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May 5, 2010

Don't Follow the Money

On Tuesday night at Christie's auction house in New York, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" (1964), a painting created in one day by Pablo Picasso, sold for $106.5 million, the most ever paid at auction for a work of art. Here are ten things to think about regarding the event:

1. Economically, most of the "arts" are about selling a million things (books, tickets, CDs, downloads, etc.) for a dollar. Art is about selling one thing (an art object) for a million dollars.
2. In contrast to, say, the prices of cars, "used art" (called the "secondary market" in the art world) costs a lot more than new art (called the "primary market" in the art world).
3. Buying something at auction means that you paid more for it than anyone else was willing to pay.
4. The worst art is usually bought for the most noble reason: Somebody wants to have it around to look at. The best art is usually bought for the least noble reasons: trophy-hunting or investment.
5. In an ascending market (and the high-end art market, over the long haul, ascends), the right old art at the right price is a good investment. It used to be said (in the pre-Euro days), that in times of great inflation, the French put their money on their walls.
6. There are always only three basic money stories in the art world: People are paying about the right prices; people are paying too little; people are paying too much.
7. Money stories in the art world translate something that most people don't understand (e.g., why is Picasso considered all that good?) into something they do understand--a sum of money. The bigger the sum of money, the "sexier" the story in the bargain.
8. Don't think too closely about the type of person who'd have a hundred mil lying around with which to buy a Picasso at auction.
9. The economist William D. Grampp pointed out in his book, "Pricing the Priceless," that the value of the work of 99 percent of artists promptly descends, at their deaths, to zero.
10. "Charlie Farquharson," the hillbilly anchorman on the old TV show, "Hee-Haw," would introduce that week's news by saying, "It's the same old news, only it's happening to different people." Likewise, art auctions feature the same old art, only it's being sold to different people.

May 5, 2010 5:40 AM | | Comments (15)


very good!

Well said...

Great points! Lets support our local artists and buy in the primary market at a fair price!

Alas, the art market. But it’s also possible to create art that escapes or transcends the parameters you explore here. Much of “street art” exists in opposition to the constraints that market has imposed on the creation and dissemination of work. It’s especially interesting how street artists such as Banksy complicate and layer their art’s interaction with commerce and the public.

The only way to make money from your art is to be dead :)

interesting points, how do you measure the 'quality' of art? through it's monetary manifestation at particular moment? "4. The worst art is usually bought for the most noble reason: Somebody wants to have it around to look at. The best art is usually bought for the least noble reasons: trophy-hunting or investment.'

As to emil's comment:

"Quality" is obviously one of the Big Questions in art, and I probably shouldn't have tripped so casually by it. I might better have said that hack art (e.g., a painting of a gondola in a Venice canal done entirely with a palette knife and sold from a stack of a dozen almost exactly like it in Union Square) is usually bought because someone simply wants to look at it, while serious art (e.g., a painting by Carroll Dunham or Julie Mehretu or Bill Jensen sold through a good gallery) is usually bought for trophy-hunting or investment. But do consider these mitigating factors regarding the purchase of serious art: "Trophy-hunting" often means the work filling a gap in a collection that's being assiduously formed as a whole, and if you pay five or six figures for a work of art, it's not unreasonable to wonder if you can recoup your investment should you want to sell the work and replace it with something else.

And as to the whole "transcend the market" syndrome:

Let's say $60,000 a year is a reasonable middle-class income in New York. (Actually, if you've got kids, both parties have to earn that to maintain a middle-class existence.) And let's say you're a painter or sculptor who produces 20 paintings or sculptures (i.e., substantial works for sale, not including sketches, plans, etc.) a year. You'll have to charge $3,000 apiece to make sixty grand. But wait! Your materials and workspace rental are going to cost $40,000, so you've got to raise the price to $5,000 per item. But wait! In order to sell serious art, you'll have to do it through a dealer. (Dealers, by the way, aren't exploiters; they've got huge overhead, staffs, shipping and advertising costs, and they work their tails off rounding up clients.) A dealer takes half, i.e., marks up the price 100 percent. So now the retail price of one of your paintings or sculptures is $10,000 per. But wait! You'll be lucky to sell half your output, so now it's $20,000 per work to make that middle-class living...and you're just a midlist artist, not one of the household names.

Yes, there are various ways to "transcend" the market or do an end-run on it, but only a small percentage of good artists' work is suitable for that. There's room for only so many Banksys, The Yes Men, The Art Guys, et al. And the business of artists making their livings teaching other people how to be artists (and to have to make their livings, in turn, teaching other people to be artists, who'll have to make their livings...and so on) is, in economic terms, a well-intended Ponzi scheme.

"There's room for only so many Banksys, The Yes Men, The Art Guys, et al."

Why is that? For sure fame has it's 15 minutes and such, but what else would limit the number of good street artists or street art?

I agree about the Ponzi scheme at the heart of teaching students to "make a living" at their art. But I guess that would also be true for teaching journalism now.

"There's room for only so many Banksys..." is a little looser than a fact, but a little tighter than a mere opinion. Banksy, The Art Guys, et al., are comic relief in the art world. "Relief" is the operative word, meaning it's a minority position by definition. To put it another way, reading The New York Times every day and The Onion once a week--and not the reverse--seems about right.

Of course, we do live in odd times, when, for instances, there seem to be as many parodies of scary movies released as there are scary movies, almost as many parody TV news programs as TV news programs, and as many Duchampian pranksters sending up art as there are un-ironic artists wrestling within their art with the same things that, oh, Louise Bourgeois, Neo Rauch, or Ellsworth Kelly (to name a diverse few) wrestle with.

But, in terms of a "limit" on street art, there really isn't a secret council of rich collectors, dealers, curators and artists who meet in a penthouse to figure out how to keep the art world, in effect, a gated community. The art market is, as has been long observed, one of the most unregulated markets in the world; that, coupled with modern art's M.O. of success-by-scandal, means that every prankster gets a decent shot at getting a little attention and maybe making a little money. Lasting, however, is another matter.

Finally, the Ponzi scheme of artists teaching for a living: That label applies only to that part of the situation in which the students, who in becoming artists, end up teaching art for a living, and so on. Lots of art students, even ones who get MFA degrees in one studio area or another, end up branching out occupationally and putting what they've learned in, say, sculpture, to use in some kind of dot-com job or making custom cabinetry. Likewise with journalism, whose properties of reporting, writing, editing and evaluating stories, are eminently useful in other occupations.

You have some great points, 20k per painting, 5 sells a year to survive middle class. That may be the case in NYC, but in most other places like where I live you are lucky to ever sell a work over 1,000, and even luckier to sell 12 of those each year, 1,000 x 12, and living on that anywhere is pretty sad. And I would like to meet an artist in the southestern US that does make 12k per year off of art, I have not met even one yet. Things were different 20 years ago, I could clear 12k easily, and with far less talent. WalMart, EBay, etc, took it's tole on artists. For the 99% of artists that do not currently do not have a big enough name to be able to demand 20k per piece and if they do they will not sell anything. Just last week I was at a juried show, the best juried show within 300 miles of my location, I can not count on 2 hands how many people walked past my art that day and said a thousand dollars, that is way too much, and that was the person speaking about a 24 x 36 reaslistic still life oil painting that took me a month to paint.


You are defining art exclusively by its relationship to the art market. That’s a narrow constraint, allowing only pranks, ironies, or parodies to that singular authority. But Duchamp was not merely a prankster, nor Warhol, Banksy or others. The disruption of the art market is aftereffect to the disruption in aesthetics or values that these artists instigated.

Also. Folk art, art brut, outsider art, aboriginal art, street art would exist with or without an art market. The art market defines only one way to assign value. This monetary worth might be the least important, if not totally irrelevant, aspect of a work of art.

I probably shouldn't go into this briar patch, but...

Nowhere--as in NOWHERE--am I "defining art exclusively by its relation to the art market." First, far be it from me to define art. Second, nowhere in my post or subsequent comments is there any exclusivity, expressed or implied, about art's relation to the market. The market exists; it's big and it's powerful, and art inexorably has something to do with it.

Although artists can well make a living outside the market, they can't make a living from their art outside the market, or, more accurately, outside of a market. Which is to say, artists can make their livings in other occupations (teaching, truck driving, waitering, housepainting), or from outside income (trust funds, rich spouses, investments), but in order to make a living as artists, they have to sell their artistic products or services to somebody, i.e., participate in a market.

Duchamp was indeed a prankster (Dada was one big self-proclaimed prank), but such a brilliant one (he was chess champion of Paris in the days when that was close to being world champ) that his pranks changed the course of art history. Duchamp was, however, sui generis. Market-wise, Duchamp made his living--not to put too fine a point on it--off rich women.

Warhol not only played the art market like a fiddle (rather than transcending or avoiding it), he said that (I'm quoting inexactly from memory here), "The best art is business." Before he was a Pop artist, remember, he was one of the most successful illustrators in New York and made enough money to buy that Lexington Avenue townhouse before anybody knew him as a Pop artist. And he came somewhat late to Pop as something to "get in on" that might make him famous as a gallery artist, which is what he wanted most. When the LA dealer who gave him his first solo as a Pop artist in 1962 came to his studio, he thought he was going to see more paintings like the comic-book paintings he'd heard about. Warhol showed him soup can pictures instead. When the dealer asked about the comic-book paintings, Warhol said (again, inexact, from memory here), "Oh, I found out that there was somebody in New Jersey [Roy Lichtenstein, who was teaching at Rutgers] doing them better than me. So I'm doing these now." The point? Let's not make Warhol into an anti-market rebel, or a revolutionary. He was, as one wag put it, "an artist who was always six months ahead of his times."

Folk art would indeed still exist without a market, but without a market nobody but "folk" would ever see it. And again, "folk artists" are artists who make their livings, hardscrabble as they may be, as other things than as artists. The same with "outsider art" (art brut), except that, of course, there are big "outsider art" fairs now, one of the biggest in New York, at which they have gallery-style openings where quite often, "the artist will be present." (The great champion of art brut, Jean Dubuffet, has a huge commissioned sculpture down at Chase Plaza.) Outsider art has become more of a marketable style--the look of a Woffli or Martinez--than a non-market movement. Note: Self-taught does not equal "outsider." There are loads of artists out there who never went to art school trying their damnedest to sell their stuff for a lot of money.

"Street art" and Banksy are two things I don't, subjectively, spend a lot of time considering. The former is hardly ever any good, and the latter is tiresome. But that's a personal opinion. Could be I'm missing something significant, but I think the odds are greatly against it.

You have tied the notion of being an artist to that of “making a living” as an artist. So unless the art object achieves a certain celebrity status as collectable stock for an elite audience, it has no real value in your viewpoint.

With that narrow perspective you miss nothing less than the raison d’etre.

Although this exchange is fun...well, sort of...and although I take a superficial pride in the number of comments on my post hitting double digits (which would, admittedly, be single digits without my own replies), I think this is the last go-round for me on this thread. Others can take up the cudgels on either side of this art-market business.

A long, long time ago, when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I said to a student in a beginning painting class that a certain blue she'd put in a particular part of her painting didn't work. She said to me, "Oh, so I shouldn't use blues, then?"

Similarly nic[k] balloons specific things I've said into universals. My saying, "Although artists can well make a living outside the market, they can't make a living from their art outside the market, or, more accurately, outside of a market" becomes, "You have tied the notion of being an artist to that of 'making a living' as an artist."

No I haven't. Saying that "artists can well make a living outside the market" ipso facto unties the "notion of being an artist" from "making a living as an artist."

At the risk of being redundant here, all I said was that if an artist (or musician or poet or playwright or novelist, etc.) wants to make a living as an artist, intercourse with a market goes with the territory. That's a fact. A concommitant guess would be that the reason most artists who don't make their livings from their art isn't for lack of trying to find a niche in the market. Only a very few deliberately keep their artistic produce to themselves and a small circle of friends because they believe trying to market it will destroy its integrity. As a writer friend of mine once said, "There are no Great American Novels lying around in bureau drawers."

The same goes double or triple for, "Unless the art object achieves a certain celebrity status as collectable stock for an elite audience, it has no real value in your viewpoint." NO real value, none? Please.

Cheers, everybody.

I just slipped my disc of "The Mona Lisa Curse" into the computer and checked what Hughes said to Mugrabi. I'll split the difference with kkomp. Hughes asked Mugrabi, "Did you know him?" It's not my implied-intimacy "Did you know Andy," but it's not quite "Did you ever meet Warhol?" either. I do thank kkomp for the close reading and letting me know I need to keep my quoting skills sharper, especially when I've got an electronic source for accuracy.

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