The price of things is crowding out their value. When it comes to art, the belief that the price of a work is its sole worth constitutes the peculiar accord between the hedge-fund millionaires driving prices into the stratosphere and the would-be revolutionaries who fantasize about the collapse of the art-market bubble and the whole hideous economic system of which it is a prominent sideshow. Is it even remotely possible to see the exhibition hanging in the Guggenheim Museum right now—paintings, drawings and photographs by the American artist Christopher Wool—as art instead of dollar signs, now that one of Wool’s paintings (not included in the exhibition, which is on view through January 22) has sold at auction for $26.5 million, just a year after another sold for what then seemed an already outlandish $7.7 million? According to a recent article in The Art Newspaper, speculation on Wool’s art over the past few years indicates that it “‘has become a parking lot for money,’ says one high-profile European curator. Like the market for Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wool’s market is in danger of being controlled by a small, powerful group of players, he [adds].”
“Parking one’s money” is apparently an everyday concept among those who have too much of it; a recent New York Times article headlined “Record Prices Mask a Tepid Market for Fine Art” quoted a market expert who accounted for the popularity of contemporary art among hedge-fund managers this way: “They can hang anything they want in their Manhattan co-ops or in Aspen and nobody can say that’s ugly because contemporary art has not been subjected to sustained critical appraisal. There are no markers of good or bad taste that have yet been laid down. It’s a safe place to park your money.”
People clap, I understand, when an auction sale achieves a record price. It’s like cheering at an execution. What’s being killed is the passion for art, sacrificed on the altar of money. Eventually, the entire spectacle justifies philistinism. One could react by saying, with the media theorist McKenzie Wark, that “contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital,” and have done with it. That’s easy, unless you’ve ever had an aesthetic experience or, to put it another way, have ever loved a work of art. Wark’s disdainful remark that “art is a portrait of its patrons, and nothing else” can be appreciated for its caustic wit but should be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe a fistful). Besides, art is not going to take his stale advice—more than a century old, anyway—and “abolish itself” in favor of who knows what else. If Wark thinks he’s enough of an artist to produce the post-art of the future himself, he should do it. But art is not going to follow orders from outsiders.
The struggle of successful artists to evade capture by the very market that enriches them is like David fighting Goliath without a slingshot. It may not define an artist, but it indelibly affects the nature of his or her work. As can be seen from his pictures, an artist like Rubens entertained no fundamental doubt that the interests of his patrons coincided with his own. In Goya’s portraits two centuries later, the position of the artist has changed: the Spaniard looks on his country’s nobility with a corrosive gaze. Today, we feel closer to Goya. We want artists to be critics of society, to bite the hands that feed them; they are not to be celebrants of power. They don’t always accommodate this desire, and yet anyone who can’t be thrilled by a Rubens just as easily as by a Goya cares nothing for painting and should probably just leave it alone.
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Is Wool more like Rubens, or Goya—an artist at ease with the social hierarchy that makes him possible, or at odds with it? Here’s a clue: much like Goya, Wool paints with black and white. He’s an artist of spleen, not of celebration. But his blacks and whites also invoke a tradition closer to home, a New York vein of willfully tough-minded painting that reaches back through the early work of Frank Stella—the twentysomething bad boy who, in the late 1950s, was taunting whatever public he thought he had with black enamel stripe paintings, some of whose titles (Die Fahne hoch!, Arbeit Macht Frei and so on) evoked still-fresh memories of the Nazi horror—to the first flush of Abstract Expressionism, when artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline abjured the luxury of color, not to give primacy to drawing or composition but to find something more elemental in the act and matter of their art. As Carl Andre would later say of Stella, they were after “the necessities of painting.” For Wool, likewise “introduced” to the public near the beginning of his career by a sculptor colleague (in this case, Jeff Koons), the work’s internal debate concerns “the necessity to survive the moment at all costs, using its repertoire of false fronts and psychological stances.”