Art and Money, Part Nth
I walked up to Canal Street a couple of weeks ago to buy a porn video and was ripped off. When I got home and opened the DVD case, instead of the advertised "Naughty Stewardesses, Part VI," there before my eyes was a disc containing a documentary film by the renown art critic, Robert Hughes, entitled "The Mona Lisa Curse." (This is my official cover story. Hughes's film, it seems, is in some kind of legal peril due to somebody from the U.K. in the film--which was shown on Channel 4 in England a year and a half ago--feeling libeled and now making threats, and I've been asked not even to hint at my surreptitious source for the DVD.)
Hughes--for those of you who've been serving on the Texas School Board for the past forty years or who write exclusively for TMZ--is the former Time magazine star who a) probably seduced more average punters (as they say in Hughes's pre-New York-home of London) into reading about serious contemporary art than anybody, ever, and b) has famously fulminated against artists, styles, impenetrable artcrit argot, and various art-world practices. One of those in the last of the latter is what he roars against in "The Mona Lisa Curse." I disagree.
The shipping of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, the Mona Lisa, to New York for exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963 was, according to Hughes, the beginning of the descent of the art world--particularly the contemporary art world--into today's big-money morass (as Hughes sees it) of collecting for profit, naked speculation, insincere or wrongheaded or diabolical reasons behind big-time collectors saying how they just love art, undeserved celebrity for mediocre-or-worse artists, and a general vulgarity and crassness among art-world players (especially those hand-holders to the rich connoisseur wannabes, art consultants). The downward slide was supposed to have worked something like this: Showing the Mona Lisa at the Met to long lines of people who could only glimpse it from a distance for a few seconds catered to unwashed pseuds who only wanted to "get it seen"; that led to a bunch of superficial, unsophisticated people flooding into an art world that consisted theretofore of a bunch of integrity-ridden bohemian artists, several dealers more interested in determining art history than making a profit, and a few enlightened, altruistic collectors; those ambitious vulgarians, who liked the parties and the "action" as much if not more than they actually liked art, started to take over; meanwhile, the advent of Pop Art and particularly Andy Warhol and his flaunted permissiveness, propelled the takeover to warp speed and near-total control.
The inevitable results include a $100 million diamond-encrusted human skull proffered as the ultimate work of art by Damien Hirst; that same artist's infamous "pickled shark" on view at the Met courtesy of its hedge-fundie owner Steven A. Cohen (he reportedly paid $8 million for it, and, incidentally, $52 million for a Jackson Pollock "drip" painting from fellow zillionaire collector, David Geffen); routine eight-figure auction prices for modern artists already in the non-Texas textbooks, and seven-figures for such overrated (I agree here) artists such as Marlene Dumas, Richard Prince and Jenny Saville; and, worst of all, the corner-the-market mentality of such collectors as the Mugrabis, père et fils, who own hundreds of Warhols and are ravenously buying more.
So, Plagens, are you saying this is not the case? No, 'tis the case, but...
First, 'twas ever thus. Big money has always been entwined with fine art, because fine art is expensive and has to be purchased with funds that don't have to be strictly accounted for. The pharoahs could go off-books for their palace and temple blings, so could the ancient Greeks and Romans, so could the medieval church, so could Renaissance counts and dukes, so could Enlightenment kings, so could wealthy Dutch burghers, so could American robber-barons (whose collections and founded institutions make possible much of the art-for-art's-sake sentiment Hughes longs for), and so can--with some intricate accounting--the likes of Steven A. Cohen. Auction prices in the millions are startling, but they shouldn't be any more startling than Federal budgets in the trillions or AOL's tip-sheet bulletin to economizing home-buyers, "What you can get for $900,000." In the art world as everywhere else, the money required to play is bigger, hours are longer, the competition sharper, and the tolerances closer. In the old days when Robert Rauschenberg (in the film, Hughes's seeming favorite artist) was a revelation, one could rent a downtown storefront for a couple of hundred bucks a month, slap some flat white latex paint on the walls, put up some track lights, and get your significant other to sit at the reception desk, and you had a shot at becoming an "important" gallery. Today, the up-front money is half a mil to a mil, backers (who want to make a profit) are needed, sophisticated networking and public relations are required, and the gallery needs to be able to run in the red for three years.
Second, art-collecting since the Middle Ages has been substantially competitive on extra-esthetic grounds. Appointments as diplomats, invites to palace banquets, positions at court, and access to power were the customary rewards. Today's art collectors who amass large, "serious," museum-quality collections are no more--to put it lightly--immune than their predecessors to the swinging dick syndrome. Big-time collectors today want to be seen as hip, and as makers of artists' reputations; they want to be appointed to museum and foundation boards; they want to be given VIP treatment at the auction houses; they want to go to swell parties. Only those mythical reclusive Japanese businessmen pay multiple millions for works of art with the exclusive intent of enjoying them entirely in private. And nobody, but nobody, plunks down the price of a nice house on a work of art without considering whether it'll increase in value. Most of the "speculator" collectors keep on collecting when they make a killing on a sale; they "deacession" in order to buy more art, just like museums do.
Third, there's what I call "the problem of your father." When you're a kid, your Dad says to you, "Son, I'm going to see to it that you never have it as hard as I did." Then, when you're an adult, he says, "You know, the trouble with you is that you've had it too soft." Translation: The art world did this to itself. If it wanted to remain in noble and unnoticed poverty, it should never had allowed Life and Vogue magazines to include Jackson Pollock in its pages, never have picketed museums to include avant-garde contemporary art, never cooperated with the NEA, never allowed universities to start art departments and hire contemporary artists as professors, and never let Time magazine hire one of the all-time great wordsmiths to be its art critic.
Fourth, there's a matter of taste. Hughes can't stand the art of Damien Hirst and he only reluctantly concedes that Andy Warhol deserves a slot in the Hall of Fame. (That's because of Warhol's undeniable influence, not the way his art looks.) Hughes is, in fact, more than a bit of a romantic and he much prefers messy, struggle-intense, sincerely expressionist art to art that's dry, clean, brainy and clever. Part of Hughes's revulsion at the influence of big money on contemporary art is that it coincides with, and in part causes, the rise to prominence of such artists as Hirst, Prince, and Jeff Koons. Moi, I think that Hirst's shark (a k a "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living") is a real good piece of art. So is his cow's-head/maggot/flies piece. Koons's floating basketballs, the two vitrined vacuum-cleaners and the original steel balloon dog are good, too. (No, I can't explain why in a blog post of under ten thousand words. Richard Prince is, however, almost a total loss.) The ratio of good art to bad art is just about where it's always been--90 or 95 percent bad--and hasn't been appreciably diminished by the Mona-to-Mugrabi trajectory described by Hughes.
Finally, there are glitches with the way the film itself tackles the issues. Hughes, for instance, posits Rauschenberg as a hero of the old ways, and reminisces with Pop artist James Rosenquist about how crappy things have become. Problem: Rauschenberg was one of the prime beneficiaries of big money coming into art, and Rosenquist's most famous work, the actual-size billboard painting, "F-111," was bought for a healthy $40,000 in the mid-60s by the film's most vulgar vulgarian collector, taxi baron Robert Scull, and shown--shark-style!--at the Met. When Hughes sits around and gasses with Rosenquist, the late former Met director Thomas Hoving, and dealer Richard Feigen, the geezer gripe session resembles nothing so much as a bunch of War Academy generals complaining about how today's soldiers, all tricked out with night-vision goggles, laser sights, and battlefield laptops, aren't nearly the fighters they came up through the ranks with. And it's socially horrifying to see Hughes insinuate himself into the younger Mugrabi's residence and insult him about his uninformed passion for Warhol's art. "Did you know Andy?" Hughes asks condescendingly. (I wonder how long is the list of artists Hughes has never met but is nevertheless passionate about.) Mugrabi, incidentally, sounds about as genuine about Warhol as Hughes does about Rauschenberg. To paraphrase Michael Wilbon on my favorite TV show, "Pardon the Interruption," if somebody had come into my house and talked the same kind of disrespectful smack, he would have gotten the second swing.
By the way, I had to take a boat and go to France to see the Mona Lisa in the overcrowded Louvre, and I didn't get more than a "There, I've seen it" experience, either.