Recession: Bad for Artists, Good for Art

I know very little about the contemporary art market and even less about economics in general, but I feel like I probably should know more, so I read a 2009 Newsweek article by Peter Plagens called “Brother, Can You Spare a Painting?” about the effects the present recession may have on the art industry. The article is mostly a description of what the international art market has looked like since Andy Warhol and the pop art years made commercialism acceptable, which is basically a bloated, over-expensive system of trophies for the rich and a spectacle for everyone else. The author describes how gallery districts, flashy contemporary art museums, art fairs and biennials have been popping up all over the world at an accelerated pace. While I think more art and art venues is a good thing, the article discusses how it was driven more by money than creativity.

Not by Andy Warhol

I know from conversations with random people that there can be a pretty big disdain for “modern art.” Then instead of discussing their objections I tell them that “modern art” ended like 50 years ago and it’s “contemporary art” that they have a problem with, and then I call them stupid. (I just like being a bitch.) Without getting into a whole discussion about the artistic merits of contemporary art (another time?), which is usually the focus of the criticism, I agree that there is a lot of money and recognition going to some questionably mediocre stuff. I’m not a qualified art critic, but based on my one trip to NYC and seeing a lot of the fairs and museum shows the article is discussing, there was plenty of what I thought was underwhelming work. But the point made in the article is that this exists because the market has created a niche for it, that money has become the driving force behind art creation.

THIS. I saw this in person at the 2008 Whitney Biennial and hated it with an irrational, all-consuming hatred that I haven't felt for anything before or since. (By Mary Heilmann)

I think this paragraph sums up the attitude on all sides:
“A collector at an art fair was shown a previously undiscovered canvas by a midlevel abstractionist from the 1960s and told that the price was under $100,000. “Well, I suppose I could enjoy that,” she said to the dealer, “if I were poor.” Contemporary art had gotten so expensive that even Hirst–the British bad boy who brought in more than $180 million last year by auctioning his new work directly through Sotheby’s, and who managed to sell a diamond-covered human skull for another $100 million–said last November that, in his opinion, contemporary art cost too much. Though that hasn’t stopped him from cashing his checks.”

Damien Hirst uses the same aesthetic logic as Lil' Jon.

The author points out that the influx of money has caused a lot of wonderful work to be created, and there are plenty of good artists and galleries, but I think he’s saying that the art itself wasn’t necessarily being appreciated, just the perceived prestige that comes along with it, which has caused a whole lot of crappier art to be supported. But now that we’re in a recession, with less money spent and the present system unsupported, the bad art will be weeded out and more thoughtful, interesting art driven by creativity instead of money will emerge, or at least that was the idealistic prediction at the end of the article.

Christo's "Gates" in New York were mentioned in the article as an example of good contemporary art made possible by the art market. So here they are.

Now, I’m not in any way involved in the high-end international art market so I’m just taking this author’s word on it, but I can’t imagine a time in the past few centuries when art and art collecting hasn’t been the domain of the pretentious. I think some people are always going to find ways to show off, and art is uniquely qualified to do that. And there will always be artists willing to oblige, even crappy artists. Because hell yeah, it’s money! That they want to give you! It may have receded for now, but I’m not sure that culture and attitude is going away anytime soon. But from my point of view making art in a recession means forcing you as an artist to not focus on getting into the best galleries, but to become more of an entrepreneur, making opportunities for yourself and your community, which I think will create a richer, more passionate kind of art industry. Hopefully.

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