Monday, January 12, 2009

Stop Cheering the 'Art Recession'

Waldemar Januszczak became the latest writer to cheer the apparent setback in the art market, this time in the pages of the London Times.  After arguing that the art world has become "soft, blubbery, arrogant, self-congratulatory and decadent," he declares that economic turmoil is the answer: "British art needs a recession for the same sorts of reasons that those forests in South Africa need the occasional fire: to strengthen their wood, to return to an essence, to get rid of the weeds and to regenerate."  It amounts to a peculiar, lazy analogy that suggests a lack of understanding about the art market.

It's tempting to share his enthusiasm for the weeding that could potentially occur, the dissolution of "All these Johnny-come-latelys from Zurich or Berlin or New York who have ended up here because this is where the hedge-fund money was are as crucial to the national art scene as another branch of Starbucks," as he puts it.  To whom, though, is he actually referring?  At least here in New York, many of the "Johnny-come-latelys" are showing some of the best art right now and selling it at prices within the reach of a lot of working New York professionals, precisely the people that will be hit most by the wider economic downturn.  

I buy the argument that Koons and Hirst collectors are likely to continue to have the money to continue to fuel their acquisitions for a while.  Even if a few of their colleagues lose interest as the market drops, that monied upper-echelon can and will be able to avoid a collapse in the top-valued few dozen artists.  It's the scrappy, young galleries centered around the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn that are in the most danger.  I normally try to keep this a Clement Greenberg-free blog (and not use the term avant-garde), but I find myself almost echoing his point in "Avante-Garde and Kitsch":
"No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold."
That elite may choose not to funnel money to the newest galleries as they rein in their spending.  At the very least, potential collectors from slightly lower-income brackets may not materialize as they have in the past.  As long as the money is flowing, who cares where it comes from or what it supports at that moment?  It's feeding as much good as bad.  Some of both are likely to disappear this year. That shouldn't be a cause for celebration.

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