Image via The End of Bling.
As a friend of mine (who shall remain unnamed)
has been saying for at least a decade, (and has just reminded me in an
email, in response to Ben Davis's piece):
"The art boom correlates directly to the Bush tax cuts. Why did it take soooo long for people to figure that out? Clearly, for the upper middle class, who used to be the collector class for the vast majority of artists, the artisanal lifestyle thing has long since taken over from art, as far as investment and interest goes. But I do think an art market crash that effects the top echelons, like Hirst et al, which I believe is immanent, and which will correlate directly with the end of the Bush tax cuts (see fiscal cliff negotiations), would allow the 'middle arts' to come back to life. This is not just important for those diehard artists who have embraced the end-run despite having no sales for years, but for art and culture in general which has been damaged so brutally by the past decades of growth for the 1%. It turns out that they are not our friends, even though some would have us believe so."
"Damaged so brutally" is right.
You probably don’t want to read another article on art and money. I don’t really want to write one. But then again, I don’t really want to read another article about how humans are destroying the planet. But it's a fact that they are, and until it is not, I am happy to see such coverage, when it appears.
What are the two great and indisputable trends in art of the recent past? The first is for artworks to approach, more and more, the condition of pop culture. The scholar Johanna Drucker has dubbed this “complicit aesthetics.” More art-celebrity team-ups of all sorts clog our mental space, and there are more and more massive art installations billed essentially as theme park attractions.
The other unavoidable recent trend is the craze for Art as an Asset Class (or AaaAC, as I prefer to call it).
Well, when you stop to think for one second, it is plain that these two trends run in opposite directions, held together in our minds only because the indispensable condition of both is the presence of vast amounts of money — either the money to create multi-million-dollar maximalist environments, or the money to gamble spectacularly at the auctions. But this is money spent to very different ends.
For art to function as an effective investment vehicle, it needs to increase in value steadily over a long period of time — decades. On the other hand, pop culture is by definition short-term culture, constantly changing and overwriting itself, the subject of explosive interest one second, a half-remembered curiosity the next. Mediating this tension is not impossible, but at a certain point, there is going to be some kind of breakdown.
Some such reckoning seems already to be happening in the case of Damien Hirst, whose recent works have disappointed when they hit the auction block — a fact which seems to stem from this very tension. “I think Hirst was a very good artist at the beginning,” Georgina Adam said, “but he has been a fabricator of luxury goods for a long time now.” While Hirst-ean theatrics may in the short term delight nouveau riche scenesters looking for crushingly obvious symbols of sophistication, it turns out that wedding your work to the conventions of mass fashion — which must of necessity constantly revolve — is not a great strategy for producing investment grade art.
If I were someone interested in contemporary art as an investment, nothing would chill me more than the fact that fashion brands are so obsessed with hooking themselves in to contemporary art. AaaAC.
When you hear talk of a “bubble,” it seems mainly to mean that commentators don't particularly like the art that is getting the most attention. Still, you must admit that there is a lot of frothiness in the art market, a fact discernible from the ever-growing number of cack-handed schemes to profit off of the art boom.
Quick show of hands: Who thinks the starfucking joke art of Francesco Vezzoli is one for the ages? Anyone? Well, if so, there is a French art exchange that will let you invest in “shares” of his work…
Nevertheless, we should be precise about what makes a bubble a bubble. Just because house prices are rising fast doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a “housing bubble.” It’s hard to say what a “normal” house price is, but there are various factors that you can look at, among them the average family income in an area and the relative cost of renting. If prices soar way above all such possible rational measures, then you are likely in a bubble.
So, what is the underlying constant that determines “normal” art prices? In the artist Andrea Fraser’s great text, “L'1%, C'Est Moi,” she quotes a study by three economists who attempted to find an answer to just this question. They found that
a one percentage point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1 percent triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent… It is indeed the money of the wealthy that drives art prices. This implies that we can expect art booms whenever income inequality rises quickly.