogue misses is the importance of the dealer in today's contemporary art market. As such discussions tend to do, the Times debate completely skips the “market” part of the art market dialogue. Buying and selling contemporary art at the highest level currently has a lot more to do with capitalism than it does cultural value. Unless you understand that, you aren’t actually talking about the art market at all.
The big dealers — Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, etc. — and the deep-pocketed collecting families like the Mugrabis and the Nahmads — have almost complete control over the markets of contemporary art's most expensive artists. Furthermore, the cultural cachet of having done business at one of the world’s most famous galleries is part of what you pay for when you buy a work by one of those galleries’ artists. That value will likely drop in the long run — but it’s currently a market force continuing to push prices upward. High prices for contemporary artists are entirely dependent on the ability of the best dealers to continue to convince their wealthy clients that higher prices are worth paying, and to dish out the cash themselves at times to keep everything going when demand is lean. As long as they can continue to do that, the state of the market is unlikely to change.
A much better version of this debate played out across three different publications a few weeks ago after Marion Maneker, editor of Art Market Monitor, took former Newsweek critic Blake Gopnik to task for missing the point of the art market in a piece he wrote for Newsweek on the art market bubble after Art Basel Miami Beach. Maneker pointed out that the art market has as much to do with the players as it does the art itself. “An auction isn’t an event where works of art are weighed for their worth, it’s a place where buyers vote — sometimes raising their hands,” he wrote.
Reuters blogger Felix Salmon later defended Gopnik. Salmon, being a finance blogger, tackles the economics of contemporary art as a market without flinching. He disagrees with Maneker, however, about its stability. Rather, he argues that it is fundamentally out-of-whack, and will, eventually, come crashing down:
The point that I think Maneker misses — and that he consistently misses in his attacks on people who are “complaining about the art market” — is that this particular market is qualitatively different from what you would consider a healthy market to be, not least because the prices are quantitatively completely bonkers.
This question — whether paying wild sums for contemporary art signifies a healthy market or not — is where the real debate is. It is the issue that demands a dialogue in in the paper of record. The real market forces warping the contemporary art market into a parody of itself need to be talked about. Is it a bubble or a new reality? What role does increasing inequality play in this astronomic price inflation? These questions matter. The value of these artists in the long term will, of course, work itself out later.