"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Further Thoughts on the Current Art Market

I had one of those serendipitous New York City occurrences last summer [it’s been several months since I started this post, that originally said “yesterday”].  A woman sat down next to me on the subway, and she was reading an article called “Recent Acquisitions (And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market).”  I caught a few mildly anti-capitalist sentiments and a mention of the “West Chelsea space race” (which is where the gallery I work for was moving away from as I began this post, so I knew exactly what it meant) out of the corner of my eye and so started reading it.  After a few paragraphs, I apologized for reading over her shoulder, I told her I’m an art librarian, she told me she runs a gallery uptown, we agreed on the depressingly true sentiment being expressed in the article, and I got a citation.

The essay is by the folks at the Galerie St. Etienne (dear GSE, please, please get a website that is not made entirely of Flash) here in New York, which is, according to their website, the oldest extant gallery in the United States, having moved to New York in 1939 from Vienna, where its predecessor, the Neue Galerie, had been since 1923.  As such, I suppose they are in a good position to take an historical view of the art market.

After a first paragraph that sets the stage with references to film, gardens, and the current state of politics and the economy in the United States, GSE tells us that “The art market is….being choked by top-heavy overgrowth.”  This sentiment is quite close to one I stated over a year ago, discussing a record-breaking sale and a labor lock-out at Sotheby’s: “…only really cheap and really expensive stuff sell around here; the destruction of a comfy middle to upper-middle class with a good outlook on the economy has also destroyed that large middle part of the arts & antiques market.”  GSE goes on to quote Roberta Smith from the New York Times, who wrote that, “More and more when we look at art, what we’re looking at is money,” and then cites a number of astronomical sales statistics.

And that’s just what’s happening among the buyers and sellers.  GSE also inform us about a shift in the artists’ perspectives and methods, which they note as being “relatively new”:

Artists have not been shy about getting in on the money grab. It is logical that the patron saint of this cohort would be Andy Warhol, who famously declared that, “Good business is the best art.” Artists like Damien Hirst aggressively control the marketing of their own work, employing a coterie of fabricators that dwarfs Warhol’s self-styled “Factory.” In 2008 Hirst and his business manager, Frank Dunphy, orchestrated an unprecedented single-artist sale at Sotheby’s. The artist, whose company, Other Criteria, produces Hirst tchotchkes like skateboard decks and coffee mugs, has deep designs on the commercial world. “Becoming a brand name,” he has said, “is a really important part of life.” Hirst is one of several prominent artists (others include Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama) to be featured on special lines of Louis Vuitton products. Some younger artists now choose to launch their careers entirely outside the art world by signing with fashion agencies and music managers. “It’s all show business,” says Dunphy, whose prior clients included burlesque stars and jugglers.

I kind of just want to say, “Yup! Everything is the worst!” and then drop the mic and leave it at that.  There’s so much going on here, I could probably make several posts about it.  The non-productive middle men, the cost of living in NYC, social immobility, branding & commercialization & monetization of everything, on and on.

But, ah, the contradiction in a capitalist society, between making art and the need to provide oneself with the staple of life — food, housing, clothes, at the very least.  As GSE says, “few artists really wanted to starve in a garret, and the odds of remaining commercially pristine in a capitalist society were virtually nil.”  At least in the past artists might have desired freedom to do their work without the constraints of dollar signs?  Or is it more honest to admit we are in fact stuck in this system we are stuck in, and try to make the best of it?

I’ll always go with the first option, that of aspiring to solely artistic intent.  Aspiring, because the honest among us know that it is nearly impossible to live that life and make that art under capitalism.


Since I began this blog post, several people have written or spoke about how New York City is not what it once was for artists of all stripes.  I think Patti Smith is the most recognizable name (that link is to a blog called Vanishing New York, for goodness sake).  David Byrne did so in The Guardian.  The form has already jumped the shark and been parodied by The Toast in a piece that tells us the writer is “leaving New York City because of all of these goddamned wizards [emphasis original].”  Even those making an argument that New York City retains some of its magic, as Chelsea G. Summers did when she told us about fucking in the back of the Metropolitan Opera House, can’t help but recite the litany of disappearances (naming a couple of your devoted librarian’s former haunts):

Magic seems to have diminished as Times Square became sanitized for bourgeois family protection, as bottle service replaced the glorious polymorphously perverse e pluribus unum of Gotham clubs of yore, those halcyon nightlife years when kids dressed in thrift-store leotards, and piled wigs on their heads, and towering in platform boots danced next to demigods. As Gotham has been scrubbed clean of its crime and its spray paint and its desolation, as its rents have grown too damn high, as it has become a place where families wheel their doublewide prams through the Meatpacking District, former home to transvestite whores and the Hellfire Club, the best-natured kink bar ever to house Danny the Wonder Pony, Gotham has grown positively plebian.

Gotham has become place of Gaps and Starbucks and Duane Reades and H&Ms. With each new Best Buy, at every Subway opening, the magic diminishes. When Rawhide closed its doors, the magic diminished. When Odessa shut, when Chelsea Gallery Diner lost its lease, when H&H bagel was evicted, the magic died. As Billy’s Topless stopped, when The Baby Doll Lounge closed, when the Harmony went tits up, the magic lost.

These things are not unrelated.  Summers goes on to remind us that, “When the magic loses, it almost always loses to money.”  Nor is the fact that, as was reported (probably hyperbolically, but I honestly don’t know at this point), “70% of Brooklyn home sales [are] going to hedge funds, investors and international buyers.”  To drag in a little bit of theory, all of these problems — be it the change in the art market or the fact that you can’t afford an apartment — have in large part to do with an accelerating change from use value to exchange value, and beyond that, from exchange value to… something else, even?  Institutional investment value?  I’m sure there’s a concise term, but I can’t think of it right now.  In any case, to parallel GSE’s quote from Roberta Smith, what we’re seeing at when we look at housing in New York City is not housing, but money.  And it’s not our money, either, nor our gaze that is seeing it; it’s the gaze and the money of financiers and their sprawling companies.  Our gaze means nothing, because it includes little or no monetary value, just as the art we might make holds no value, because those same grosseties who own our apartments and collect our rent do not see a monetary value in that art.

Our economic system doesn’t find value in things because they have some use to us, but rather because they can be exchanged for other things — currency is the pinnacle of this idea.  We (but the “we” here is the system at large, and probably very few of us, dear readers; I highly doubt many of us are the ones investing in either artwork or brownstones) are, as I say, even eclipsing that exchange value.  And we certainly aren’t exchanging person-to-person, for personal gains.  Investment banks, hedge funds, etc. are making bets with the stuff around us, and, generally speaking, they need the on-paper value of those things to trend upwards in order to profit.  That profit is dragged out of the rest of us, because the things they are betting on have actual use or exchange value to us little people.  Anything that cannot generate that profit, or at least be a pleasure-garden for the profit collectors, is not worth allowing to exist.  This includes libraries, public schools, the MTA, healthcare (rather than health insurance), safe food & water…

Just as capitalism, at heart, is an economic system by which owners extract value from other people’s labor, rather than generating anything themselves, we are cogs in machines that generate value from parts of our life besides our labor.  Our housing, our need for sustenance, our recreation, are all loci from which the titans of industry and finance can pull their ill-gotten wealth.  To be sure, this has long been the case, but the acute acceleration & the way in which the global economy has come to focus on this principle in such an unchecked manner, and our increasing inability to escape it — especially our increasing inability to escape it — is novel.  We are being choked by top-heavy overgrowth.


That doesn’t mean there aren’t little enclaves of artists still living & working in lofts or warehouses here & there.  Just, none of them are in Manhattan (or even the western parts of Brooklyn), and they are all under near-constant threat.  And it seems that week by week we loose these spaces.  In a completely unmissable bit of metaphor, 5 Pointz was whitewashed in the middle of the night with police protection, in order to head-off application by its proponents for landmark status.

If a New Yorker or aspiring New Yorker can’t even afford the rent, they certainly can’t afford art.  Whoops there goes most of the consumers, for lack of a better word at the moment, of the avant-garde, the unpopular, the silly, the queer, all those creations out on the bleeding edge that have to be on that edge before they can wend their ways into the mainstream and be accepted by the fuddy-duddies who sit in disgustingly pristine and boring and safe offices at those banks.

One wishes for the day when a ballet might cause a riot, if not for its artistic merit, then at least for the spectacle of men in evening dress punching each other.  It saves me the bother of doing it for them.  One also wishes for the days, which my boss tells me once really existed (at least, if you were a white man displaying certain class markers), when someone in the balcony at the Philharmonic could spot an empty orchestra seat & then go sit in it at the intermission without any pushback from the ushers.

Perhaps the root of the problem here is the very idea of art as a commodity.  Or at least, if we are being realistic, of art’s primary value being its value as a commodity.  It changes the power of the whole thing.  I mean power strictly speaking, not some wishy-washy, lalala oh art is so EMPOWERFUL meaning.  When art’s value is primarily found in its commodity value, the power in the system belongs to those with the money — the same people holding the power in the rest of our social system.  Creation is dictated by those boring white guys in their boring, safe offices.  Their manufactured desires are served, and that hurts art.  It hurts artists.

But artists still need to pay the rent for their apartments, which is still too damn high.  So what is a starving artist to do?  Well, there’s always dumping capitalism.  I don’t know the means by which to do so — if I did, I’d have done it already — but it seems the only option. So here’s to graffiti and wheat-pasting and renegade diy fashion and culture jamming; here’s also to the artists barely making it and the artists not making it, actually; here’s to the bleeding edge; here’s to use value and power to the makers and creators; and here’s to capitalism out of art, and out of everything else, as soon as can be managed.

About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable mid-career librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

2 comments on “Further Thoughts on the Current Art Market

  1. A Mad Enthusiast
    February 12, 2014

    And here I sit in my broker’s office rolling over my 401k into an IRA because I got laid off after 20 years of devout IT career professionalism.


    I write fiction now. Much of my corporate experience will find its way into my work.

    Fight the good fight

  2. Mark A. Lewis
    May 7, 2014

    Excellent article. I do find a place with a happy medium when it comes to the buying and selling art. I have founded where collectors and sellers can come together on the pricing of art. It’s all a win win for them. 10% on the sellers side is easy on the pocketbook of the “penny pinchers” of the art world. Thank you again for a wonderful article.
    Best regards,
    Mark Lewis

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