Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Further Follow Up


First of all, apologies for no entry yesterday, I was writing this one, but wasn't able to finish it, so I did so now, ok?

Over the weekend the New York Times published a review/article about "The Business of Art: Evidence From the Art Market" a current exhibit at the Getty in California by Andras Szanto. Which lead me to two things, a) it made me want even more to get my butt out to the left coast to see the friggin' show, and b) lead me to this article - which is even more wicked cool!

It seems that the New York Times' assignment editors know what they're doing. Andras Szanto, while having a name that is very mellifluous and almost a homonym of Arthur C. Danto, is not the Art Critic for The Nation, is in fact The Deputy Director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, which has got to be one of the cooler places on earth. I must've book marked things in their website a gazillion times, and if I had a spare thousand hours, or so, would read all of it.

But back to the business of art. Mr. Szanto use 1,259 words (nothing like having a little bit of space, eh?) to describe and explain what he calls "a small but engrossing exhibit." From the Getty's website, I would've never thought that it was small. But then again, I can be somewhat dense.

He spotlights some of the things that he considers most significant in the exhibition, things like

a colorful 1982 German board game in which players compete for art-world recognition, with the winner receiving this guidance: "From now on you can afford (practically) anything, your glory seems to be secured, your posthumous glory is merely a question of your inevitable demise (probably soon).
Not to be confused with this American board game from the 1970s. And

a set of documents laying bare [Joseph] Duveen's business dealings with Bernard Berenson, the Renaissance scholar and connoisseur who authenticated Italian old master paintings for Duveen and, in return, received a 10 percent commission (later upgraded to 25 percent), and a retainer. Displayed here is a 1928 contract reaffirming their secret agreement, along with an "attestation album" ? a collection of photographic reproductions of Italian paintings, accompanied by Berenson's signed attributions ? which Duveen occasionally presented to clients after a sale.
While Betty Parsons claims to have invented the white cube, Mr. Szanto figures that Mr. Duveen is the person most responsible for current North American ideas about personal art collections. According to Mr. Szanto, Duveen was "ambitious, methodical and well connected, Duveen hired an international network of spies and runners to track down clients and artworks for sale. Some of his cloak-and-dagger antics may seem outmoded, but his fingerprints remain all over America's greatest art collections." And you thought the business of art was slightly askew! Wrong-O Boy-O! it is completely askew.

If you go back and read the article that Mr. Szanto published way back in February, 2000, he goes into even more detail about the business of art. This is why I have a unflinching confidence in the assignment editors of the New York Times. You figure that there are, what? Six, seven folk in the world who have dedicated their life to studying the history of the business of art in the detail required for post-graduate academia? And the gray lady goes and gets one of them to write about the exhibition on that topic. The only people who I can think of that are better, would be the editors of The New York Review of Books. And then only because they give their writers something ridiculous like 20,000 words to make their points.

In the earlier article, Mr. Szanto writes that "opinion about the world of contemporary art is often based on one of two inaccurate fantasies." And then goes on to describe those fantasies:

The first is a sinister and status-obsessed view, with museums at the center of a conspiracy to exclude the unmoneyed and uneducated from a zone of privilege. The perpetrators of this connivance are dealers, collectors, and others, who fashion a mystique around art so as to justify exorbitant prices. Quality doesn't count, or even exist, according to this view. The scenario runs thus: Sons and daughters of well-heeled families graduate from lavishly endowed art schools and are recommended by their complicitous professors to galleries with links to enterprising collectors who buy new art as though they were investing in penny stock. Acting on tips that in some lines of business would be called insider trading, the coterie of collectors bid up the value of one or another up-and-coming artist. Validation is bought on the cheap from struggling critics, who receive kickbacks in the form of work by the young genius. Public approval is nurtured through exhibitions of increasing stature. The ultimate goal of the conspiracy is appearance in a museum, whose trustees already own work by the young star or are actively courting future donations from collectors who own it. The collectors oblige, further escalating the reputation and value of their collections.

A different scenario, often taught in college courses, sees art works as suffused with a unique value, the search for which is undertaken in the ongoing conversation among painters and sculptors that is art history. In this view, if the art world is somewhat mysterious, it is so because its investigations, like those of science, are lodged in a tangle of theory and history.

In this fantasy, art schools inculcate students into the art conversation. The critics' job is to show how artists fit into the historical record and to illuminate the connective tissue of ideas. Collectors and dealers are there, but mainly to participate in the dialogue. (High prices are simply metaphors for exceptional quality and historical importance.) Museum directors pick for their shows only art validated by the cognoscenti. Indeed, art's autonomy--a signal accomplishment of modern society--requires that it answer only to its own logic and that it be protected from the "real world" by a firewall. Otherwise it could devolve into a mere commodity and lose its authority to edify, unify, challenge, and heal our democratic community.
When in fact, Mr. Szanto writes (way more eloquently than I can) the business of art is no more fantastical than the business of government, or the business of business, and being part of it, albeit a microscopic part, I gotta agree.

Then, to continue on this "demystification" there is a blog that I wish would be updated more than the three times a week that it is. Art Addict is written by Paige West who runs a gallery in New York, and concentrates on the hows and the whats of buying art. Her entry on Monday was particularly enlightening. But the thing that struck me upon reading it was how much more expensive art (or for that matter anything but alcohol) is in New York than here (or elsewhere).

This painting by Auguste Bartholdi (the guy who designed the Statue of Liberty) sold for $2,216.91 (US) including buyer's premium and all taxes last night at an auction in town.

Clarens I by Auguste Bartholdi

While six hours due south, this painting by John LaFarge (not the guy who designed the Statue of Liberty) sold for $5,400 (taxes not included, 'cuz I don't know what sales taxes are like in New York City).

Village Huts at Matakula Devil Country, Figi by John La Farge

Now you're thinking that I must've manipulated something, right? Well, if I did, it was only unconsciously.

Check these comparisons:
Google search results for "Auguste Bartholdi" = 12,500
Google search results for "John La Farge" = 3,310
Size of the Bartholdi painting = 12.5 cm by 22 cm
Size of the La Farge painting = 10.5 cm by 16.5 cm
Year the Bartholdi painting was made = 1897
Year the La Farge painting was made = 1891
Materials Bartholdi used = oil on wood panel
Materials La Farge used = graphite and pastel on paper

So Bartholdi is more famous, made a larger painting, with better materials, at roughly the same time, yet the La Farge sold for 280% more (yes, I removed the taxes to make the calculation fair).

So what does this all mean? If you're a painter, paint in New York, if you're a buyer, buy anywhere but New York.


PS I edited this later and ended up revising the sale price for the Bartholdi, after the Expos game. I was able to go and double check my figures and I had apparently confused the selling price of Clarens I ($2,200 cdn) with the selling price of the invitation to the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty ($3,500 cdn).

Really Big Picture of a Really Old Invitation

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