Thursday, August 7, 2008

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Disappearance of all Critical Writing on the Art Market

Bankers, hedge fund managers, investment advisers, economists, they’ve all colonised the art market in recent years and now they’re moving into art writing too. You might say the lunatics have not only taken over the asylum, they’ve sacked the staff, built a new wing and appointed a new board of governors.

Having consigned the art critics to the landfill, it seems they’re now gunning for the art historians. Judging by one or two of the more recent high-profile publications, they’re bringing some bizarre theories with them.

US economist David Galenson is poised to publish a new book, The Most Important Works of Art of the Twentieth Century, which ranks the importance of works of art based on the frequency with which they appear in art books. I kid you not. Malraux will be squirming in his crypt.

Should we take these bean-counters seriously? The answer is no. Leave them to what they do best, which is advising rich guys on what to do with their money. If that includes telling the rich guys what art to buy, then fine. If you believe Don Thompson, author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses, most of the rich guys currently buying art at the top of the market don’t see it as art, they see it as a branded commodity.

Thompson’s book is written in a curiously blunt and hurried style, as if he had a train to catch. It’s chock full of contradictions and confused thinking, but I enjoyed it immensely, rattling through it in a couple of days between hosing down the rottweilers.

This may not be required reading, but on the whole it’s not a bad snapshot of the masonic absurdities of the art market in the pre- and post-sub-prime credit-crunch era.

Anyone with more than a passing understanding of the inner machinations of the art market will know that what really takes place behind the scenes of the auction rooms, white cubes, and art fairs would never be divulged to a writer researching a book like this, nor indeed any book come to that. Transparency is a curse on their houses.

The people Thompson approached included former journalists, broadcasters and commentators who now work for dealers or art fairs. Presumably they realised that informed writing and analytical commentary on art and the market was no longer welcome or even vaguely remunerative and so decided to jump on the bandwagon.

That underlying trend – the gradual dismantling of any critical apparatus that might counter the inexorable onward march of the market – is a constant theme of the book. It’s ironic that it took an economist to identify the extent of the institutionalised stupidity governing an economic sector that thrives on a delusional sense of its own intelligence and sophistication.

Has Mr Thompson brought any clarity to the murkier recesses of a notoriously opaque and hermetic sector? Has his outsider status offered any fresh insights? Sadly not. but then he is an economist, not an investigative reporter and so he had to learn on the hoof. All credit to him, though, for bringing in such a lively guide book, which will doubtless be welcomed by the thousands of art history graduates leaving university every year for a career in the art auction rooms, art PR agencies, art publishers, art galleries, and so on.

University art history departments sneer at the market and all its works and so they don’t teach this stuff. That, in my opinion, is a serious failing. As a result, young graduates arrive fresh from university with little or no critical awareness of the world they are entering. In that respect, Mr Thompson’s book goes at least some way towards filling a gap. If read alongside Buck and Greer’s Art Collectors’ Handbook it will at least prepare young graduates for some of the realities of Grub Street.

On the negative side, given his need to get the book out while the shark was still fresh in the tank, so to speak, (the art market moves fast when there’s fresh blood in the water), there are some annoying inconsistencies here.

On page 117 in a chapter about what he calls ‘Branded Auctions’ (everything is branded in Thompsonworld), he says, “The important caveat to every catalogue description…is that it is not a scholarly essay.” On the next page (118), on the subject of auction previews, he writes – “the expertly hung show, combined with the scholarly catalogue…is designed to mimic a museum opening rather than a commercial sale.” Confused? Take it from me, even the grandest auction catalogues are not scholarly.

Later, (p 227) he begins hammering home the cultural irrelevance of the humble art writer: “collectors insist that critics have little influence on the contemporary art world”. But then on page 253 he tells us that new collectors “buy what the art consultant or the auction specialist at Christie’s or the writer at Frieze magazine tells them is hot.” Perhaps he is inferring that the writers at Frieze are employed to pump the market, which is probably true (Frieze magazine is owned by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, who also own the Frieze fair, so that figures). But what does that say about the state of art publishing?

If Thompson’s book succeeds at all it is in providing plenty of convincing evidence that everything, including a previously unaligned media, is now expected to support the market. And yet nobody seems remotely troubled by this. Shut up and keep digging.

While his portraits of the market’s various commercial institutions are concise and enjoyable, (he even had a stab at explaining the infamous auction guarantee system), his analysis lacked any kind of historical context, save for a cursory reference to the real-estate-driven Asian boom that triggered the last great art bubble in the late-1980s.

Like all newcomers, Thompson allowed himself to be hypnotized by the surface charm of the likes of auction ringmasters Tobias Meyer and Jussi Pylkkanen, and was clearly in thrall to the cultish inaccessibility of “superstar” plutocrats like Larry Gagosian. That may be why he failed to deliver anything genuinely fresh. I was hoping he'd go to the economists and Wall Street mandarins, but evidently they are as ignorant as everyone else about the asylum they’ve commandeered.

For all its easy readability, by the end one is left feeling more irritated than enlightened. On page 220, Thomas Hoving is described as “former director of MoMA,” (perhaps Thompson has been reading Richard Feigen), and on page eleven he tells us that Bernard Arnault is the owner of Christie’s. If he'd devoted a chapter to the impact of the internet on the art market in the five years between 1997 and 2000 he'd have known that Arnault and Pinault were locked like rutting stags for control of the big art market prizes at that time.

It’s not only art writers who are an endangered species. Copy-editors seem to be a dying breed too.

Feed them to the sharks!

1 comment:

howboy said...

Good review Tom. I too find curious the supposition that somehow an "outsider economist" is supposed to be able to see more clearly how the art world works.

The timing of the book was unfortunate. Unlike Margaret Atwood who conceived of her book Payback, about the debt crisis, about a year before the crash, Thompson was around the same time banking that the art market would just keep charging along. No one much cares right now whether or not the art world is wacky, and in comparison to Fanny Mae et. al. or the auto industry bailouts the art world seems almost sober.

I'd be curious to read your take on another economist's view of the art world, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, by Hans Abbing, who is, to his credit, an artist as well as an economist. It has a similar eccentric and "debunking" quality to Thompson's book, but looks more closely at things from an artist's perspective. My review of it is here: