The current paradigm is Investment, which is cynically boring in terms of art appreciation, and tragically myopic. Art is reduced to objects with price-tags on them that investors gamble on, while also trying to influence the market by promoting the artists they invest in, and so on. The end result is a handful of superstar artists making over-sized, over-priced, outsourced ornaments that cost outrageous sums to produce, and can only be bought by the richest clients. More than 99% of the rest of humanity is disenfranchised from the process, except as spectators. And the rest of us, on the sidelines, are mostly either stupefied, completely indifferent, or revile against it. How many people have in their homes an original art piece, a print, or a book of art created in the last quarter century? Now ask yourself how many people own a CD of music produced in the same period. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people don’t possess any recent art in any form, but most people do own CDs (or Mp3s). Part of the difference is cost, but the crucial difference is that people collect music because they like it, not as an investment.
There is a meme that gets circulated on Facebook which says not to judge people by race, religion, and so on, bur rather by the contents of their record collection. It’s not really fair because not everyone is a music aficionado, nor even has time to invest in listening to music, but the idea appeals to me because I’m a music connoisseur of sorts. As a starving artist, I’m a borderline digital nomad living in the developing world, and so I don’t have the money to buy records, nor can I store them, in which case my cherished music collection is tens of thousands of Mp3s. They are, if we put a price-tag on them, worthless. But in terms of music appreciation, they are priceless. When I was a teenager I used to collect records. Never one to have money, I bought them mostly used and with some scratches, hiss, and other wear-and-tear. My entire collection might have been worth $30. [NoteL all the album covers in this post are records I had in my collection in high school.]
I’m on the other extreme side of the spectrum where I don’t own a single physical work of art (other than some small works on paper I’ve done myself recently), CD, or even a book. I’ve had to move with just what I can fit in a suitcase and backpack, plus one carry-on item, eight times in the last decade, which means I can only take my computer, essential clothes, documents, and a few tidbits. But, if I were rich, and I had a stable home, I’d probably have a pretty awesome record collection. Not so much rare collectibles – but I’d definitely want the old LPs with their jackets, sometimes fold outs, and their sleeves. Album covers constituted, if ancillary, visual art collection on top of music acquisition. I once went to a gallery shows of album covers, and of course it couldn’t go wrong.
If you know music aficionados, their collections much more resemble the ideal state of connoisseurship for an art form, whereas the contemporary art model is a kind of financial speculation, and is even used just to move money around, and otherwise play sophisticated games with capital. The most valuable art is whatever works best as a board piece in a real world game of Monopoly. This takes the soul out of art and art collecting, and is so crass that it’s kinda’, well – despite it’s uber-sophisticaiton about money – stupid.
Recently, the mufti-million dollar productions of one of the giants of contemporary art and marketing, Damien Hirst, have begun to plummet. Tim Schneider, the art business reporter for Artnet described this as a “bloodbath”. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. If you spent a hundred thousand dollars on one of over 1,300 formulaic “spot paintings” painted by Hirst’s underpaid assistants, you got chumped. Despite rhetoric which proclaims having assistants or hired artisans manufacture art is the sign of a cutting edge, (marketing) genius artist – look at Warhol! – it should be kinda obvious that an artifact which the artist himself (in this case) never even touched, doesn’t have the same quality to it as, say, a Van Gogh painting of a landscape, seen through his asylum window at Saint-Rémy, exquisitely crafted in a unique style only one man could pull off.
Hirst, Koons, Warhol, and others created an idea that appealed to the uber-elite, which is that, to quote Andy himself,
“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”.
This agonizingly insipid mix of insanity and inanity was, nevertheless, the perfect business pitch to the egos of the 0.1%, because it legitimized some of their own practices. Hence Donald Trump quoted Andy Warhol in his “The Art of the Deal”, and this shouldn’t give us pause?!
I can deflate this argument utterly by merely changing one word:
“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of Music. Making money is music and working is music and good business is the best music”.
No matter what back-flips one might try to do to rescue the gospel according to St. Warhol from being revealed as utter tripe, I think everyone knows deep down that Donald Trump making billions isn’t F’ing music at all! And it isn’t visual art, either.
What Hirst tried to do was to make hucksterism into art. In the end, the buyers were left with outrageously overpriced bottles of snake oil. Quite naturally, over time, these placebos would lose their effect and their market value. Who really wants a painting in their foyer that screams, “I’ve been suckered big time”. One tends to hide away, or quietly dispose of, those miracle, paunch-evaporating exercise devices, or self-sharpening knives, one bought “in the next 60 seconds” of a commercial repeated ad-nauseam.
Consider that when one of Jeff Koons’s >$100,000,000 balloon dogs goes down just 1%, it’s a million dollars. That shit’s gonna’ tank, too. Why? Because he made, or rather commissioned, several copies in different colors, in which case the uniqueness of any one, not just as an object, but as artistic content, is compromised. It quite obviously becomes art finely catered for the most wealthy clientèle on the planet, which is not really a rich and creamy kind of art that everyone can relate to on a human level. And this is despite the artist’s cynically manipulative jargon about how his art is only completed when the lowly audience members humble visages are reflected in the high-polished chrome surface, and that their (abysmal) tastes in art (sickening kitsch) is validated. Art that presume the art audience is stupid is bound to crumble when the people wisen up.
Incidentally, in an art-world insider’s game of one-upmanship, Paul McCarthy had the staggeringly brilliant idea to pay his own choice inflatable manufacturers to make an 80 foot balloon dog, ostensibly to trump Koons with his own louder one-liner.
I wouldn’t say that Warhol, Koons, Hirst and others (except perhaps Duchamp, the father of it all) diabolically plotted to fleece the rich art buyers. Rather, they believe their own blather. Koons puts himself on a pedestal with Michelangelo – yes, he has declared his commissioned pieces by Italian artisans are in the same tradition – and was even so bold as to assert that his copies of old master paintings, painted by his assistants in a soul-crushing paint-by-numbers process, and with one blue gazing-ball affixed to the center, IMPROVED them. You have to be drunk on you own Kool-Aid to flatter yourself that you improve on not just one, but more than a dozen masterpieces, by sticking your trademark shiny ball on bland replicas of them.
Not to be too critical of these artists, or rather to say I’m any better, I imagine some experiment in the vein of those 50’s-70’s social-experiments-gone-wrong (ex., the Stanford Prison Experiment), in which subjects are slowly persuaded that their feces are worth their weight in gold because of their unique properties. People have an odd ability to believe in their own super-specialness, and any justification for their entitlement. Just consider the concept of “royalty”, and how populaces will bawl in public over the demise of their deity of a dictator. Both the royal subject himself, and his followers believe he is unique on a level with, say, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst. It was considered an honor to get an STD from Chairman Mao. It’s at this point that my mind sometimes wants to catapult out of the confines of my skull and escape being trapped in this sometimes cruelly comical existence.
Alas, perhaps the missing-the-art-for-the-pricetag paradigm of collecting might be staggering a bit and ready to tumble. What could replace it? Ah, something much more like how people collect music. Instead of a few unimaginably wealthy individuals buying up the art, crafted for them by a handful of outrageously rich artists, many more of use could participate in art both as producers and art lovers.
Right now the art world is a bit like the coffee world. Starbucks has put countless Mom&Pop coffee shops out of business, giving us ONE coffee drinking environment choice. In a similar fashion, we have a few artists getting the recognition and reward of tens of thousands. In my last article, which was about an aspiring painter, I mentioned that one of her paintings costs less than 1% of a painting by blue-chip artist, Peter Halley.
Guess which is a better choice and a better investment. With the unknown artist you get the work super cheap, and you are also investing in the artist and her ability to make more work. With the Halley, you are just banking on a name-brand artist’s work going up in value.
In other words, the cost to buy just one of Halley’s many, very similar paintings, is enough to sustain the career of another artist for years, and allow that artist to flourish. The money spent on one of several Koons’ balloon dogs, which sold for over $150,000,000, could have helped 300 artists launch their careers with 500,000 each; or 3,000 artists with $50,000 each; or 30,000 artists with $5,000 each. I could work for a year on $5,000, or 1/30,000th of the price of just one of Koons’ balloon dogs.
We see artists tailoring their art to speculative investment, and then the rationalizations follow. Paintings, since Abstract Expressionism, have become much larger, and the prices with them, as if the size of a painting meant an artist worked any more on it. It did in Bosch’s time, or Rembrandt’s, but not when you are painting with a paint roller or flinging paint on a canvas stretched on the floor. A critical objective of art became to make larger, and thus more expensive art, which is as logical as assuming making music louder makes it better.
There is also something extremely peculiar about some contemporary art, which is that, even if you are a stalwart defender of it, and a true believer, you still can’t deny that some of the art which is held as the most important teeters on the edge of the utterly frivolous, vapid, disgusting, or a prank. Apparently, people are perfectly comfortable with the priceless and stunningly brilliant being only discernible by experts from worthless garbage. When a Martin Creed crumpled piece of paper is exhibited on a pedestal, under glass, one can’t completely escape the feeling that someone must be stupid: either those responsible for enshrining it; the artist who made it; the people who fawn over it; or the people who reject it as so much bullshit.
If you think the ball above is saying anything different than Duchamp’s “Faucet” (or urinal) of 1917, you’re really splitting hairs.
However you slice it, stupidity is on the plate, and probably the main course. And just how much art is like that? Many people will tell you with absolute conviction that the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century (or at least in the top ten), was Marcel Duchamp’s prank of exhibiting a urinal as a sculpture.
Most of what Warhol produced similarly teased us with forehead-slapping imbecility. Giant Brillo boxes are brilliant, er, because, while they were so banal as not to be worth looking at, ironically blowing them up and exhibiting them as profound art in the museum made them masterpieces of contemporary art. This is the same idea as Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Hirst’s shark tank, and Creed’s crumpled ball: put something ordinary from everyday life into the gallery and call it art!! It’s a sleight of hand that contemporary artist magicians woo critics and collectors with over and over. My point is not to say outright that those works are indeed shit, but to acknowledge how odd it is that they are so close to being shit. Typically, historically, the best art was the furthest from being confused with crap.
There are, of course, contemporary art works which are obviously serious, such as paintings by Anselm Kiefer, Robert Rauschenberg, or Gerhard Richter, and I even think an obvious poster boy for Postmodernism, like David Salle, is pretty good. Nevertheless, even those artists make giant works conceived with the gallery/museum, and millions of dollars in proceeds, in mind.
They say it takes money to make money, but it shouldn’t take money to make art. Sure, some money, but not a million dollars. When you need to be a multi-millionaire just to compete as an artist, that’s probably the most efficient way of eliminating virtually all of the competition. Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull cost him $14,000,000 to pay Jack du Rose to design and sculpt, and for the Piccadilly jewellers Bentley & Skinner to manufacture for him.
I’m not saying that elite artists who spend vast sums of money to make wall-sized, or room-filling art (or precious pedestal fodder) are not good artists. They are most likely not less than pretty good, at least in terms of a general aesthetic sensibility, but they are not necessarily the best. The main requirement for an artist today to be successful is to have been in the right place at the right time. And then there’s that thing where we worship royalty as if they don’t shit, while we could also be persuaded that our own shit is gold. In reality there are thousands of better artists who are squashed by circumstances, the dominant factor being lack of funds and needing to work full-time just to attain permission to exist. When an artist flaunts having more than ten million to spend on one piece, it’s a fucking kick in the teeth to tens of thousands, if not millions of other artists. What he or Koons show us is what a decent artist can do with unlimited funds. But what separates them from the herd is not artistic vision, or greatness, but rather millions of dollars.
We can see this dearth of popular visual artists when we compare fine art to music. There is no equivalent to the flourishing of rock music in art. A primary difference is that when young musicians were making art for themselves and their peers, artists were making conceptual works for the gallery, and attempting to change the course of art history through provocative stunts.
If we could roll back time, I can imagine 1965-1975 re-lived with a plethora of visual artists who were admired like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elton John, Jim Morrison, and scores of others. People would have had artist’s posters in their rooms, books of the art of their peers, and have gone to lots of gallery openings, and so on. That this didn’t transpire is not the fault of average people, or visually creative people, but rather of the dominant art paradigm of the period.
Some may protest that I just don’t understand contemporary art – though that would not change that there was no artistic movement paralleling rock music – and that great art has always been mistaken, at first, for garbage. They will argue that Van Gogh couldn’t sell a thing, and one of Whistler’s “Nocturn” paintings was derided by a critic as paint flung in the face of the public.
Ah, yes, for that argument, we just need to be a little incisive and note that Van Gogh wasn’t, like Duchamp, Warhol, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Martin Creed, and others, deliberately presenting something which he himself thought was garbage as the pinnacle of art, and firmly believing THAT was the whole point. There’s a difference between someone saying a child could have made your sculpture, and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a crew to make a giant version of your son’s crappy sculpture in Play-do, as Koons did.
There’s a difference between someone saying your art looks like crap, and canning your shit and marketing it as fine art, as Piero Manzoni did.
I’m not even saying that marketing your canned shit isn’t art, or isn’t good art. It’s a funny prank, especially when it comes to the label (and for me the French version is funnier, somehow). But, if we think that’s the best art, than we must grant that the artist is indeed a very special person who shits artistic gold.
All in all the dominant art paradigm is corrupted by big money, which it tries to serve, and even sometimes requires just to be a player in the game. The solution is to collect art in a similar fashion to how music aficionados collect music. When that popular meme suggested we should judge people by their record collection rather than their biology, what do we imagine a good music collection would contain? It wouldn’t be just pristine copies of double-platinum albums, unopened. We might be more concerned with what’s in the stack next to the turntable. I would look for evidence that the collectors had their own sets of ears, explored for themselves, and made their own discoveries. They should have music by groups I’ve never heard of, forgotten gems and minor masterpieces. Their collection should reflect their idiosyncratic tastes and preferences. They are, after all, connoisseurs whose obsession is listening to music, not playing commodities.
I’m suggesting an art collection be based on a love of art, not a spreadsheet. Right, right, people “love” their spot paintings by Damien Hirst, but likely as status objects, not paintings. If I were to see someone’s art collection, and it contained a bunch of Warhols, Hirsts, Richard Princes, and other big name fodder, I’d just be impressed by their awesome wealth, but think they lacked any real taste, and merely deferred to whatever the art publications or art market peddled as the most coveted. It would be about the same for me as if your record collection mirrored the top 40.
Note that for my metaphor I used rock music, just because it was hugely popular, but, of course ones music collection could contain jazz, rap, world music, experimental, and you name it. Same goes for your art collection. It need not be confined to any genre or trend. My own MP3 collection is quite eclectic, as I’ve purposefully sought musical sustenance from all corners of the globe, and different eras.
A good art collection is going to have artists I don’t know, that a collector has discovered on his or her own, and instead of owning some prized, iconic object (as a status symbol), the collector will have dozens of intriguing artworks by artists whose careers he or she is also helping make possible. I will be surprised and enlightened by what they’ve discovered, and know we can have compelling discussions about their personal favorites.
There are not only a handful of great artists alive at any one time, it’s just that there are only a few seats at the table, and everyone else has to be a server, or somehow relegated to the sidelines. This paradigm doesn’t allow for a richer existence for the majority of people nor that elite individual. If one loves art, than it is a tragedy if most the great art that could have been made never was because we chose to shower spoiled fat cats with insane amounts of money, and starve out all the other competition.
If I were a collector, my job would be fairly easy, and rewarding. I’d search for myself to find the artists whose work I admire, and I’d buy pieces or otherwise support their efforts. My collection would be unique, and it most probably would go up in value because I’ve got good taste, but that wouldn’t be the real point. The real point would be the enjoyment of the art, participating in the art world, and allowing more art to be created.
In the future we’ll see robots and AI taking over the more mechanical and physical jobs. What is left to humans will be more creative enterprises, and this can’t merely be consigned to a small group of astronomically rewarded individuals who mostly just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This could be something everyone participates in on some level, not unlike how most people used to buy records. Instead of tens of artists flourishing thousands of times over, there could at least be tens of thousands more real artists who get to contribute and merely survive doing so. If our future is more about living the life of the mind, and enjoying life, than this is the way to go. If we want a few people to make art for millions, for a few people, and everyone else to lead a subservient, sustenance level of existence, or worse, all hail the current paradigm.
Because of the Internet, things are changing a bit. Millions more people participate in multiple art worlds on social media. There’s a down side in that the best works of struggling artists have to compete with selfies, fan art, kitty photos, and the rest, and are lost in the overwhelming glut. More than five years ago, when I first got on Deviantart, a little research revealed they got over 100,000 new submissions per day. I knew anything I contributed was a needle in a haystack. And the same or worse is true of Facebook or Instagram. With the new algorithms, unless I pay or spend an amount of time that shades into addiction on Instagram, fewer than a hundred people will see anything new I share. Another artist joked with me that she could post a picture of the bagel she ate for breakfast and get as many likes as for her latest painting, which took weeks to produce. I like to say, and I absolutely believe it, that my own art career would be much more successful if I made sock puppets.
You used to have a glimmer of hope if your content was good enough, but now, with all the competition and the confounded algorithms, we have returned to artists having to go through the proper channels where they must (at least first) be shared by a large venue. My best hope to getting a bigger audience is NOT to make amazing work, but to get whatever I do shown in the right places, and that tends to mean some form of conformity.
Somewhere between the exclusive galleries showing art for billionaires (which I feel as out of place visiting as a Maserati dealership), and the lowest common denominator of social media, there should be a vibrant arena of venues and galleries where serious artists can distinguish themselves and make a modest living. Then, maybe we will see a flourishing of visual art similar to the explosion of rock (and other popular) music in the second half of last century, and everyone will be able to name several living artists, and have art in their homes (if not originals, prints, books, magazines, screen savers.. or just images emblazoned in their imaginations from viewing them online).
And if you like the (experimental) sort of art that I do, and you don’t want me to have to quit or put it on a back-burner, please consider chipping in so I can keep working until I drop. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art and writing. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).