Saturday, 24 May 2014

Art markets and social bankruptcy: We didn't start the fire...

It's often about timing; sometimes dates, events, circumstances, planetary alignments* combine to make an extraordinary moment in time. From the local elections, the evacuation of people from Birkbeck School of Arts, or a period of artistic bankruptcy; all these came together for the final talk at Birkbeck Arts Week 2014. Professor Dr Harald Falckenberg came to speak to a number of us about international contemporary art trends, specifically viewed from Germany.**

Whether the lecture we got was what he precisely intended is another matter. Ten minutes in and the persistent fire alarm roused even the most stubborn academic, and we decided that the place should be evacuated. It was a beautiful evening for an outdoor lecture. Thus a previously formal academic group stood around the gardens of Gordon Square and heard one of the most scurrilous confidential insights into the murky amoral world of the art market.

'Every era gets the art it deserves'. We deserve the shallow, the vacant, and the morally bankrupt. Having deviated mentally into the dubious experiences of the previous day's voting in Tower Hamlets elections, I dragged myself back to the bucolic location of the talk. He made it very clear that he writes about artists. He doesn't do what historians of art do, which is to explore the art itself. He thinks its more important to write about the artists rather than the art, to explore society and its development and look at why (and how?) artists reflect the society they are in. He also has a long experience of the art market and reflected upon how this has changed over the years, from the post war era onward.

He spoke of political machinations in the 1950s where the US was not worried by Cold War hostilities, but were anxious about Eurocentric cultural dominance. Kennedy spoke of 'new frontiers' where the US had gone beyond its own wild west and was ready to take on the entire world. A recent article says, 'in the manner of a Renaissance prince - except that it acted secretly - the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years'.

Within this politically charged atmosphere, artistic freedom was being actively encouraged and as Abstract Expressionism took root, suddenly New York was emerging as an artistic and cultural centre to rival Paris. As the article continues, 'it was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was'. Any overview of the art of this period then, has to be seen against the cultural and political backdrop of the time.

By 1964 New York was producing ever more innovative art. Influential thinkers defined new words to describe the new world; for instance 'artworld' was coined in 1964 by Arthur Coleman Danto in response to Andy Warhol.
It cannot be what we actually see that constitutes an artwork, he wrote in his famous article The Artworld (1964), any more than it is what we see which shows us that the man in front of us is not just a material body but a person. Brillo Box, unlike the pile of Brillo boxes in the supermarket storeroom, is transfigured by "a certain theory of art".
"It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is." An art work "embodies its meaning", but only when "seen interpretively"; and interpretation relies on a whole mass of history, theory and knowledge – Brillo Box could not have been art 50 years ago.
From here he recited world events and artistic movements Billy Joel style; late sixties, anti-capitalism, counter culture, Vietnam war. In Germany Joseph Beuys stated that 'every person is an artist'; Punk generation, Martin Kippenberger's 'Every artist is a person', Kings Road, Situationists, post modern anything goes, no more painting schools, social relevance and multimedia. We didn't start the fire...but we should have fought it better.

Inevitably there there was an explosion in the hunger for painting in the 1980s. Politically conservative and plenty of money led to a new artistic movement called neo-expressionism. In Germany, Hunger nach Bildern was coined by Wolfgang Max Faust and the art market suddenly exploded. Falckenberg re-emphasised that more money was turned over than ever before. 

However by the end of the decade prices had plummeted. For instance, his collection of Kipperberger's was purchased as the market dropped; where previously they were going for hundreds of thousands, he picked them up in the 1990 for thousands. And Christies has just sold one for $18m. The reasons he gave for this drop in the market was the soviet disintegration. In 1989 money went east with investments and was generally lost. There was no money for art as it was required for rebuilding a new world. The 1990s saw the rise of big exhibitions and biennale. Artists survived by making large scale art, rather than salon pieces. Suddenly curators were influential, using artists like puppets and then sweeping them away. 

2001 saw  George Bush Jr elected and there was a seismic political shift with more money being spent on the war industry. The art world stepped up the earning potential with the auction houses realising they could capitalise of the contemporary art market. Auction houses used to do it secretly but opened up with their first official contemporary art sales. Now 40-50% of house's sales are contemporary and new records being smashed all the time. As Falckenberg wryly noted, many of these contemporary artists are dead. Still, the Auctioneers have the power to drive up prices and determine which exhibitions are going to be influential. 

He sees galleries as an endangered species because auction houses offer exhibitions, pre sale, post sale, provenance research etc - they are no longer single function. By raising the profile of the art they sell, the better price they can get. Their international reach is also attractive. The artist is also bypassing the galleries. So he recommends that you should avoid opening a gallery but become and art dealer. He then told us a story about Jablonka in Cologne...which proves you have to be amoral and utterly without principle to be an art dealer. Suffice to say that this gentleman made a fortune out of some Eastern European.

By 2008 the world was on the brink of financial disaster. Jeff Koons had a show in Versailles and Hirst had made £111m at a Sotherby auction. Could bubbles get any bigger? It was the beginning of the end and crisis was initiated by Lehman's going bankrupt. He maintains that this combination of events was crucial; financial stability was rocked and it was this that has ensured art is now a second currency.

The nature of collectors has changed. World companies are buying art. He gave the example of VW Cars cooperating with MOMA, and when I looked into this, the blurb makes me shiver. How can artists retain their independence and integrity when they are constrained by 'corporate values ("innovative, value retentive and responsible")'. The sponsor wants a place to entertain institutions and business with VIPs and champagne, whilst cutting its workforce. Every artistic institution wants to showcase their success on the global stage and the only way they can do it is corporate / commercial sponsorship.

He ended by saying that the state of education in the arts wasn't any less commercial. By opening centres abroad and making courses so expensive, New York University was excluding all but the most wealthy. He says that this is a disaster for art history studies, as only 18% of graduates stay to teach and 80% of teachers don't have permanent contracts and there are very few professors. Basically big institutions of any type have nothing to do with the cultivation of art.

Now I'm loathe to end on such a pessimistic note. However in the cold light of election result day, it really seems that we have the political, financial, educational and artistic institutions we deserve. Where is our glimmer of optimism; where are the small flames of resistance to corporate takeovers and political intimidation? Although this apathy is nothing new, it would be nice to think that people 50 years from now talked of a new artistic, and by association, societal upsurge in the late 2010s. We didn't start the fire...but we didn't even bother to fight it.

*or other such hokum
**He wrote a good piece in the FT recently. For all the bits I left out, it's worth reading. But like all good journalism, you have to pay...

No comments:

Post a Comment