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March 29, 2010

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.

March 29, 2010 10:28 AM | | Comments (8)


This was a wonderful blast of fresh air in a world of hot air.

I think the article is a stretch. Nothing in
what Hughes is saying would have prohibited art in Vogue, Life, cooperation with the NEA etc.

It's true that money in art, as in life, has always been part of the game and there are many examples of kitsch art in the past.

But Hughes is correct (especially, IMO, about Hirst and you could add Tracey Emin and Koons and on and on. Contemporary art is loaded with junk and it is money-driven not quality-driven

One could use the analogy of financial bubbles.
Yes, they have happened cyclically in the past
but our latest one has been especially bad and so has the art bubble. Derivative art and derivative finance both lacking in substance and integrity. Money chasing illusion.

I totally agree with the ideas in this article, which I find brilliant and very well written. Even though I read and liked Hughes's books in the past (the Shock of the New, Nothing if not Critical), I think he has become embittered and totally out of sync with today's art.I've been posting comments on the Youtube videos of his documentary, defending exactly the points you are making here, and got blasted for it...

An amusing article and well written. I suppose if I were to find anything in it that sticks in my gullet, it'd be the: "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."

I outright disagree with what this sentence (in context), seems to be saying about art that isn't slick in the way you've described. Implying that artist's that endure struggle or art that's more visceral, thoughtful and earthy, to be concise, is somehow not "brainy". Rather, I'd say, clever and brainy are somewhat antithetical. True intelligence is far more subtle, earthy and mysterious than slick market driven department store and freak-show displays. I happen to be more generous with my opinions and tend to embrace art by seeing beneath the surface of the superficial aspects. I reserve judgement on the 3 marketeers you've mentioned. Although, sometimes thought provoking, mostly their work is provoking thought about ideas they've come to because of the work of artists with true insight and intuition. Sure they're good with corrupt values and wry cynicism, but could they band together as artists with great scientists to cure disease or create new clean energy sources for our planet. Actually, however mysterious the aforementioned process is, I'll tell you frankly, I think these artists, however rich and pampered they are, however steeped in fantastic resources and huge staffs to assist them in realizing their their limited visions are out of their league when it comes to important conceptualization... even cultural and societal.

They are merely confidants and playthings for the huber rich who are themselves best at amassing material wealth. When it comes to being stewards of the planet that they hold dominion over with their corporations and machines, they are incompetent and clumsy but choose to hide their flaws and shortcoming behind visions of fantasies. The are deluded and pompous for the most part also. Lacking any humility to accept their shortcomings and come to terms with them, rather they support art that titilates their lush and lustful lives, and earthly desires and say fuck you to planet earth and fuck you to the future of their own children (even)

I'm disappointed in your pandering to this vein of thought and work at the expense of other types of art - it's a vein leads to a cankering leg for the art-world to stand on. The truth is that the subconscious and subliminal aspects of art... auto writing and deep thoughtful struggle are now, always were, and always will be a necessary and true way for artists, united with other intellectuals, to intuitively work to better our lot in life on this planet. Not some make believe gated-other-world we can move to where pollution and death can't slip through the gates. Artists who think with their hands!

Thanks for listening Mr. Peter Plagens
Warm regards, Scott Cousins

This is a great topic and fresh cut on art

I'm thankful that I can stay home and create my own art. The >art world

As reported in Robert Boynton's terrific essay from '97 in the New Yorker, Robert Rosenblum quipped about Hughes, “It’s the same thing that happened to Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Hughes got pickled in the values of his own generation and now sneers at young artists for threatening his old world.”

Pickled indeed. What was odd, though not unique in "Mona Lisa Curse" compared to other Hughes produced projects, was how often Hughes turned the camera back on himself. The procession of self portraits says, " is my sneer and here, my frown, and here my wincing exhaustion, and again, look at the agony of my disdainful disgust." It seems the art that Hughes longs for wasn't the only target for this unnecessary and melodramatic requiem.

If only Hughes treated the mapping of art with that same gusto and gorgeous inventiveness with which he wrangles language. Not that there isn't much wrong with the world and the art world within it; but his focus on his defined terrible seems to have severely limited his discovery of fulfilling beauty. And when the basketball gets tossed out with the bathwater, Hughes feeds the same frenzy he critiques. Its sad and lazy for a critic to forsake genuine curiosity for some rhetorical cheap shots when sharing his passion for art may have opened up both Mugrabi, and Hughes himself, to more insightful and constructive conclusions.

You misquote Hughes. He did not ask Mugrabi:" Did you know Andy?"
He asked: "Did you ever meet Warhol?" The question, its implication and the tone in which it was asked are completely misrepresented in your article.

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