The big(!), beautiful(?) art market

$300,000 for a shallow metal box? The mind reeled. But then auctioneer Christopher Burge knocked it down to a phone bidder for $450,000 ($531,200 with the auction-house premium), and the art world snapped back into focus.

That’s from the first paragraph of last week’s Art Market Watch on, reporting on the results of the Christie’s auction of Donald Judd and other post-war and contemporary art. Eighty-three works sold for a combined total of $143.1 million; the highest price paid was $11.7 million for a Warhol painting.

So: $531,000 for a shallow metal box. Was this insane — “Tulipmania!” as Artnet called it — or a fair price?

In his collection Air Guitar and especially in his essay “Dealing,” Dave Hickey offers a sophisticated and useful account of how art objects gain social value. To simplify, the players in the art world — collectors, curators, critics, institutions — make investments in a work of art. Their investment is weighted according to previous investments that player has made, such as a lot of money, or a long career, and how often that player has been right. It’s a bigger risk for big players to make an investment in a piece, and that makes the investment worth more.

Crucially, Hickey notes that these investments are not just monetary. Spending money on art is one way of investing in art — “translat[ing] your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another” — but critics, for example, usually make investments in art by writing and talking about it rather than by buying it.

Still, money plays a special role. “Money is the emblem of the risks you’re willing to take to have some say in the way things look.” Now maybe Hickey’s just being sloppy here; maybe he would admit there are other “emblems” of risk in the art world. Or maybe he’s acknowledging our current predicament, the one that has led to $531,000 galvanized metal boxes at Christie’s.

What is that predicament? Well, another area in which the social value of investment is weighted is political speech. Like art, political ideas and candidates rise and fall in our republic based on similarly complex processes of social risk-taking on their behalf by various individuals and institutions. The freedom to become a player in these processes is guaranteed by the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular. And the efficacy of the plays one makes in this system is weighted by what you risk: a big reputation will get you listened to, but can also be damaged if you back the wrong idea or candidate.

Now the big news regarding the weighting of political action in our current system in the past few decades has been the enormous increase in the monetary cost of really being a player. This is the heart of the campaign-finance controversies: Freedom of political speech is guaranteed to all of us, and the weight of any one person’s political speech has always differed based on how much money they could put behind that speech, but the sums of money now in play, the difference between what most of us can pay and what a few people (and corporations) at the top can pay now means that, effectively, ordinary people have been shut out of the process.

As the weight of our political speech approaches zero, does the value of our freedom of speech, assembly, petitioning for the redress of grievances, etc., also become vanishingly small? And when ordinary citizens can’t affect the outcomes of the political process — not because of state-imposed constraints, but because the they’re drowned out by the megaphones of big money — can we really claim that our political outcomes are democratic?

Back to the art: Is it possible that the large amounts of money now flooding the system are rendering other forms of risk-taking investment ineffectual? Hickey articulated his account of social value to counteract the pernicious, deadening influence of art bureaucracies: museums, universities, foundations.

But times seem to have changed: With the near ruin of the Guggenheim and the exaltation of the Modern to nosebleed-inducing altitudes, with the gross of our little Christie’s auction coming in at nearly three times the entire endowment of the Whitney (the Biennials of which have long since ceased to be an occasion for anything but art-world gossip), with the fragmentation (thank God!) of the academy after a long, dark, theory-driven night, and with the collapse of the Internet-fueled nonprofit funding bubble, the balance of power has shifted, to the star dealers dealers and the tycoon collectors. What risk can anyone else (that is, anyone without the money) take that would approach the risk of spending $531,000 on a shallow metal box or $11.7 million on a painting of a soup can? Except for the artists, who often risk years of their lives on an endeavor, have the rest of us been priced out of having a voice in art?

Maybe I lack historical perspective, and it has always been thus: Artists make their pieces, and patrons support certain artists and ignore others, and the rest of us are lucky to be allowed into the cathedrals every once in a while to gawk. Or maybe the disenfranchisement of the interested public is due to avant-gardism or the rise of much more interesting but non-“art” aesthetic spectacles. (Can Jeff Koons or Jeffrey Deitch compete with American Idol?)

But Hickey’s account, as a descriptive account that nevertheless valorizes the bold capitalist collector, leaves something wanting. How do we account for the value of a piece of art when the usual translation between money and art has broken down — when the value of art is so inflated relative to the value of money that you want to throw up your hands and declare that if everything is worth thousands of dollars, nothing is worth thousands of dollars? (What is a Judd worth when, as reported in February in the New Yorker, an exhibit of Hunter, Columbia, and Yale grad-student work drew Michael Ovitz and other sure signs of hype?)

The whole situation has the feel of the campaign-finance disaster: big money distorting the admittedly messy and endless process of sorting and valuing and declaring (temporary) winners and losers. Hickey’s account is at least incomplete in not allowing that money can distort, and in not giving at least a few guidelines for deciding what is a more-or-less normal process and what is distorted. Or, to put it in less essentialist terms, Hickey has a lot to say about the undesirable effects of art bureaucracies on art, but nothing to say about the undesirable effects of too much money. Either he thinks that too much is never enough (and he can be read that way), or he owes us an explanation, however contingent, of how much is too much. And I only want this from Hickey because I find him so persuasive generally, because he offers, as his subtitle says, “Essays on Art and Democracy.” Two things I believe in, with varying degrees of justification.

$531,000 for a shallow metal box? I really couldn’t say. But at those prices, why not have your own box fabricated (an idea endorsed by at least one very respected New York art dealer), if it’s really the box you’re after? And then find something to do with the left-over $530,000 or so.

3 responses to “The big(!), beautiful(?) art market”

  1. Lane says:

    I know a couple good metal shops.

  2. dave: your post made me imagine canal street folding tables loaded with Donald Judd knock-offs, like so many fake rolex watches. i actually love it that a shallow metal box can go for half a million dollars. sure you could make your own, but what really seems to count is the thought that your transaction brought you into contact, somehow, with an artist you admire. (maybe i’m sentimental; obviously i don’t have bucks to shell out for the art i want, either. but think of the fun and personal stories bacon gets to tell about his ruscha prints.)

    paying that money for a judd box is better than paying that much for half a season of a bratty basketball player, in any case.

    oh — and i assume your deitch/american idol reference was to this? too bad it’s not on network tv. who will watch outside of the narrowest of niche audiences?

  3. Dave says:

    The presence of those knockoff watches and handbags on Canal Street makes the fashion world more of a democracy in Hickey’s terms than the contemporary art world. People with money participate by buying couture; the rest of us buy knockoff Murakami-designed Louis Vuitton bags, or maybe stuff at normal stores that is inspired by couture. And the energy of the lower-end mass market in fashion is so great that more often than not it ends up giving ideas to the high end.

    For both the art and the fashion, there’s a tricky bit: Are you paying for the object or for the set of meanings associated with it? The thing or the brand? Some of both, I think. Even if you fabricate your own Judd, it’s a Judd.

    Paying for the brand it, I think the “it” that the kids in that Deitch article say some people don’t get. The ratio of brand to object has skyrocketed in that corener of the art world — a trend foreseen and encouraged by Warhol.

    I hadn’t seen that article, by the way. The series could be fun — I loved the fashion-designer series on Bravo. But it’s no American Idol.