Rags, Riches, and the Contemporary Art Trade

Why is it that when one sees articles like this, describing how the halls and salons of The Louvre are being filled with contemporary art, that the sensation is one of anger arising from a deep sense of injustice? We all know instinctively that much of the headline-making contemporary art we see is garbage, and sometimes quite literally so as shown in the photograph which accompanies this post.  Unfortunately, few people have the courage to actually stand up and say so, and there are several possible reasons as to why.

One reason might be that many in contemporary Western society are brought up to believe that anyone can make good art, which is simply not true.  It is one thing to encourage little Tracy to make a nice picture for Aunt Hilda with her fingerpaints. It is another to convince adult Tracy that she is a great artist, and can in fact teach other people how to be artists, when she cannot even draw properly.

I cannot speak to the European experience, but the rather poor state of art education in this country is something I suspect most of my American readers know first-hand.  One learns very little beyond a smattering of Attic sculpture, the Italian Renaissance, a bit of Dutch genre painting, and the French Impressionists,  followed by an over-concentration on Modern Art.  Then one spends the rest of the course making bad pots, or poor sketches of one of the girls in the class seated on a wobbly stool.  In fact, far more time is spent in the American education system teaching students how to boil an egg, parallel park, or avoid getting Suzy pregnant, than is on educating them about the great artistic legacies of Western civilization.

Increasingly it is the persona of the artist, feigned or otherwise, and not the art itself, which is valued and praised.  The art becomes secondary to the story, i.e. the mythos created around the artist: this one is a political dissident, or that one is a public drunk, or that one sleeps with anything he can get his hands on, and aren’t they fascinating people?  In the end, seeing someone put thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds in a room may be amusing, but no one dares to ask whether it is actually good art. [N.B.: It isn’t.]  

The contemporary art world does not genuinely want to ask itself this question, nor does it want you to question their judgment on this point, because in reality much of that segment of the art market is nefarious, at best.  When you read about someone paying astronomical prices for what looks like – and in fact, is – a pile of poo with a title placard, the story is not really the art.  Rather, it is about the amount of money changing hands, based on how well the art dealers and press have managed to create a marketable brand value for the artist whose work is being sold.

What most people do not realize is that the majority of this art which makes you scratch your head or roll your eyes is not actually being brought home for people to display.  Instead, it is going into places like bank vaults or gigantic tax-free storage facilities, where it is kept as an investment  readily convertible to cash by financiers, spendthrift entertainers, and arms/narcotics merchants.  This story which broke yesterday, about private AND institutional collectors pulling out of Christie’s art storage warehouses in Brooklyn, should give you some idea of the vast amount of art created and sold over the past 30-40 years which is sitting crated up somewhere, unseen.

If it were all released onto the market at once, the value of such art would collapse, since frankly no one would actually want it.  There is already so much of it available that it has lost that one quality which collecting objects like Old Master paintings or fine porcelain has always had, which is scarcity.  We all know from economics that once the market becomes aware that something is not actually rare or difficult to obtain, it begins to lose value, and sometimes precipitously.  The contemporary art market keeps pushing along, making new art stars out of delusional half-wits to keep the flow of goods coming, but looking less like an intelligentsia and more like the purveyors of tulip bulbs.

As someone who has collected in some very niche areas of art for the last couple of decades, I regularly encourage my readers to go out and collect what you love.  Owning art is not only an ongoing means of self-education, it is simply a joy.  I would based on the forgoing advise you to avoid the temptation of buying art which requires you to install a dedicated video monitor, or put down a layer of plastic on the living room floor, in order for you to be able to display it.

Instead, look for those contemporary artists who know how to do things like actually paint – like this guy – and have made a career of careful and attentive craftmanship.  These people develop their natural talents into something striking and accomplished, whatever style they happen to work in, because they know that great art takes time and patience to create.  These artists are the men and women who inspire and encourage us to feel that link of continuity with the history of our culture, and not that we are simply cattle to be manipulated by the contemporary art world for the purposes of commerce.  And when the contemporary art market finally does burst, these will be the artists left standing.


“The Venus of Rags” by Michelangelo Pistoletto (2013)
from an temporary installation at The Louvre, Paris

6 thoughts on “Rags, Riches, and the Contemporary Art Trade

  1. Why couldn’t Rupert Alexander have painted the Duchess of Cambridge’s portrait? Paul Emsley’s portrait was something just bloody awful, they would have done so much better with Alexander. The life in his portraits, while neither being too photographic, or too abstract, is refreshing.

    Also many great points about the con that modern art really is. What they are peddling is not art per se, but meta art. Like Duchamp’s toilet, it’s not about the object itself, but the reaction. Funny now how the only reaction they are looking to produce is the wallet opening.

    BTW did you know that Jeff Koons only collects old masters in his house, and is having Peter Pennoyer, president of the Institute of CLASSICAL Architecture and Art renovate said house? I’m not sure whether to be sickened by his apparent hypocrisy or to applaud his machiavellian brilliance. The man has gotten rich peddling kitsch!


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