Late last summer I arrived at a young artist’s Brooklyn studio for a visit that I thought had been set up as an opportunity to get to know the artist’s work better. I’d seen his paintings in a few exhibitions, and had researched to learn more about them. We set up a time to meet after being put in touch by a mutual friend. I explained to the artist in an e-mail that I didn’t “have any specific exhibition project in mind, but just want to have an opportunity to learn more about your practice.”
When I arrived at the studio, an assistant greeted me, then the artist’s dealer, followed by another representative from the gallery, who said he was a director of museum relations or museum engagement or something along those lines. I quickly realized that, despite my explicitly articulated interest in having the visit be an opportunity for research, the meeting would be a lot more formal than I had expected. When the artist launched into a carefully practiced presentation about the work, it was clear which lines were excerpted from press releases or articles. A chronological recounting of the artist’s short career came next, followed by the story of how he began making the type of work he is best known for, and finally some information about upcoming institutional exhibitions overseas. When I asked about one body of work that had been skipped over, the dealer nearby interjected, “You don’t have to talk about that,” acting something like legal representation. (Coincidently, or more likely not, I later heard that the work in question had been the subject of a lawsuit filed by a collector.) When the presentation was over, I felt like the artist was a brand representative who had just delivered a meticulously rehearsed sales pitch. The lecture-like format made it clear that my feedback wasn’t going to be welcome, but as the visit started to wind down, I was asked a question for the first time that morning: “So, what exhibitions do you have coming up that you might want to put our artist into?” As I explained the research-based purpose of my visit (yet again), and went on to clarify that I didn’t have any shows in mind, I realized (yet again) just how complicit curators often are these days in legitimizing mediocre work being aggressively pushed for the sake of financial gain. The artist in question was still only 20-something.
When I think about this story, I can understand the widespread notion among curators and critics that the role of the emerging artist has changed dramatically during the past few years. In this case, the pressure from the gallery and the polished performance of the artist highlight a shift in artists’ objectives, driven by skewed priorities. The shift is further encouraged by the growing involvement of wealthy individuals in the emerging art market who first made their capital by investing in financial markets, real estate, or other related industries. Understandably, they approach their new interest in high-yield contemporary art with the same sharp business acumen that they have brought to their other investments. To this end, services like ArtRank have sprung up. ArtRank claims to offer charts “quantifying the emerging art market” by declaring which artists are worth buying under price points of $10,000, $30,000, and $100,000; who to sell because their prices are peaking; and which names can be classified as “early blue chip” or “undervalued blue chip.” This company’s quarterly published projections purport to allow speculators to “collect smarter” by making informed purchasing decisions about emerging markets.
With the rise of speculative collectors cashing in on younger artists—many of them just out of school—whose work is made cheaply and en masse, and resold at a significant profit, there has also been a hyper-professionalization of the role of the emerging artist himself. (My choice of pronoun is not by default: the artist in question is almost invariably male—the gender imbalance in the art market is on full view in this trend.) He has business cards, printed on fine paper stock. His website is pristine. His CV is extensive, and correctly formatted. He may have even hired a Hollywood agent. And yet the art market has refocused his goals toward short-lived commercial success rather than a career.
This unfortunate reversal, intensified by a growing collector base gravitating toward accessibly priced work, can haunt an artist who is just starting out. Certain young artists, championed by dealers or collectors primarily concerned with the bottom line, have achieved massive commercial traction too early in their careers, before such attention is appropriate. The success itself is questionable because of the means through which it often occurs: a dealer will buy a large number of works by a rising artist for himself (once again, male dealers seem particularly partial to this approach), and encourage others to do the same. Their colluded investment creates a market for the work virtually overnight, along with the attention reserved for the artist of the moment. When the artist realizes the extent of this manipulation, the break with the investor is typically followed by lawsuits and a dramatic crash in his prices, as well as crippled confidence—on the part of the artist and the art world itself—in the merit of the work. The mentality of prospecting in the emerging market leads many new collectors to purchase art merely as they would any luxury good—as a seemingly wise financial investment that will pay off quickly.
As the buying and selling of art has become more commercialized, so too have the artists, starting as early as their schooling. M.F.A. programs, rather than serving as sites for experimentation and refining one’s style, have evolved into monotonous trade schools and debt-generating networking clubs. (A recent survey of the most influential M.F.A. programs calculated that their average tuition came to around $38,000 per year.) Here, prospective artists perfect the studio-visit sales pitch. This has residual effects. Galleries recruit those who can afford to pay more for the top-tier programs, not because of their skills but rather because they exemplify a pedigree that can be incorporated as part of a salable package. That many M.F.A. graduates complete their training with crippling debt adds to the allure of commercial success. Once artists join a gallery’s roster, which is sometimes also called a stable (how telling that these terms evoke professional sports or horse racing), the cycle continues as business pressures lead artists to self-censor and to conform to market trends. Galleries—and often collectors themselves—encourage artists to churn out more of what works in the market.
The entire system seems designed, predominantly, to disappoint. What has arisen from these failures is a marked distinction between product- and project-based artists. Product-based artists have been led to think of an artwork as a product serving a demand, rather than a single step in a longer, sustained development, as is the case with project-based artists. Consider the most visible trend in recent years of Zombie Formalism, a kind of reductive, easily produced abstract painting, sold quickly to collectors queued up on waiting lists and hungry for innocuous, decorative works in a signature style, so much so that the name of the artist himself becomes the brand.
However, product-based art isn’t specific to abstraction or figuration (as an even more recent market shift may be demonstrating) but is the result of dealers and collectors encouraging artists to create more of the same kind of popular work. All too often, museum curators cave to these pressures, too, validating the trend by staging exhibitions of market-darling artists collected by their trustees with a lack of scruples that gives the worst insider traders a run for their money. The path of commercial success may be increasingly easy, but it narrows what could otherwise be probing, expansive, and serendipitous careers. This results-oriented focus can be contrasted to the idea that an artist should be allowed to follow a sustained project of creating art in a passionate and independent way, regardless of market feedback. That might mean changing styles over the years and being less commercially viable at points, but this long-term project will have a notable through-line of a consistent set of questions and issues. The project and its many manifestations are best identified retrospectively, but wandering and doubt are a generative part of it. With some notable exceptions (like Warhol and Courbet, who churned out work like machines), the most fascinating and important artists in history exemplify this approach by remaining true to what drove them to create, rather than caving to external responses. We should all be worried if these artists start disappearing.
Of course, galleries exist in part to create supply and demand for works of art in order to help their business and artists make a profit. I’m not saying galleries and artists shouldn’t make money off of what they do, but the manipulation of the market has turned emerging artists into a standardized product that can be easily sold. Painting—whether in the form of Zombie Formalism or some newer trend—is so prevalent in the art market because it is easily transportable and storable, new and yet somehow familiar, with vague jabs at art-historical touchstones. These easily recognizable products can be created in an assembly-line production manner that satisfies the neophyte collectors buying in herd fashion. The latest object might be very similar to the last one you saw, probably because it was produced under a deadline and amid numerous other pressures.
The product-driven market for emerging artists has resulted in objects that are created and judged like stocks, whose value and significance may be up or down each season. The cynical view of art as property—and specifically as a functional financial instrument—recalls Duchamp’s note for a reciprocal readymade: “Use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.” Or, to paraphrase, use a painting as a money counter. (Duchamp also wrote from Paris to the New York dealer Alfred Stieglitz in 1928, “The feeling about the ‘market’ here is so disgusting that you never hear anymore of a thought for itself—Painters and Painting go up and down like Wall Street stock.”)
But investors know better than anyone that speculative markets are highly volatile sectors, especially when they are opaque, unregulated, and exploited by heavily invested forces. (Zombie Formalism, for instance, which rose to popularity less than two years before this writing, has already fallen out of favor.) Trends eventually undergo market corrections. Fashionable bubbles pop. And so it is important not to confuse commerce with careers. The quick rise and sharp decline of many of the most notorious market-friendly names can still be transformed into something more sustainable. Over time, youthful mistakes can always be rectified. While people motivated by profit have had incredible power to influence trends and reputations, those with less financial stake ought to take it as their duty to resist these tendencies and to question the supposed absolutes of the market. Our present errors should serve as encouragement for the next group of young artists deciding between short-term rewards and the long game. In a moment of monotony and conformity, artists must reclaim their freedom.
Daniel S. Palmer is the Leon Levy Assistant Curator at the Jewish Museum in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “Go Pro.”