Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sophy Burnham, "The Art Crowd" (1973).

When I first started showing my work a few years ago, the last thing I thought I'd be mulling over was the 'business of art'. Like many people of ordinary, late 20th Century, middle class backgrounds, I had a naive sense that the pursuit of art was somehow transcendent. The truth is that everything in the United States is vulnerable to the processes of commodification. The day you decide to exhibit your artwork is the beginning of a drastic re-imagining of what it means to participate in the 'art world'. Whether or not you are showing your work with the intent to sell, someone is going to inevitably bring up that possibility. The reason for this is the cost of space. Every parcel of land, and every wall within has been demarcated as property. Whether or not you have a specific proprietary interest is beside the point.

To tell you the truth, I am fascinated with the idea of art as part of the marketplace. Art is so inherently subjective that putting a value on it is largely a subjective enterprise. Ultimately a piece is worth what someone will pay for it, and in that respect it differs little from any other product we might buy or sell. But where did the rules come from? How did the market for art develop? Certainly we'd need an exhaustive historical study just to get close to coming up with a basic answer. However, here in America we can get some idea of its development by looking at the art scene in New York during the post WW II era. It was during this period that contemporary art was introduced as a viable economic investment. That fundamentally altered the way that things were done.

For as significant a change in the cultural landscape as it was, the emergence of contemporary art speculation was characterized by an inordinate amount of mystification. To a large extent it still is. Try to find a body of literature that explains the forces behind art market valuation in layman's terms- its rather difficult. I found an obscure book written in 1973 by Sophy Burnham that seemed to offer some basic insight into the phenomenon. The Art Crowd focuses on the various forces that combine to attribute monetary value to modern art. Burnham takes us on a journey that introduces us to artists, museum directors, collectors, dealers and the all powerful institutional trustees. She identifies the internal workings of the marketplace and describes how the various principals interact with each other.

Along the way our guide includes the results of a series of interviews she conducted with the movers-and-shakers of the art world elite. It is remarkable how incestuous these circles are. This is a comparatively small milieu, and key individuals have a disproportionate amount of power to determine which artists become 'successful', and which among them languish in perpetual obscurity. There are a lot of dual relationships, with the same men and women curating works from the very artists that represent the bulk of their collections. It doesn't take much scratching to reveal the extent of unethical behavior beneath the sophisticated veneer of this 'Art Crowd'. Critics accept gifts from artists that they review. Museums receive deep discounts from dealers looking to increase the profile of their respective stables. And trustees use their connections for influence and profit.

It wouldn't take much for a reader to become quickly disenchanted with the the idea of purchasing art. That's probably why this title has such a low profile. Burnham herself seems to have been discouraged from further exploration. A quick internet search reveled that the author now identifies herself as a 'Medium' and practitioner of Reiki. Maybe she divined something so rotten at the core of The Art Crowd that she permanently disengaged from it. But the book is an interesting snapshot into the way things were done during a pivotal point in the evolution of the contemporary arts scene. I don't think it's a stretch to believe that much of the current situation remains the same. The faces and names may change, yet the actual machinations that propel the scene continue to be enigmatic to outsiders.

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Blogger John Morris said...

Yes, I think it very much remains the same, but then it's so opaque that I can't be sure.

The art market has a very slick game going on. The basic implied rule is that "art is beyond or above money and money is rarely publicly talked about. This anticapitalist coating is always in fashion which of course helps hide the corrupt underbelly of the system which is all about money.

I don't think that it's an accident that many of the world's biggest contemporary collectors made their money on Wall Street or running hedge funds. Contrary to popular belief, manipulating most publicly traded markets for stocks and commonly traded commodities is extremly difficult if not impossible since these markets involve thousands of very smart people with millions or billions at stake.

However, manipulating the prices of little known emerging artists can be done for almost nothing in a market with almost no publicly available info.

8:14 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Once again a very insightful comment. You know I don't share the 'anticapitalist' agenda when it comes to my work.

8:59 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I used to have a stash of articles on this subject in my favorites somewhere but most of them are kind of lost. This is a nice little one found.

"Some hedge-fund collectors like an art market they can influence. Unlike Old Masters or Impressionists, whose prices remain more steady and whose artistic merit has already been set by art experts, contemporary art can swing wildly in value depending on who is buying and selling.

"With this kind of art, you can make your own taste," quips James Chanos, president of Kynikos Associates Ltd., a hedge fund."

12:41 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well John,

That's what you get with unregulated markets!

10:18 PM  

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