Another problematic aspect of the contemporary art scene is the role of the state in promoting culture, which inevitably includes a good deal of junk culture. Much questionable artistic production today is financially underpinned by taxpayer’s money and the art of extracting money from the state for art projects is prone to landing up in the hands of well-organised cliques. This is a perennial grievance of the conservative press, whose readers resent having to pay for shows that a small clique of banal anarchists and revolutionary groupies (according to this view) foists on the general public. The left on the other hand believes that it is the mark of a civilised state to encourage dissidence in art as in everything else, sidestepping the fact that state-subsidised art has rather lost its martyr’s aura of bold contrarianism. Otto Mühl, for instance, was celebrated with two major shows of his work at Vienna’s Museum für Angewandte Kunst on exiting gaol in 1997, and thirteen years later he was also exhibited at the Leopold Museum. Both of these venues are sustained by taxpayers’ money. It is an open question whether the Mühl exhibitions, at least at the MAK whose Director was obsessed with fashionable provocation,1 were more designed to create a scandal (and thus attract visitors) than to celebrate an important artistic talent. Less open in retrospect is the question as to whether the Province of Burgenland should have supported Mühl’s authoritarian and partly criminal commune by offering building subsidies.

Apart from the tendency of bureaucratic cliques to lavish public money on dubious artistic projects, the growing self-absorption and narcissism of our over-consumerised society has encouraged the notion that “self-expression”, however banal, is also “creative”. One is tempted to think that Joseph Beuys’ most damaging legacy as a Performance Artist was his pronouncement that “everyone is an artist” – to which art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has drily retorted: “perhaps he should have added that not everyone should necessarily exhibit their work”. Reviewing the 1993 “BT New Contemporaries” show in Manchester, Graham-Dixon quotes one of its selectors who writes in the catalogue about the difficulty of making a selection, because, of course, doing so means choosing one artwork over another – hard to do if there is really no criterion as to what constitutes an artwork in the first place. “We should have said yes to them all”, he wrote, “the man in Brighton who filmed his birthday party; the table with turnips rammed through it; the prolonged video close-up of the artist’s vagina; the urinal carved out of soap.” The catalogue, writes Graham-Dixon “offers a fascinating insight into the mentality of the right-on art educator, critic and exhibition organiser”. This selector believes that the subversive task of the artist is to “explore the territories of mental and emotional strangeness that are closed off to ordinary mortals”. He cites the serial murderer Dennis Nilsen as an appropriate hero for the contemporary artist, as Nilsen was himself “an artist who drew the men he murdered: a planner who redesigned his life to suit the dictates of his heart”.2

The irony of our times is that the more the perceived aesthetic or moral value of art declines or is rendered superfluous, the higher its pecuniary value spirals. “What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?” asks Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, a question highly pertinent to modern (and especially post-modern) artworks, many of which acquire extraordinary value because Mr Saatchi or a Russian oligarch has bought them. Stripped of recognised aesthetic value residing in concept, craftsmanship or function, the work of art becomes a mere price tag. Troilus seems to take a similar view of Helen in Shakespeare’s play. “In his eyes”, writes Terry Eagleton, “Helen is precious because she has been the cause of a glorious war, rather than having caused a war because she is precious.”3 An article by the Editor of Art History News lifts the lid on how this works in the art market, particularly how it works at auctions. “If you are a dealer representing one of the relatively small number of artists who matter, you can bid (anonymously) on their works yourself, to register new ‘values’. You may have to buy some works back, but in a world where the only thing that matters is the most recent price, paying an auctioneer’s commission is merely marketing.” Today’s art market, observes Baudrillard, “goes well beyond the alienation of price as a real measure of things: we are experiencing a fetishism of value that explodes the very notion of a market and at the same time abolishes the artwork as work of art”.4

Even more dubious is the so-called “guarantor purchase”, whereby someone “agrees a certain (undisclosed) price for a work before a sale, and makes a profit if it sells for more [italics added]. To liven things up, they are allowed to bid the work up during the sale too. But if they happen to buy it, their pre-sale negotiation (again, undisclosed) means they will not pay anything like the ‘price’ reported by the auction house, and nor will the new ‘value’ of the work be representative.”5

In other words, the auction houses are rigging their sales every bit as much as those despised barrow boys manipulating the Libor and Forex markets in order to enhance the profits of the banks. The latter faced stiff penalties when the well- kept secret of their operations finally leaked out. An analogous practice in the art market provokes, at best, a shrug of the shoulders.

Market manipulation reaches all layers of investment and is maintained by a mixture of PR bluff sustaining confidence (as in the world of finance generally) and various tricks of the trade that help to prevent works circulating in a manner unfavourable to it. An announcement for a show at a Dutch gallery makes the nexus between art and commerce palpable when it says: “The art investment world is currently highly interested in the work of [this artist] because of the favourable quality/price ratio, and the expectations for the future.” This claim, says Olav Velthuis, is liable to be baseless if, as in this case, it is made by one of the “traditional circuit” galleries dealing in the also-rans of the art world, since there is virtually no resale market for such artists and an auction sale will realise, in all probability, only a fraction of the price.6 It is like buying the latest model of motor car that loses thirty per cent of its value as you drive it away from the showroom.

To the fastidious, there is something disgusting about the mismatch between image and reality that obtains in the plush galleries and auction houses. Enter one of them in London and you will be approached by an immaculately groomed Sloane Ranger, whose simpering manner is belied by her sharp eye calculating whether you are a “serious” (i.e. rich) art lover or a time waster. Her good looks and perfect turn-out parody the homage that aesthetics pays to commerce. If you have something you are contemplating selling, you are passed over to an expert in that kind of object, who discusses its value in a confidential manner and with exceptional delicacy, like a surgeon outlining the prospects of success for an operation on a loved one. The solicitous manner and exquisite tact will probably make you forget altogether that not so long ago the owner of the most famous auction house in the world spent ten months behind bars for colluding with the second most famous auction house in the world in a commission cartel.7

Nor will the elegant gentleman or lady expert bring you up to speed on ruses such as “guarantor purchase”, still less why auction houses need to take commission on both purchase and sale. (This pernicious practice has been successfully introduced without legal challenge, although it contravenes the basic principle that conflicts of interest arise when an agent is taking commission on both sides of a transaction.)8

Meanwhile, all these beautiful people you’re dealing with create such an aura of discreet grandeur, delicacy and good taste that their business ethics somehow fade into the background. It is only when you look into these that you will realise, if you are a Henry James fan, that this precise mismatch between aesthetic refinement and moral vulgarity has been unforgettably depicted in the character of the emetic Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady. The more Osmond’s faultless good taste is stressed, the more the reader becomes uneasily aware of his avarice and essentially unfeeling nature. His type is to be found everywhere in the contemporary art market.

The artist Bridget Riley takes a sober view of the contemporary art scene in which she is a distinguished protagonist. While what she calls “genuine development” in art will, she thinks, go underground, fashionable art “will come more and more to resemble pop music, with group following group, or movement following movement, supported by a vast promotional structure… the western world will produce an inversion of the effect of totalitarianism, with commercialism replacing party ideology as the dominant factor”.9  Some of the successful artists of the day would probably agree. The most outspoken is the graffiti artist Banksy who has adopted the Greta Garbo or J. D. Salinger policy of hiding from the public in order to become more famous (it doesn’t work for everyone of course). Officially he doesn’t intend his large works for sale, since the whole point of them is that they are public statements of an ephemeral nature; however his smaller caprices do come in the market. One of his prints offered at Sotheby’s in 2014 was evidently prompted by the unexpected success of a previous Sotheby sale of Banksy stuff. It is an illustration of an auction at which the work eagerly bid for bears the rubric: “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” That may be placed alongside an indiscretion in old age by Peter Wilson, chairman of Sotheby’s from 1958 to 1980, who has been described with some generosity as “aristocratic, greedy, aesthetic, unscrupulous and tyrannical”: “It has been rubbish all the time”, he remarked candidly – by which he meant not so much the art itself but the commodification of it that he had so driven forward. He had spent his life telling potential sellers that it was the perfect moment to secure a huge price, while simultaneously assuring potential buyers that it was the ideal moment to invest.10

The problem of authenticity, to which Banksy is perhaps indirectly alluding in his homely way, is one that presents a danger to the money-defined art market, not least since the spirit and often the techniques of much modern art lend themselves to fakery. One way of getting round that is to pretend that a copy, at least if blessed by the right galleries and propagandists, is as much a product of creativity as its original. Recently, stunned visitors to MoMA in New York (if visitors to art galleries are still capable of being stunned) found themselves in a retrospective of work by Elaine Sturtevant, “who is known”, writes Ariella Budick, “chiefly for not being any of the artists whose works she faithfully reproduced” (e.g. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella, Oldenburg among others). Although some have looked for “the ironic twist of telling difference” (the ironic statement is a favourite art publicist’s justification for feeble, derivative artworks), it appears that Sturtevant is content just to copy and scrawl her signature on the back of her version. However “slavishness has its perks”, writes Budick; “Collectors have bought her works as affordable substitutes for the real thing – and the art market being the lunatic system that it is, her prices have sometimes vaulted beyond the originals’.” Such a show as that of MoMA for Sturtevant would not be complete without the added insult of an academic apparatus, where some learned charlatan explains that Sturtevant’s copies constitute a fertile dialogue with her sources (the procreators of the sources did not, on the whole, seem to share this view). Or was Miss Sturtevant making a statement (an ironic one of course) about the superficiality of easily imitable art (“way down deep, it’s shallow”, as someone quite memorably said).11

Sturtevant and her work are certainly an interesting phenomenon from a sociological and psychological point of view, if not an aesthetic one. Something called the Pictures Generation made a cult out of her in the 1980s, celebrating her as the “elder stateswoman of the so-called image-appropriation movement”, which Budick describes as “a school of artists that blended Pop Art’s affection for found objects with the conceptualists’ hankering for radical ideas”. However, you might think to her credit, Sturtevant rejected her crown, saying that the “appropriationists were really about the loss of originality… and I was about the power of thought”. She embraced “replication” rather than the trendier term “appropriation”, even though you and I might not be able to tell the difference, and her champions kept telling us that her chosen label didn’t actually mean what it seemed to mean. “Replicating might imply ‘copying’, and she was definitely not doing that – nope, not at all.” Budick concludes with the observation that it would seem a sign of desperation when a museum pays tribute to those who “find the whole enterprise of artistic creation rather pointless and yet presumably distinguish between their own $700,000 handmade reproductions and $40 posters available in the gift shop downstairs”. This is where we end up when originality is defined by its opposite. In 2014 Robert Gober’s Three Urinals (1988) sold at Christie’s for $3.52m. They are indistinguishable, says Grosvenor “from three actual urinals except by virtue of their price and several paragraphs of impenetrable art-speak in a catalogue… expensive, say the experts equals good”.12 The thing is, they are not “original”, since Marcel Duchamp touted the same object as art (Fountain, 1917). They are, so to speak a rip-off of an “ironic statement” that has already been made. And how soon before we have a rip-off of a rip-off?

Much of the most outré contemporary art is made for galleries and big collectors alone, since collectors of modest means have no space for huge installations and no money to pay inflated prices. Yet they are affected by the scene insofar as they are gallery goers who grapple loyally with enigmatic, outrageous, pretentious, gimmicky or whimsical works of art, always accompanied by catalogues filled with pretentious, impenetrable and possibly meaningless art-speak written by true believers (or, in some cases, utter cynics). Nobody likes to be thought an intolerant philistine, still less an idiot, so mostly they seem to accept that they don’t really understand the more banal objects on show, still less the portentous description of them in the catalogue. This affords a “get-out-of-gaol-free card” for the contemporary artist, who is thus to some extent immunised from public taste, as long as his or her work can be successfully gift-wrapped in words like “edgy”, “ironic” or “resonant” by the vested interests promoting him or her.

In the 1990s, Yasmina Reza’s highly successful play Art deconstructed the psychological confusion and social insecurity that can result when a person who has bought into the prevailing artistic hype (Serge) is confronted by the scepticism of his down-to-earth friend (Marc), who is appalled that Serge has spent 200,000 francs on a monochrome white canvas with a couple of diagonal scars. In an encounter of some poignancy, Marc, having described the picture, asks a mutual friend of his and Serge’s (Yvan) to estimate how much Serge had paid for it. Yvan wants to know how fashionable the painter is, to which Marc testily replies, “I’m not asking you for a professional valuation. I’m asking you what you, Yvan, would give for a white painting tarted up with a few off-white stripes.” The play, as Olav Velthuis points out, neatly skewers the clash between those who consider themselves insiders who “get” the point of works of art whose aesthetic appeal they are nevertheless unable to formulate for the benefit of others, or indeed for themselves, and hostile outsiders who think the whole art market is simply a scam.13  The play is not judgemental, but it does invite the audience to consider the question of aesthetic and pecuniary value, of “sweetness and light” versus commodification, a question that the contemporary art market spends a great deal of time, energy and money attempting to obscure.

Philosopher John Armstrong takes the unfashionable view that the most important role of the arts and the humanities is to guide and educate taste. Unfortunately, at least according to him, “the accumulated wisdom of humanity, concerning what is beautiful, interesting, fine or serious, [has] – to a large extent – [been] left to one side at the precise time when the need for guidance was greatest, and when guidance was hardest to give, and so required maximum effort and confidence”. Effort and confidence is not lacking, of course, in the pushing of spurious art, a relentless propaganda drive by modern curators with an attendant band of groupies in the media known to its critics as “the Serota tendency” after the trendy Director of the Tate Gallery. “While the works of [Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst] have gained amazing commercial success”, pursues Armstrong, “they suggest a loss of purpose in the arts. Loss, that is, of a really central and powerful claim upon the education of taste: upon the sense of what is beautiful, gracious or attractive… We have suffered an astonishing corruption of consciousness practised upon us by a decadent cultural elite… it has been supposed that the point of high culture – of the greatest imaginative and creative effort – is to unseat some fantasised ruling class who had to be provoked and distressed into change. But that is not the task of art or intelligence. Their real task is to shape our longings, to show us what is noble and important. And this is not a task that requires any kind of cagey, elusive obscurity… Something is good because it is good, not because it was created yesterday or five hundred years ago.”14

Armstrong’s categories of “beautiful, gracious or attractive” are certainly too narrow, if not naïve (where would we be without the ugly brutality of a Bosch, the inspissated melancholy of a Hopper), but his cri de coeur is worth quoting at some length precisely because today’s art establishment evidently regard such views, which attempt to involve art in notions of beauty, integrity, authenticity and nobility of aspiration, as hopelessly sentimental at best, snobbishly inegalitarian or tiresomely fustian at worst. The fact that a great many potential consumers of art probably share his view is irrelevant. The vast amount of money generated by the Damien Hirst “workshop” is the demonstration of its own worth in a society that can only measure value in terms of cash. Novelty, “provocation”, obscurity and whimsy are the aesthetic currency of such an art, which is admiringly discussed in a jargon that is impenetrable to the layman, not least because there is very little of interest to say about it. Its aesthetic and intellectual incoherence is part of its point, though attempts may be made to gloss it as having socio-political significance. The Armstrongs of the world may imply it is fraudulent, but the killer response to that is: “Of course it’s fraudulent – like our society itself.”

On this analysis, much of “conceptual art” and the like provide the perfect example of the difference between liberty and licence. The artists may sometimes pay lip service to impeccable causes like human rights, feminism or environmental pollution, but this turns out to be mere gesture. The resultant work fails to resonate like Goya’s depiction of the French massacring Spanish freedom fighters in Madrid15 or Picasso’s Guernica16 because the artist’s self-absorption gets in the way. It is “look at me!” rather than “look at this!” Notwithstanding Ludwig Hevesi’s famous motto for the Vienna Secession (der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit – to the age its art, to art its freedom) it is no longer self-evident that the licence of unconstrained freedom, implying a complete absence of normative standards, is an unmitigated blessing for artists. Of course nobody can say that in public, least of all curators, dealers, art critics, academics and others making good money out of today’s gigantic art racket. Leonardo da Vinci could say it though, and did: “Art breathes from containments and suffocates from freedom.”17 That, however, is only one side of what Jean Baudrillard calls the “conspiracy” of modern art. “The other side is that of the spectator who, for want of understanding anything whatever most of the time, consumes his own culture at one remove. He literally consumes the fact that he understands nothing and that there is no necessity in all this except the imperative of culture, of being a part of the integrated circuit of culture. But culture is itself merely an epiphenomenon18 of global circulation. The idea of art has become rarefied and minimal, leading ultimately to conceptual art, where it ends in the non-exhibition of non-works in non-galleries – the apotheosis of art as a non-event. As a corollary, the consumer circulates in all this in order to experience his non-enjoyment of the works.”19

1 The director since 1986, Peter Noever, was himself “fristlos entlassen” in 2011 from his office by the Curatorium of the MAK on account of alleged financial irregularities.

2 Andrew Graham-Dixon: “That way madness lies…”. The Independent, 22 June 1993.

3 Terry Eagleton: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2007), p. 72. Commodification as the basis of ever-expanding profits was the direction in which the legendary head of Sotheby’s Peter Wilson took the art world. As his obituary in The Independent put it: “He was not only able to attract desirable objects (mostly paintings) and sell them at ever-increasing prices at auction, but, himself a hustler, was able to democratise the natural desire to value a widening range of objects in terms of cash rather than mere beauty or sentiment.” (The Independent, 20 June 1993.)

4 Jean Baudrillard: op. cit., p. 44 (from “Starting from Andy Warhol” [1990]).

5 Bendor Grosvenor: “Contemporary art is judged by its price tag not by aesthetics.” Financial Times, 19 November 2014.

6 See Olav Velthuis: Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 49.

7 Alfred Taubman, Chairman of Sotheby’s, was convicted in 2002, along with his CEO, Diane Brooks, who was treated less harshly than him for cooperating with the prosecution. The Chairman of Christie’s, Sir Anthony Tenant, was also indicted, but refused to go to the USA to stand trial. Despite affecting pleas for leniency from the great and the good (Henry Kissinger and the Queen of Jordan among them) the trial judge was unmoved, pointing out that the conspiracy had swindled customers out of more than $100 million.

8 The double commission scam is now covertly being introduced into the London real estate market which, as once did the auction houses, hitherto has charged commission only to the seller. Businesses do this sort of thing when they can get away with it, or until the law intervenes. The most blatant conflict of interest of this kind was revealed when Goldman Sachs was hauled before the regulators to explain one of its transactions labelled Abacus. This involved selling bundled sub-prime mortgages (CDOs) to an unsuspecting buyer while not revealing that the party on the other side of the bargain was a short seller which had itself selected some of the assets and was betting against them.

9 From Robert Kudielka (ed.): The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley Collected Writings 1965–2009 (London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2009).

10 See: “Sharp Dealers”. The Economist, 23 October 2001.

11 See: Ariella Budick, “Limitations of imitation”. Financial Times, 12 November 2014.

12 Bendor Grosvenor: op. cit.

13 Velthuis: op. cit., pp. 179–181.

14 John Armstrong: In Search of Civilization (Penguin, London, 2010), pp. 66–67.

15 Francesco de Goya: Third of May 1808 at Madrid (Prado, Madrid).

16 Pablo Picasso: Guernica (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid). The picture commemorates in modernistic terms the atrocity of the bombing of this Basque village in 1937 by German and Italian warplanes fighting for General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

17 Cf. the composer Igor Stravinsky’s remark: “The more constraints one imposes [i.e. the more “narrowly one limits one’s field of action”,] the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.” The alleged remark by Leonardo da Vinci has been very widely quoted, indeed celebrated. However no one seems prepared to supply a source for it.

18 The Oxford Dictionary of English defines “epiphenomenon” in its medical usage inter alia as “a secondary symptom, occurring simultaneously with a disease or condition but not directly related to it”.

19 Jean Baudrillard: “Contemporary Art: Art Contemporary with Itself”, in: Chris Turner (translator): The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (Talking Images), Berg Publishers, 2005.

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