The relationship between creativity and commerce has always been vexed—perhaps never more so than today. Few would deny that the art world has grown exponentially since the end of World War II. The buying and selling of art, like the production of art, has become a global enterprise—an amoeba-like mega-business with an insatiable appetite for the new. Museums, galleries, auction houses, websites, social media and educational institutions (and along with them curators, dealers, collectors, teachers and critics) are all part of an unwieldy system sustained by creative individuals.
Most artists who came of age in the immediate postwar period were deeply ambivalent about their commercial prospects. Working alone, they could afford not only to experiment but also to fail, knowing that what happened in the studio could, if they so chose, stay in the studio. How the work got made was one thing. How it left to be exhibited, promoted and sold was another proposition altogether. But by the early 1960s, the perceived gap between these two realms, between the private space of creation and the public arena of business, was rapidly diminishing.
Art as commerce gained an unlikely prophet when Andy Warhol, the wide-eyed boy wonder from Pittsburgh, hit first the ad agencies and then the art galleries of New York City. Warhol’s Silver Factory—an industrial loft covered with Mylar, mirrors and reams of silver foil; jammed with paint, silk screens, newspapers and film stock; blaring rock ‘n’ roll and opera; and humming with all kinds of people at all hours of the day and night—was, as its name so clearly indicated, a harbinger for a whole new socioeconomic formation within the art system. At the same time, his art-makes-good-business philosophy reset how artists, and some of their impetuous collectors, approached the marketplace. That one of his monumental flower paintings joined 50 other contemporary artworks auctioned off by Robert Scull at Sotheby Parke-Bernet in 1973 was, at least to Warhol, thrilling proof that the times were indeed changing (though hardly in the way Bob Dylan sang about a decade earlier); artists might now profit during their lifetime from the resale of their work—even if only indirectly, if the prices for new works rose.
Once the economically challenged 1970s soared into the excessively greedy 1980s, bringing the meteoric rise of old-master auction prices and the frequently sold-out gallery shows of contemporary artists like Eric Fischl, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat et al., the marriage of creativity and commerce came to seem like a foregone conclusion, just as this magazine published its memorable “art and money” issues in July 1988 and July 1990. The cover of the first, showing Joseph Beuys standing beneath the enormous tusks of a mastodon like creature between which the words “Kunst = Kapital” are inscribed in blood-red paint, still unsettles the mind.
Both issues rounded up critics, art historians, artists and dealers for comment. If there was any consensus among these widely diverse individuals, it was that the rules of the game had changed dramatically and that artists had to adapt somehow. But how was one to negotiate such uncharted terrain, befogged by rampant speculation, fickle market cycles and the lure of lucre? Joan Semmel, one of 18 artists interviewed for the first issue, invoked the archetypal artistic credo, a quixotic one by 1988, given escalating rents and art-school tuitions:
My generation’s mythology involved the romance of being true to oneself. You were supposed to starve, because success meant you weren’t really honest, and then be rediscovered by the next generation. . . To be an artist meant to choose a different life-style—to live minimally, with cheap rent and minimal needs and somehow survive. Today no one can afford that romance.1
John Baldessari, an elder statesman and revered educator by 1990, made no bones about what was at stake: Money and the possibility of success can have two kinds of effects. There are the conscious effects and then the unconscious effects that you can’t put your finger on. . . . What will the hope of money and acclamation prompt you to do unconsciously? . . . There’s nothing wrong with making money, but if it’s the tail wagging the dog, then you’ve lost your way.2
It’s been more than 20 years since Baldessari nailed the quandary. The marriage of art and money is now a way of life, something we tend to take for granted without pausing to consider the ramifications for living artists. A panel on creativity and commerce became my way of keeping an ever more poignant topic on the table. Jeanne Silverthorne (New York-based artist), Amy Cappellazzo (chairman of postwar and contemporary development at Christie’s), Michael Brenson (New York-based critic) and Robert Storr (dean of the Yale University School of Art) joined me in Buffalo at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on Oct. 27, 2012. I encouraged them to be philosophical, to take an expansive perspective and, whenever possible, to project into the future. Their revised and edited remarks appear in the order they were presented. Matthew Marks, proprietor of six gallery spaces in New York and Los Angeles, was unable to attend the session. His comments, prompted by questions about artists, auction houses, art fairs and the Resale Royalty Act, are taken from a conversation recorded at his 523 West 24th Street gallery in New York on Aug. 1, 2012.
PHOTO: A €10 silver coin issued by the Monnaie de Paris in 2011, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death.
Artists are very greedy but not necessarily for money. There are so many other ways to get rich. Instead, they’re always on the prowl for what I would call “glimmerings,” the merest suggestion of a shape or an image—some inkling that might become a painting, sculpture or performance. They’re always looking, thinking, collecting, making, arranging, borrowing, experimenting, ruminating. The perpetual barrage of ideas is why they keep notebooks and obsessively self-document in order to hoard every possibility.
Creative greed is notoriously reckless. Artists with virtually nothing to live on and no prospect of clearing debts by future sales routinely max out their credit cards to produce work. Sometimes being broke can be a positive thing, particularly if it slows down production and allows more time for thoughtful editing. Still, financial success can propel greater achievements: better methods of fabrication, more assistants, a bigger studio, and the possibility of engaging more minds on a project or even dreaming up more ambitious projects for the future. Being hell-bent on realizing the grandiose schemes of their teeming brains can put artists at risk. The idea of making a grand statement in any medium can be fraught with hubris. And yet, given the minuscule odds of either fame or fortune, how can anyone afford to sustain this kind of creative greed over a lifetime?
Perhaps the dilemma isn’t about commerce or how to divine money but the fact that the visual arts have assumed unprecedented cultural power. Artists’ antics make good copy. So do the astronomical prices some art commands. Successful artists strategize their careers like any other savvy businesspeople, as they navigate the ever-expanding network of art brokers, curators, collectors and critics. Finding ways to access this multitudinous gatekeeping community may preoccupy artists more than the prospect of money. This doesn’t mean that money is neutral. Money has its own reasons for valuing things, reasons that generally elbow other valuations out of the way. Our capacity to respond or think in ways other than monetary is compromised. The dominance of money in the art world may enable the production of spectacle art, but it may also atrophy our ability to appreciate subtle, more intimate and perhaps more difficult statements. When we talk about money and art, we tend to talk only about art at the extravagant end of the market. When Koons, Hirst and Warhol dominate the conversation, everything else seems secondary. Without demonizing those artists, I think this scenario gets boring.
Art-making is not a one-size-fits-all undertaking. Artists have different temperaments. Some are very comfortable with social networking, monumentality and entrepreneurship. Others are essentially private and inward. There are a million mansions in the art world, just as there are a million ways of making art. It is possible to block your ears and eyes from the constant tally of sales and rankings, the media buzz around auctions, and the make-or-break reviews. This may be ostrichlike behavior, but it can also be a deliberate strategy of resistance against exclusionary narratives.
What if Jeff Koons’s myth of origin—that he financed his art career first as a commodity broker on Wall Street—were to replace the traditional art school education with its inevitable financial woes? All ethical considerations aside, this path would mean foregrounding money and sacrificing years of creative work. I just don’t think most artists care enough about money, or the consequences of its lack, to give up, even for a few years, their hopelessly quixotic pursuit of the glimmer. Creative greed may put artists at risk but, in the end, it’s the only thing that can’t be taken away from them by anyone or anything.
Auction House Executive
The art world has its own distinct ecology, whose health depends on the compliant participation of all its subgroups. Artists, auction houses, critics, collectors, curators, dealers and those exploiting the spaces in between all draw from the same pond. Money is a vital part of this ecosystem, as fundamental as creativity itself, both of which can be well directed or wildly misguided. If the pond does not evolve with the shifts of nature, it will stagnate and decline. To ensure its survival, every art world subgroup must push the system’s boundaries just shy of utter recklessness. Piss in the pond and it is all but certain that the subgroups will come together to conspire the violator’s banishment.
But how does one push the rules of engagement? It is happening all the time. We have all seen dealers, in the exhibitions they handily organize, make curators look plodding and unresponsive to the zeitgeist. Artists can function as the most cunning businesspeople; auction houses can get the deal done privately; and critics can expand their skills to become well-compensated advisors without losing their street cred. All of this, and the money exchanged, is good for the vitality of the art world. Formerly clear job descriptions are in flux in our current post-authority-of-a-single-source moment. Analog gives way to digital as surely as Google challenges network news and dramatically changes the mode of operation for each. As all institutional authority stands to be questioned, dissected and analyzed, museums especially must be careful that their authority doesn’t go the way of the networks’. Train wrecks are inevitable, but the desire to break out of the Industrial Revolution’s model of making, experiencing and distributing works of art—artist, gallery, critic, curator, all playing conventional parts—is a positive force in the art world’s evolution.
I currently work in the art marketplace and have for the past 16 years. I measure my own success by my ability to stretch the way we do things to prefigure future developments. A respect for objects and artistic intentions is essential to doing well in this business. I am still as vigorously engaged with the esthetic and intellectual ideas around a work of art as when I was a wide-eyed 25-year-old, teaching courses and curating small shows in college art galleries. I work at an established place of business where money is an appropriate topic, but the ability to assign monetary value and get the deal done doesn’t compromise one’s knowledge of or passion for works of art. Discussions of money in the art world are usually tinged with vague Marxist notions that critique the confluence as sullied and corrupt. My experience is that one’s encounters with money are as varied as one’s encounters with love. In the end, it is probably futile to spend too much time pathologizing the relationship between money and art. The concept of money means different things to different people, just as love does, making consensus impossible.
Determining an artwork’s monetary value is different from assessing its esthetic or intellectual worth. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t. Knowing a work’s financial value is just another way of knowing it. I am always surprised and a bit shocked when museum professionals from collecting institutions are neither knowledgeable about nor interested in the art market. If they are responsible for spending public money, knowing the market would seem an important part of their job.
Andy Warhol famously said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” He was right, as usual.
In New York City, where I live, this may be a golden moment for art museums. I can’t remember when there were as many exhibitions that I wanted to see. Museums are welcoming. Many people who once felt excluded by them feel comfortable in them now. By embracing digital innovation and state-of-the-art marketing strategies, museums have embedded themselves in the mass culture machine. To continue organizing surprising and necessary exhibitions, they need board and collection leverage and gazillions of dollars. They assume that if individuals and corporations feel at home with them their alliances with the digital apparatus and the entertainment industry will be friction-free and they will continue to be blessed by crowds and money. Great shows, thousands (if not millions) of visitors, social and economic influence and status—it all seems to be working. The tone is upbeat. Inside New York City museums, I feel a sense of purpose and hope.
I also feel anxiety.
How sweepingly can museums align themselves with mass culture without betraying the work made by artists for whom mass culture was the enemy? How does the metric of popular appeal affect the experience of art that was not designed for easy access? How do museums maintain the identity of art that during the artist’s lifetime was seen in a small room by a handful of people, now that the institution is making that work available online to millions? Are museums interested in the distinction between experiencing historical art in person and clicking onto a spankingly clean image of it on a screen a fraction of its size?
If, in their solicitousness of the consumer, museums succeed in communicating that there is in fact nothing to be afraid of in art, nothing truly dangerous or disturbing in the projects and identities of artists, and if they manage to peddle the notion that museums are as safe as a hotel lobby, mall, coffee shop or bookstore, what are they doing to art’s potential for radical doubt and transformation?
If conversation rather than encounter is now the primary model for the museum experience, how do museums imagine conversation? Paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and performances emerge from years of looking, reading, thinking, playing, raging, loving, failing, dreaming. They hold within them—and evoke—extraordinary conversations not just among people, alive and dead, or among divergent approaches to tradition, but with forms and materials, each of which has a nonhuman as well as a human history. The first audience for art may not be the man, woman or child in the gallery or the person calling up an image on an iPad. It may be the North Star. Or stones. Or cities of the dead. Or communities whose scripts have not been written.
Every museum has its own way of accommodating two distinct approaches to art. One approach assumes that participation depends on digital technology. Only interaction through one or more electronic devices is considered truly active, legitimately contemporary. The other approach upholds the primacy of sustained and undivided attention. In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson asks, “What is attention?” He goes on to describe it as an extraordinary reciprocity between the object and the person encountering it, in which the interactions within that person among perception, memory, reflection and image are wildly unpredictable and dramatic.
Each of these approaches is dynamic. Each activates art. Each fosters community. But their ways of forming and retaining images are violently different. Museums cannot and should not reject the first approach. As for the second approach—museums continue to declare their commitment to its survival, even as they communicate uncertainty about their ability to resist the merger of institutional power, digital apparatuses and big money. This merger terrifies me.
Curator and Art School Dean
I’m weary of the conversation about money. There are two ways to be obsessed by money. One of them is to love it, enjoy it, acquire it and talk about it all the time. The other way is to hate it, even if you have it, because there are people who have more than you and whose attitude toward it conflicts with your own. When people talk about money, they tend to talk about it anecdotally, which is not the same thing as thinking about money in informed economic and political ways. It’s easy to gossip about money matters from the moral high ground, particularly if you have a guaranteed income. To talk about money responsibly, in relation to art, is to think about the nature of the transactions you’re discussing.
Money is part of the capitalist structure. If you’re going to critique the art market, you have to think about how the system has evolved historically: at the transactional level, on the structural level, and on the level of global finance. If things are worse now than they were in, say, the 1950s—and overall I believe they are—it is not a result just of individual greed. In 1964, Allan Kaprow published a signal article in Art News. Titled “Should the Artist Become a Man of the World?,” it directly challenged the prevailing Abstract Expressionist myths regarding the persona and social position of the modern artist. Kaprow debunked the bohemian ethos by arguing that the vanguard artist had ceased belonging to an esthetic and moral “world apart” and had entered into the social mainstream as a professional like any other. Why does the romance of bohemia continue to taint our perception of the art system?
Nowadays young artists are caught between that romantic paradigm of complete autonomy from material contingencies—which in the past came at the price of penury—and equally unrealistic models of “criticality” that ennoble ivory tower employment and disparage street-level trade in artworks as inherently ignoble and corrupt, even though academia is its own market. Responsible dealers, serious collectors and dedicated artists have not vanished from the face of the earth, but too few examples are held up for rising generations to learn from, just as too little is said about how to set one’s own pace rather than be at the mercy of unscrupulous opportunists seeking a quick return on current trends.
As you can tell, I have nothing in principle against people making their livelihood from art—especially not artists. I make mine that way, and it would be disingenuous to complain about others who do the same. But as a curator my goal is to make artworks truly priceless by removing them from the market and permanently relocating them in museums, where the general public can experience and judge them firsthand without thinking about, much less betting on, the fluctuations of their monetary value. For the price of admission (and ideally that price should be democratically low) anyone who is curious about art, even if not fully committed to it, should have easy and frequent access to the best examples.
There’s a categorical difference between information and experience, and that distinction is becoming more and more important as time goes on. The Internet is great for moving information. It is not very good for experience, unless the experience is of something created in that medium. Most artists I know do not want to be converted to information on the Internet. They want actual living, breathing people of complex and diverse natures to experience their individual works in real time. That’s what museums are for.
Over the course of almost 30 years, I have learned many things from different dealers. I started out selling prints and learned survival skills from a few older dealers who took me under their wing. I worked for Anthony d’Offay for three years. He taught me that artists are the most important thing and that a primary-market dealer is nothing without them. My job is to provide an environment that enables the artists I represent to make the best work possible. Everything else I do, like publishing exhibition catalogues, participating in art fairs and selling secondary-market work, is to facilitate that end. Working with a living artist can sometimes be a challenge, but that’s what gets me up every morning.
Auction houses are a necessary evil. They provide liquidity. Collectors, who are the lifeblood of the system, like to feel that they can sell whenever they want to. Auction houses provide an easy outlet for them. People also think that they provide an objective standard for determining what an artwork is worth. In truth, the whole system is subjective, and a lot of auction prices are arranged in advance, just as they are in a private sale.
The auction houses are under tremendous pressure to make a profit and extremely competitive with one another. Since they only make money if something sells, they only care about selling, and, therefore, they are only interested in salable works. This is one reason it is problematic for living artists to see their work at auction, where it is judged not only for its quality but for whether or not it is salable.
You have to be smart about how you expand your operation and always consider how it might affect your artists. I do not believe it is good business to do things solely to make money. The key to success is realizing that, in the long run, what is best for the artists is also best for my business.
Art fairs have become increasingly important, because they are the best way for dealers to compete with the auction houses. Up until the 1980s, auctions were mainly a wholesale business for liquidating estates. In the 1980s Sotheby’s became a highly successful retail business, where every fall and spring collectors were able to purchase an enormous amount of art in only a few days. Private art sales took much longer. The auctions changed the way business was done, and dealers had to find a way to compete. Art fairs were the answer. For a few busy days, the dealers’ best inventory is laid out, priced and ready to go.
I do not believe in the Resale Royalty Act, based on the French initiative of droit de suite, because the only people who benefit from it are already successful artists or their estates. The law, which stipulates that artists should receive a small portion of the profit when their work is resold, does not help those artists who could actually use the money, whose work has no resale market. There has to be a better system. If some of the money raised from the Resale Royalty Act were used to fund public school art programs, for instance, then it might make sense.
It is hard to know what the art world will look like in the future. I believe there will always be a place for the traditional kind of art dealer who represents artists. Artists will always need someone to run interference between them and the rest of the world. That will never change.
1. Joan Semmel quoted in Eleanor Heartney, “Artists vs. the Market,” Art in America, July 1988, p. 29.
2. John Baldessari interviewed by Lilly Wei, “Marking Art, Making Money: 13 Artists Comment,” Art in America, July 1990, p. 133.
The Creativity and Commerce panel was part of Decade, a multi-event symposium at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Oct. 26-27, 2012.
Doughlas Dreishpoon is chief curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.