When you’ve got the big house, and you’re driving a Jaguar, what differentiates you from every asshole dentist in the Valley? Art was a way for Eli to distinguish himself.
—Shelley De Angelus, Eli Broad’s former curator
Art collecting is the most esteemed form of shopping in our culture today.
Thorstein Veblen saw conspicuous consumers as throwbacks—creatures ruled by primitive drives of predation and emulation. Yet the fashion-victimized accumulators of pelf with the historical equivalents of a big house and a Jaguar have always been pillars of society. In the age of landed gentry and indentured servants, Veblen notes, “vulgarly productive occupations” were stigmatized with the “marks of poverty and subjection,” while predatory exploits were considered “honorific,” a sign of “pecuniary strength.”
Our neo-Gilded Age, like Veblen’s merely Gilded one, is marked by a predatory culture permitting the feral rich to ravage the productive economy—seizing all the wealth for themselves and creating the most severe levels of income inequality since the onset of the Great Depression. While predators of yore awed rival chieftains with booty, harems, and slaves, today’s Masters of the Universe raid companies, fire workers, extract rents, divert huge amounts of capital out of the economy to uglify our world—and hoard the pelts of middle-class pensions, pay, and life prospects in their mansions, private kunsthalles, and yachts in the form of blue-chip (and capital-A) Art.
These feats of “pecuniary strength,” while socially worthless and detrimental to productivity, are merely “reputable,” as Veblen would explain in his trademark academic deadpan. For maximum prestige, the true distinction-seeking Master of the Universe must outdo rival assholes in conspicuous consumption.
And in today’s digital economy, you can monitor this primal battle of achieving egos as it unfolds in real time, on computer screens. At auction, you watch incomparable works of art vanish into exchange value: all that’s solid truly melts into air. The spectacle of yen, dollars, and euros mounting on the screen climaxes in the money shot: the sale price. Juicy sums are applauded, with murmurs of approval for the really big ones. The cult of wealth cheers as art launders the antisocial spoils of exploitation into status symbols, entrée to classy social circles, and even the solemn mantle of philanthropy. Fabulous.
The handy Forbes list of “billionaires with a passion for art” abounds with finance types with hoards worth more than $500 million. There is, for example, Henry Kravis of the storied Kohlberg Kravis Roberts takeover firm that minted billions in worthless junk bond paper during the 1980s. These days, Kravis’s honorific predations fund his passion for impressionist and contemporary art, and like many a robber baron from the last Gilded Age, he now has a wing of the Met named after him. Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen breaks spending records for splashy pieces: in 2004 he doled out $8 million for Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living—a thirteen-foot shark encased in formaldehyde. (The beast at the center of the installation reportedly later rotted and had to be replaced.)
As trophies of exploit, Hirst’s sharks, carcasses, butterfly wings, and diamond-studded skulls pack the savage punch of carnage itself, while boasting the added values of conspicuous expense and elaborate maintenance requirements. Less than two weeks after Cohen’s hedge fund agreed to pay the government $616 million to settle accusations of insider trading, this tireless exemplar of the Veblenesque meritorious consumer snagged Picasso’s Le Rêve for $155 million (from rival hoarder Steve Wynn). A dream come true, all around, for the apostles of honorific exploit.
Bernie Madoff’s prized piece of office art was a four-foot sculpture of a screw that he frequently dusted off himself (he, like Donald Trump and scores of other plutocrats, is a notorious neat freak). A defense lawyer pleaded for the valued object to be photoshopped out of court documents, lest it be prejudicial to members of the jury. When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme went bust, J. Ezra Merkin, whose feeder funds supplied Madoff with investors, was no longer Mastering the Universe quite so comfortably. So he sold his stunning batch of Rothkos for $310 million. Whenever I see a Rothko I think of Madoff, and how the afterlife of modern art is now yoked to the pissing matches performed by the big swinging SHLONGS of Wall Street.
Long practiced in the finer points of destroying companies—and individuals—to loot their assets, finance now plunders public institutions too. Recently bankrupt Detroit is appraising pieces in the Detroit Institute of Arts for possible sale to private creditors. Honorific-minded buzzards are circling the city’s treasure. The art is mere booty, of course. The real prey are the peons “tainted,” as Veblen would say, with the “unworthiness of productive work.” These, after all, were the poor saps whose earnings were gobbled up by the predators’ financial instruments.
The Detroit spectacle is clearly a portent of things to come. Strapped public museums can’t hope to compete with the big-ticket private art hoarders who send auction prices soaring. Private collectors are now “bulk-buying so many contemporary works,” the Guardian reports, “that their various mansions are inadequate to house them all. But rather than leave extensive surpluses unseen in storage, they are choosing to share their hoards with the public. As the ultimate status symbol for the super-rich, the private museums even have a new label—‘ego-seums.’”
Two top hoarders in particular have provided a tidy snapshot of the taste-in-bulk ethos of our neo-Gilded Age. Education huckster Eli Broad’s Los Angeles pile of aestheticized loot nicely showcases the taste-free hoarder’s ethos in its fullest robber baron excess. But for now, let’s begin at the phony populist end of the spectrum, with the grotesque museum founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton to “celebrate the American spirit.”
“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin. In precisely this vein, Walton’s new Crystal Bridges museum offers American-made art to strategically cover up the ugly reality Walmart has created. Spanning the colonial era to the present, the exhibition space’s fulsome celebration of the American spirit eulogizes the nation of shared confidence and abundance, sustainable mortgages, and worker dignity that Walmart has brutally demolished. The notion that Walton’s supremely self-satisfied kunsthalle might serve as a balm, let alone a monument, to the market-battered American spirit is analogous to, say, Genghis Khan inviting survivors of his Mongol hordes to admire an installation of his plunder.
Alice Walton’s new Crystal Bridges museum offers American-made art to strategically cover up the ugly reality Walmart has created.
Rebecca Mead’s ingenuous New Yorker profile of the Walmart heiress glosses over the nasty context of Walton’s wealth—which is a bit like writing about the history of the Pyramids without ever mentioning the slaves. Walmart is synonymous with a race to the bottom on every level. The biggest corporation in the world is also corporate welfare royalty: its “refusal to pay a living wage and benefits forces most of its employees onto public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid,” writes ThinkProgress reporter Aviva Shen. “Each store’s workforce consumes as much as $1.75 million in public benefits each year.”
Side-stepping Walmart’s labor-soaking business model, Mead’s profile dotes on the person of Alice Walton, the gentle art appreciator and horse breeder who bids at Christie’s auctions by phone while on horseback (a conspicuous leisure multitasker!) and charms the scribe with her low-maintenance toilette, “not,” we are assured, “the expensively curated look of a Park Avenue matron”:
When guests visit, she cooks dinner herself, though she has help to do the cleaning up. She speaks with a broad Arkansas accent—Bill Clinton at his most down home—and when she talks about her museum project she avoids loftiness. “One of the great responsibilities that I have is to manage my assets wisely, so that they create value,” she told me. “I know the price of lettuce. You need to understand price and value. You buy the best lettuce you can at the best price you can.”
Like Marie Antoinette playing dairymaid at her vanity farm at Versailles, Walton deploys a beguiling set of down-home gestures to downplay any whiff of plutocratic privilege—a performance that is itself, by most measures, the ultimate display of plutocratic privilege. But Mead is duly impressed, and takes Walton’s words at face value. Walton’s frugality, we are told, (whether buying lettuce or art) reflects a responsibility to “create value”—and certainly not the malignant greed with which Walmart notoriously squeezes every last cent from its workers and suppliers. Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s auction honcho, weighs in to rave about the billionaire’s “incredible” “lemonade and homemade cookies.”
Don Bacigalupi, Walton’s unctuous chief curator, supplies a mission statement that comes straight out of a Ford truck commercial: “We invite all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art and the beauty of landscape.” He dismisses critics of his employer’s museum—on behalf of all the unwashed people now “living without art” in Arkansas whom the great patroness’s plan of uplift must inevitably help.
Smells Like Art Spirit
As Walmart uglifies the country with big box stores, beggars communities with outsourced products and low-wage jobs without prospect of advancement, and thrives on surplus misery, Arkansas’s down-home Marie Antoinette says, in so many words, Let them eat art. Employing an altogether apt but strangely unselfconscious historical analogy—a journalistic cry for help, perhaps?—Mead compares Walton to robber baron Henry Clay Frick, who also founded a “jewel box” of a museum. But The New Yorker scribe tactfully neglects to note that Frick, too, was a notorious union-buster, one who choreographed the cold-blooded murder of strikers in labor trouble spots like Ludlow, Colorado, and Homestead, Pennsylvania. Frick, like his successors on today’s art scene, was eager to cleanse his name of brutal associations, and the most efficacious such strategy was to pile up canvases depicting a bygone age of mystic communal harmony and reflexive social deference. And in Mead’s gee-whiz telling, this core collecting stratagem has barely changed since Frick’s late-nineteenth-century heyday—except that instead of bagging Vermeers and Constables depicting pastoral Old World calm, Walton favors landscape-heavy Americana:
Walton’s ambition to found a major museum of American art first came to public attention in the spring of 2005, when she paid the New York Public Library a reported thirty-five million dollars for “Kindred Spirits,” a masterpiece of the Hudson River School, by Asher B. Durand. The library’s decision to deaccession the work was controversial. Durand’s painting commemorates the friendship between Thomas Cole, the landscape painter, and William Cullen Bryant, the nature poet, depicting them standing on a rocky promontory that overlooks an idealized Catskills vista.
The bagging of this piece from a public library is the ultimate neo-Gilded Age exploit: turning the commons into a private asset. The social bond between the poet and painter—along with their viewpoint—is poached by a predator who has amassed her fortune by despoiling the very sort of rural landscape portrayed in Kindred Spirits. By the strange alchemy of the cult of wealth, the honorific soul who displays these trophies expects to be identified with them. Yet the spirit of acquisition here is anything but kindred to the subject matter of the canvas: Alice Walton’s prized picture idealizes everything Walmart is not.
Prompted by that tableau, Mead asks Walton for her own definition of the American spirit. The reply is a veritable rampage of cognitive dissonance: “It is the ability to be the best you can be, and to take the opportunity that we have in this country to grow and learn and be the very best we can, and to help other people,” explains a woman whose family wealth is equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.
“My parents were both very patriotic,” the folksy billionaire relates to her New Yorker stenographer, “and I just would never have considered collecting anything but American art.” (Here, too, an ugly irony lurks just outside of The New Yorker’s portrait frame: Walmart “has been the vanguard of outsourcing U.S. manufacturing to China—at times some 10 percent of the U.S. trade deficit with China comes from Walmart alone,” notes global culture site Blouin Artinfo.)
The Corporate Muse
Crystal Bridges is a sleek “starchitect”-designed facility—two armadillo-like structures connected by galleries around a reflecting pool—where visitors can admire the apparently bottomless self-regard of a retail colossus made fat on a global low-wage, nonunion labor force.
The museum’s collection often supplies an unwitting critique of the whole enterprise’s animating, uh, spirit. For instance, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, blurbed by Crystal Bridges as “a transcendent symbol” of the “capabilities, strength, and determination” of American women, celebrates the female workforce mobilized during the Second World War—another mind-bending exercise in historical revision on the part of a corporation that in 2010 paid out $11.7 million in back wages and damages to women in Kentucky. A set of subsequent, much larger class action lawsuits alleging systematic gender discrimination at the company was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that 1.5 million Walmart women are too large and diverse a group to be considered a class.
George Bellows’s The Studio, which shows Bellows surrounded by family, depicts the kind of meaningful work, fully integrated with domestic life, that Walmart has disrupted and dehumanized into drudgery. The jazzy abstraction of Stuart Davis—whose goal, according to some art historians, was to “reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society”—gruesomely serves, in this Bentonville terminus of maldistributed industrial prosperity, as the death mask of the artist’s hopes.
Crystal Bridges’ grotesque recontextualization of these works perversely invites the art appreciator to thank Walmart for “celebrating” everything it has exploited and destroyed—as if by enjoying these works you condone the Waltons’ greed. Fairfield Porter’s lyrical interiors, and even Lynda Benglis’s blobs, are unwitting fronts for the corporate ogre.
“So how do people associated with this museum rationalize the exploitation that built it?” asks Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. The answer:
Incredibly, by denying a connection to Wal-Mart.
The executive director of Crystal Bridges, Don Bacigalupi, argues that the museum has virtually nothing to do with the corporate behemoth just down the road. Apart from a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart that underwrites free admission, Bacigalupi said, the money that funds the museum comes from an entirely different entity, the Walton Family Foundation.
“Conflating a private individual and a private foundation with a corporation is a little misleading,” Bacigalupi told me.
Goldberg nails it: “Bacigalupi seems like a bright man, so he must know that this statement is itself a little misleading. The Waltons are rich because they own about half of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has made them rich in part because it pays its workers as little as possible.”
The name Crystal Bridges, indeed, evokes a range of American associations, be they aspirational or sadly indicative of the way we live now: it conjures the joint qualities of clarity and nostalgia—a cheesy country singer’s rehab retreat, or perhaps something closer to a Scientology center. In physical terms, the museum most closely resembles the latter, with a ground plan and facade that suggest a newly landed spaceship in the Arkansas hills. Like the fever dreams of a Plutocrat Pollyanna, Walton’s raptures about the American spirit deny the mayhem that the corporate cult casually externalizes into the public sphere. Its hoard of Americana flaunts the scalps of a culture conquered by “pro-business” depravity. A celebration of the American spirit, indeed.
Teaching to the Test of Time
The true collector is in the grip not of what is collected but of collecting.
—Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Don your pith helmet and bullshit waders and follow me, gentle readers, into the jungle of the feral rich—a.k.a. downtown Los Angeles, where Eli Broad, the biggest art-accumulating billionaire, will soon open his own robber-baron-style museum. The eponymous facility—no Oz-like reveries of transparent suspension structures for this mogul—will house Eli and Edythe Broad’s two-thousand-piece collection. It will also, of course, double as an agitprop advertisement for its namesake’s philanthropic career as one of the nation’s leading privatizers of public education.
The so-called school reform agenda of the Broad Foundation, like the Walton family fortune, exemplifies the race to the bottom for everyone except the “honorific exploiters.” Eli Broad, one of the richest art philanthropists in America (worth $6.9 billion as estimated by the “Forbes wealth team”; go wealth!), has been described as a “venture philanthropist . . . who wants to see results.” And the results he likes best are naturally of the quid pro quo variety. “Eli’s middle name is ‘Strings Attached,’” Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight told Morley Safer in a 60 Minutes profile of the accountant turned art accumulator.
Art collecting, like every form of shopping, is a sport that steeps our Masters of the Universe in the thrill of the hunt.
The strings attached to Broad’s own fortune, unsurprisingly, are deeply entwined with the worst elements of the 2008 meltdown; one of his companies, SunAmerica, was sold to AIG in 1999. As Artnet noted after the 60 Minutes profile aired, Broad’s $2 billion philanthropic empire sprang from the early-aughts feeding frenzy in “cheap housing and insurance . . . two vast industries that soak the lower and middle classes at their most vulnerable.” Thus engorged, the Broad Foundation (with its allies the Gates Foundation and, yes, the Walton Family Foundation) dabbles in social engineering and transfers public resources into private coffers by replacing public schools with market-based charters. The Broad Foundation, in short, is underwriting an ever-spreading fiefdom of teach-to-the-test mills that squelch the creative potential of the non-rich and hollow out the teaching profession into micro-managed, low-paid dronehood.
But lo, the patrician hand of art washes all these contradictions away. The hard-hitting investigative producers of 60 Minutes, who reverently focused on Broad’s $1.6 billion art collection, declared: “There is no one quite so civic minded in America.”
In one exchange during the segment, Morley Safer eyes a sculpture dubiously—a ramshackle man supported by the wall:
BROAD: “Well, it’s Tom Friedman—who’s quite an accomplished artist, I’m told.”
SAFER: “I’m told?” [His reporterly skepticism at last roused by the market for contemporary art, if not by the education reform racket.]
BROAD: “You know, some of these artists, I’ve gotta learn more about.”
Wielding the purse-power to make or break careers, this guy is one of the most influential people in the art world. He knows as much about art as he does about education—but that hasn’t stopped the billionaire from imposing his world-conquering “vision” on both spheres of influence. The experts and practitioners who seek his funds (curators, dealers, art advisers, artists—and even more alarmingly, his legion of school reform advocates) are inclined to coddle him, not to question him.
Hard and Fast
It wasn’t art that initially drew the high-flying former accountant to collecting. He got hooked when he discovered art accumulation “brought entrée to a different kind of social life,” Connie Bruck tells us in her fascinating and (for a change) aptly skeptical New Yorker profile “The Art of the Billionaire: How Eli Broad Took Over Los Angeles.” “Initially, Broad found a lot of contemporary art ridiculous,” Bruck writes, and then quotes Broad’s former curator: “But Eli is a quick learner . . . Eli would ask everybody who was informed what their opinion was and put together his world view based on that. That’s what a good C.E.O. does.”
His venture philanthropy in L.A. uses his vast hoard of art and money to exploit his influence over public institutions for his own private benefit. As Bruck lays out Broad’s take-no-prisoners approach to the art market, it soon becomes apparent that Broad is pursuing much the same plan of business dominance that has propelled a Mark Zuckerberg or a Jeff Bezos to the front ranks of moguldom: putting his name on as much as possible, while he drives hard bargains with rivals and the public sector, hires star architects, and presses them to cut corners. (“When you’ve got one eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, you’re scared to death . . . nobody wants to alienate him,” Christopher Knight told Morley Safer.)
A museum trustee likened Broad’s antics on the board of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008 to “an attempted hostile takeover.” After drama with an alphabet soup of classy institutions, including LACMA, MCAM, MOCA, UCLA, and even the Geffen and the Hammer, the Broad Collection, the great man’s ego-museum, will open in 2014 to anchor a development project that will transform the Grand Avenue area, Broad hopes, into downtown L.A.’s Champs-Elysées. Jeffrey Deitch, who worked with Broad as a dealer and later as the ill-fated director of MOCA, is politic: “Eli is very conscious of value—he does not overpay.” One example of Broad’s ingenuity: he paid $7.7. million for the land where his ego-seum is sited—and because of a deal he struck with a city agency, he will receive a rebate on his construction costs that may exceed $10 million. As Bruck sums up: “In art as in business Eli found ingenious ways to pay less.”
“And, yes, he admits that it’s easier for him to analyze the price-per-square-foot of a museum building than to interpret a painting inside,” goes a Los Angeles Times puff piece on the collector at home. “My first career was in public accounting,” Broad explains. “So if I look at a spreadsheet I understand it quickly. Numbers are hard and fast.”
Hoarding art is not only a power move for the predatory philanthropist; it’s a rewarding hobby. “Collecting for me isn’t just about buying objects,” Broad enthuses. “It’s an educational process, and I think it’s made me a better person. I’d be bored to death if I spent all my time with other businesspeople, bankers and lawyers.”
Broad’s favorite artist is often trotted out in his profiles: the irrepressible maker of market-glorified kitsch Jeff Koons. Koons’s deluxe banal objects—Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Rabbit, Balloon Dog—are go-to status badges for the biggest spenders. The Broads own thirty-three Koonses. Glorifying banality and conspicuous consumption, the pieces require an absurd level of maintenance, and a “commitment” from the collector, as Koons the master-marketer phrases it. “Free of the vulgar taint of productive activity,” as Veblen would say, the artist, an ex-Wall Street broker himself, speaks Broad’s language of CEO micromanagement, overseeing more than eighty in-house employees in a relentless quest for aesthetic efficiency. “My responsibility,” Koons has said, “is to educate people on what I’m looking for—every moment of the day.”
Koons’s work and sensibility have become so infused with titan-pleasing shibboleths that the Koons brand is all but identical with the billionaire id. Whether he’s free-associating about “accepting yourself” and other self-help platitudes, comparing his various luxe-kitsch pieces to Old Masters, or making vague remarks about the sexual aspects and anthropomorphism of appliances, Koons’s unflappable, peculiar Tony-Robbins-meets-art-CEO shtick, all delivered in the soothing, condescending tones of a nurse in a mental ward, is clearly a formula that works on billionaires. Demarcating a comfort zone of guilt-free privilege for the artist’s collector client base, the Koons oeuvre creates the overarching impression that all aesthetic value is vaguely farcical and ever contingent, and that ambitious and worthy social virtues can be ascribed to whatever you’re peddling with just the right verbal formulation. These are all also defining traits of the fortunes on which Koons collections are founded: the work and the patron’s worldview enjoy a perfect state of mutual self-regard. Here, in short, is a sentimental education that beguiles even the maniacal, test-based control freak Eli Broad.
Homo Ludens; or, the High-End Hoarder Shopping Club
Art collecting, like every form of shopping, is a sport that steeps our Masters of the Universe in the thrill of the hunt. Whether at auction or at art fairs, deep-pocketed collectors flock to the buzz of the purchase—a sacred destination “where you can spend enormous amounts of money quickly and people will know,” as a veteran observer astutely notes.
Here is how that great Anglophone tip sheet of the investor class, The Economist, describes the moguls-at-play spirit of one of the best known shows:
Art Basel, a Swiss art fair that is a regular stop for many collectors in June, is certainly about having fun. . . . The sociability of the fair contributes to the aversion that collectors have to going home empty-handed. Jay Smith, an investment adviser . . . and an important donor of art to museums, admits: “When I don’t buy anything, the fair feels dull. Buying makes you feel connected to what is going on.”
In dissecting the surplus spiritual value attached to the art-buying ritual, The Economist channels Veblen minus his irony:
Buying art doesn’t just offer a sense of community, it engenders feelings of victory, cultural superiority and social distinction. Some say that it even fills a spiritual void. The term most commonly used by collectors, however, is that buying art gives them a “high.” . . . Buying expensive art is very competitive, which for a successful purchaser adds to the sense of conquest at acquisition.
For the High-End Hoarder Shopping Club, art fairs are a way to best rival consumers in a prestigious public venue—to achieve, in Veblen’s parlance, “invidious distinction.” Unloosed before the legitimizing canons of art, the instinct of pecuniary emulation runs amok: “Some collectors always want what other collectors want,” explains Andrew Kreps, a New York dealer. By cultivating an inflated star system of artists like luxury brands, the art market enables the herd mode—and in this fashion, acquisitive types not sufficiently moved by connoisseurship can easily learn to covet brand names. In the New York Observer, an art fair veteran clues in a novice thusly:
“The key is everybody wants what everyone else wants.”
“That’s part of the game, figuring out what everyone else wants.”
Competitive buyers needn’t trust their own eye or taste; they can hire personal shoppers, a.k.a. art advisers, to run around the fairs to scout out art for them, snapping photos to document the investment’s appeal. Like fashion consultants, they tell clients what’s trending or hot, what will best suit their art-user needs and budget. If this all sounds disconnected from actually experiencing art, it’s because all the excess wealth sucked into the global art markets has fatally blurred the line between collecting and luxury retail.
For the High-End Hoarder Shopping Club, art fairs are a way to best rival consumers in a prestigious public venue.
The art fair is thriving in recent years as a shopping spectacle where the meritorious consumers (collectors) are the VIPs, while mere artists are accorded the welcome that, say, truffle pigs would get in a four-star restaurant. A mid-career artist at a respectable gallery said his dealer could hardly bother to acknowledge him at Frieze London, the luxe art fair—the dealer only wanted to talk to the collectors. Another artist marveled at the dubious skill set of her own name-brand dealer: “I don’t even think he understands art—he’s just good at making rich people feel comfortable buying. He’s not too intellectual or weird.” At this point, she gestures toward her head, and adds, apropos of him, “There’s nothing in there.” Art fairs now teem with glitzy side events, and ooze luxury sponsors and celebrities. It’s no wonder, then, that they are starting to eclipse galleries as major showcases for work.
Tom Wolfe, our great journalistic connoisseur of status anxiety, has giddily portrayed the frenzy that ensues at the opening of Art Basel Miami. In Back to Blood, entitled consumers anxious to make the scene first (when it’s most prestigious to be seen inside) are motored by fear of missing out; the collectors strain toward the art like maggots swarming on a carcass.
The whole spectacle represents a delicate balancing act of social hierarchy: art fair hype now threatens the snob appeal the events possess for the collecting class. Prominent and relentlessly self-promoting collector Adam Lindemann complains that buzz has dinged the specialness that formerly enveloped art fairs as super-exclusive shopping clubs for the rich. A native informant of entitled consumer petulance, Lindemann published a hissy fit in the New York Observer in 2011 demanding that the fairs do more to distinguish real “meritorious consumers” from looky-loos. “First and foremost,” he wrote, “art fairs should be for collectors only; if you’re not coming to buy art, get the hell out.” What’s more, Lindemann threatened to boycott Miami Basel unless the riffraff were expelled:
Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach is a new movement designed to correct the ills of global art fairdom once and for all, and to send the dealers, the artists and especially the art-fair companies our message of protest: hell no, we won’t go! . . . We don’t want to see one gawker, two socialites and three wannabes for every collector in the room. . . . Occupy Art Basel Miami starts now, so, this year, join me in boycotting the damn thing. Let’s flex our muscles. It’s our collecting dollars fueling this perverse tchotchke bazaar on steroids, and if these people don’t fix their fair, next year we’ll riot.
After all that, Lindemann showed up anyway. And he needn’t have panicked. The art market, like the rest of society, has already made itself over to pamper the 1 percent. The big box-ification of art galleries, and a carefully constructed system of art stars (monitored and enabled by gallerists, auction houses, curators, and personal art shoppers) appeals to the fashion victim in the honorific predator who wants a recognizable luxury brand.
“In the big box model,” William Powhida writes, “every show has to sell well to cover the staggering operating costs of these museum-like operations from staffing to producing publications that confirm the value of the artists’ work. In this model we face a kind of homogenization of taste oriented toward the 1% who can afford the attendant high prices like a $100k Dan Colen gum painting. Whether or not you like what Gagosian or Zwirner show is almost irrelevant to the situation.”
In other words, the excess wealth thrown around by the predators has hollowed out the middle of the market. Mid-range collectors and artists are marginalized, starved of resources and support, in a shift that tightly parallels the post-Keynesian American economy in general; in both cases, the existing social contract has been reconfigured to serve the hoarding instincts of the lords of the market as they compete with rival predators for big-ticket trophies and drive prices out of all proportion. Koons, Hirst, and Richter are marketed like Gucci, Prada, and Chanel. Signature styles “immediately identifiable” as a brand-name artist’s creations make “them easy status symbols,” as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012: “San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier says, ‘Collectors want an iconic work in a format that everyone recognizes. Monkey see, monkey do.’”
“The great dealers used to be small,” James Mayor, the Mayor Gallery’s namesake owner, told an audience at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this year. “Now all the big galleries don’t have time for the artist unless they’re making millions.”
As the art world adapts to the neo-Gilded Age by recasting itself as luxury retail, the power of the purse has effectively vanquished the last vestiges of the old art world: criticism, and the aesthetic judgment that informs it.
Instead, deluxe bean counters coddled by their courtiers simply want what other honorific predators have always wanted—to distinguish themselves from the other assholes. As to what their gladiatorial shopping rivalries mean for the rest of our common world, well, the last word properly belongs to Veblen. “The elimination from our surroundings of the pecuniarily unfit,” he observes, “results in a more or less thorough elimination of that considerable range of elements of beauty which do not happen to conform to the pecuniary requirement.” Buyer, beware.