Today is the end of the art fair week in New York, at least until part two arrives in May with Frieze and its satellite fairs. If you moved through one cavernous space after another as I did, then no doubt you, too, found that it continues to be a mixed blessing.
On the upside, there was the art. Lots and lots of art. A good deal of it at every show was uninteresting but, as usual, there was plenty worth seeing everywhere. Continuing its resurgence from sleepy outlier to show of shows, the ADAA Art Show once again had the most things worth looking at, including a few brilliant little gems: a Joseph Stella from 1913 at Menconi + Schoelkpf; an H.C. Westerman painting from 1959 at Lennon Weinberg; and a glowing green Joseph Albers at Brooke Alexander.
Over at Volta, where the mix favored predominantly emerging artists, I was still pleased to discover the paintings of Pose at Jonathan LeVine’s booth; Dan Coombs at New Art Project; as well as an artist I already know and admire, Meg Hitchcock at Studio 10. The small, quirky Independent Art Fair provided the most interesting layout, but was almost more an exhibit of interesting galleries – such as David Lewis and Broadway 1602 – than art. And in spite of the Armory Show continuing to lose ground critically, there were many stand out artworks and galleries there as well, including two of my favorites from Berlin, Loock Galerie and Galerie Thomas Schulte.
On the downside, I was reminded once again how art fairs have come to function less and less as temporary salons, and more and more as roving commodities trading floors. At this point it can have escaped absolutely no one’s attention that there is a great deal of money flooding the art market. The gallerist Edward Winkleman in his blog, Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine, and Roberta Smith in the New York Times have all written about their good reasons for bemoaning this turn of events. The gist of this being that the apparently unlimited deluge of gold threatens to drown not just what is good in a sea of mediocrity, but even our ability to tell the difference.
This fear is well founded. It is simply impossible to stand in front of any work of art these days and exorcise completely any thoughts of market value. If the work is
obscenely expensive, a small part of us can’t help wondering if it is really that good. If the work is ridiculously inexpensive, a small part of us wonders if it is really that unimportant. Yes, obviously, neither of these thoughts have anything to do with aesthetic criteria. Yet because of the way money permeates our culture, it unavoidably works its way into our subconscious calculations.
It does not help that even in the best of circumstances it is so difficult to describe precisely what qualities makes an artwork great, versus merely good or bad. Visual art by its nature does not translate easily into language. Robert Musil has a chapter in The Man Without Qualities where the protagonist describes with humorous consternation how the word genius, because it represents something beyond the understanding of most, slowly loses its specific intellectual context and becomes interchangeable with great. Thus you are able to move from a thinker of genius to a boxer of genius. Then, predictably, once genius can be thought of in terms of physical prowess, it is only a short time before one is reading of a racehorse of genius. It is not just the words that slip their meanings, but the ideas we associate with them as well.
This is compounded, and made exploitable, by our culture’s current algebra. Previously the relationship between art and money might have been expressed like this:
A (Art) + B (Value/Critical Awareness) = C (Value/Money) = D (greater B+C).
But about 30 years ago, finance and marketing experts realized that the elements can be rearranged and still work – let’s call it the Saatchi algorithm. This formula is expressed as:
C (Value/Money) + A (Art) = B (Value/Critical Awareness) = D (greater B+C).
The key realization is that adding money value to art has the effect of implying critical value. Which is just another way of saying that, like everything else in our culture, money has the power to make things, including art, seem important.
It’s just the way things are, and I’d add that it’s not the end of the world either. Especially when we remember that before some people came to treat art as a commodity, it was primarily treated by most people as a luxury good. Which brings me back to the question: how can we at least try to think about art without thinking about money?
I remind myself of the following 3 things:
- The people who decide which art is to be commodified and traded are very, very, very rich, but not the most important curators, critics, and artists. If they were to tell me how to invest my money, I might be foolish not to listen to them. But their opinions on the art itself? Not so much.
- Thinking about how expensive an artwork is, whether the price is absurdly high or not, has no practical meaning, at least for me. Seriously, if I was only going to think about art I could actually buy, I’d only be looking and writing about things that were a few hundred dollars.
- Remember to engage. Something is art because of the extreme amount of information that has been packed into it by the artist, which can then be unpacked by the viewer. The only way to know this is to actually engage with the work. Reading the price tag offers nothing to that process.
And if all else fails, think of Tulips.