Hard Times, Art Times

One of my favorite quotes comes from the Preface to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

Indeed, art is useless. A Mercedes, although pricey, functions as a car. It will get you to the Fairway Market, or to the burbs to visit your family. A Knoll table is a place to rest your coffee cup each morning. A steak from Peter Luger’s fills your stomach. A Marc Jacobs coat keeps you warm. One can even argue that these items are well made; they will last a long time (well, not the steak.) Part of their exorbitant price tags comes not just from their labels, but from their high quality. But art is the ultimate luxury item, the supreme commodity. No one needs art and then chooses to buy the best art, or chooses to buy a less flashy but well made and functional piece of art. Art is valuable because it is unnecessary.

And so, in this present day economic crisis, as individuals and companies cut back, eliminating every extra from cappuccini to water coolers to bonuses to entire positions, are people indulging in this thing we call art? How is the art world, a planet of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirsts and Liz Peytons, that often seems unrelated to the rest of Earth, affected by the world of stock crashes and adjustable rate mortgages?

Several of my friends who are art handlers were just laid off. Another friend at a non-profit arts organization did not have her contract renewed because of a lack of funding. A gallery that was interested in a friend six months ago told him that they are not taking any new artists at this time. Shows for others are being pushed back. These are hard times to be an investment banker, but they are also hard times to be an artist.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers has had grave repercussions for the artworld: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Folk Art Museum, the Asia Society, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Dahesh Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the International Center of Photography, the Japan Society, the Jewish Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Museum of Arts & Design, the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art all counted Lehman Brothers among their patrons. Indeed, in the past year, the investment bank gave millions in charitable donations to museums. They were the lead sponsor for both the Brice Marden retrospective at MoMA and the Jackson Pollock show No Limits, Just Edges at the Guggenheim. Certainly museums are now searching for alternative funding. Exhibitions will likely be scaled back, and run for longer periods of time.

In addition to the loss in arts funding that is a direct result of the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, they are now selling their corporate art collection, a part of the Neuberger Berman asset management unit. They are taking bids from several companies, but if the recent disappointing auction sales are any indication, despite the stellar quality of the collection, it may go for less than expected.

A Sotheby’s auction earlier this month netted one million dollars less than expected for a Warhol painting. Works by other prominent artists, including Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gerhard Richter failed to sell at London’s Frieze Art Fair.

This is a huge contrast from two years ago, when Columbia University’s School of the Arts decided to stop allowing its first year MFA’s to participate in open studios, because too many dealers were coming and buying up the work of students before they’d even completed a semester of graduate school. Will galleries take a chance on an emerging artist’s work right now, when they are having difficulty selling the works of other, more established artists? How many galleries will even survive this economic collapse? What will become of Chelsea? Can anything but the blue-chips persevere?

This could be the rise of a new neighborhood for art in New York City, The recession of the 90’s is ultimately what lead to the rise of Soho and then Chelsea as the premiere gallery/ studio neighborhoods. Galleries have already begun to spring up in the Lower East side. We’ll see more of this, and an expansion of the Williamsburg/ Bushwick gallery scene as well, as galleries are unable to afford the rents in Chelsea.

Finally, although this is not a good time for art selling, it may be a great time for artmaking. In recent years, a lot of work has been, at least in part, about commerce and consumerism: Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, Mark Kostabi, Damien Hirst. Perhaps its time that we, as artists, look back to movements such as arte povera for inspiration. I predict that we’ll be seeing more performance art, more art in public and community spaces, more ephemeral work, and more socially conscious work in the next few years. Art can leave the realm of sarcasm that has been the standard for so long and instead be unabashedly sincere. I can’t wait.

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