Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Art Market: Hacks and critics abandon ship

Wow! Huh? US art critic Dave Hickey (left) and Canadian art market hack Sarah Thornton have both decided to give up on the art world. Does it matter? Does their decision to ride off into the sunset tell us anything about the current state of the art market that we didn't already know?  

Hickey has thrown the towel in on the grounds that the art market has become "calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing," while Thornton, whose art market primer, Seven Days in the Art World, remains a best-seller, has listed on her blog her ten reasons why she is quitting. One of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, is related to the activities of oligarchs.

"Oligarchs and dictators are not cool," she opines, having finally worked out that, "some of the biggest spenders in the art market right now are people who made their money in non-democracies with horrendous human rights records."

In case we get the wrong idea, Sarah goes on to reassure us that, "Some of my best friends are high net worth individuals,thereby revealing the standard art market obsession with the wealth of others.

It's disappointing to see Dave Hickey withdraw, but in reality his line of sophisticated, well-informed, no-holds-barred, occasionally cuss-laden criticism never had much to do with the art market anyway (his great essay 'The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market' was about his love affair with cars as much as it was about the art market). Unlike the Jerry Saltz's of this world who long ago disappeared up the all-consuming fundament of reality game-show television, Hickey has held fast to aesthetics, to a brand of uncompromising, theoretical art criticism that has become one of the most conspicuous casualities of the money-obsessed art market.

Sarah Thornton
Why did Sarah Thornton call a cab? Her departure will be seen by many as the art world's loss. She is an intelligent and observant commentator, albeit queasily in thrall to the celebrity-dominated upper reaches of the blue-chip art market (as her strangely boastful reference to her High Net Worth friends makes clear).

Many of her ten reasons for quitting are understandable, but most of them have been part of the art market for the past twenty-five years. Reporting on art sales has always been a repetitive, largely pointless activity (but arguably now more so than ever), while it has long been common knowledge that art fairs churn out vapid post-event press releases and spin false stories to a credulous press. In fact, many of the practices we see around us today were coded into the market's DNA way back in the early modern era. But on one matter she is right on the money.  

Back-office manipulation, money-laundering, weird third-party underwriting and other forms of exotic financial chicanery have become far more widespread in recent years, frequently whispered about over  cocktails but never exposed by a now largely supine press fearful of litigation.  

Sarah is not the only one who has had to bin a story for which a bullet-proof case can be made but which is spiked on the grounds that it won't get past the lawyers. (Sorry if I seem to be getting at the lawyers again; I know they're only doing their jobs, but look what's happening as a consequence.)

Cheerio, Dave and Sarah. My guess is that you'll both be back.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Horror, The Horror: Neil MacGregor recalls The Shock of The Thing

Some of us never fully recover from horrific experiences, nor indeed from the more gory horror films.

Hitchcock's Psycho made an indelible impression on me as a youngster and I still flinch whenever I see that little bald-headed organism come snarling out of John Hurt's chest cavity in Ridley Scott's masterly Alien. But I shuddered even more when I watched John Carpenter's 1982 chiller, The Thing.

Little did I realise at the time that the film was actually based on real-life events experienced by British Museum director Neil MacGregor. It seems Mr MacGregor is still suffering nightmares after surviving that alien invasion while working as a young archivist at the British Museum's Antarctic Research Laboratory in the 1970s. Acclaimed film director John Carpenter turned those stomach-churning events into The Thing.

"Give us back our Things"
Mr MacGregor has now bravely agreed to revisit the terrifying time when he and a group of trainee universal museum directors found themselves trapped in an inhospitable environment, invaded by grotesque extraterrestrial parasites (right) demanding the return of their cultural property from Universal Museums.

He will be recounting his experiences in the inaugural Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture entitled The Shock of The Thing at the National Gallery of Australia on 13 November.

It is clear from Mr MacGregor's glassy stare in the pre-event publicity flyer (above left) that he is still suffering inner turmoil, ever fearful that the aliens, infected by the deadly Cultural Property Restitution virus will return to attack his institution and take back their "Things". One can only sympathise.

Kurt Russell as a young Neil MacGregor in The Thing
Unresolved childhood traumas don't last forever, but denial will only make matters worse. Better to take the same course of action as Kurt Russell, who played the young Neil MacGregor in the film (left) —sit down, open a bottle, and accept your fate — the aliens are can run, but you can't hide.

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, London, will present The Shock of The Thing, the inaugural Robert Hughes Memorial Lecture at the National Gallery, Australia on Tuesday November 13.
Venue: James O Fairfax Theatre
Price : $20, $15 members (Bookings essential)
Booking: Bookings