Friday, May 29, 2020

In Faint Praise of Galleries

It is received wisdom in the world of Serious Artists that the art gallery, the curator, the old, white, gatekeeper is a problem. The conceit is that these people and entities are creating artificial barriers, usually vaguely defined, which prevent some brave new world of global, accessible, art. We don't know much about this brave world, except that the formerly underpaid artist currently complaining will be making a comfortable living making art, and that old white people will not be invited.

This is largely untrue.

Let us decourously set aside the transparent conceit here, which is that the people complaining just want to replace the shitty artists (anyone currently successful) with themselves, at the same salary but would, in a pinch, settle for smashing all the toys before letting anyone else play with them.

In reality most of the Art in play here is thoroughly unlikable. Nobody actually wants this stuff. Whether it's a gigantic print of the Rhine River, or some a sculpture you made out of your own underwear and 10 gallons of epoxy, no normal human being actually wants to possess this thing on its own merits. It's not like a candy bar, or a shelter from the rain, or a mode of transportation. Demand for these dumb things needs to be created.

Indeed, most people won't pay even much for appealing art. Legions of photographers attempt to eke out some little income from selling attractive landscapes in cheap frames, or on canvas, and a very few of them manage to pay for their gear. Even fewer manage to also get a living here. And this is stuff people actually like.

The galleries and curators, with their obnoxious artificial scarcity are in fact creating the demand. If Cindy Sherman sold her prints on amazon for $150 each, she would have made $450 by now.

The conceit is that artificial scarcity is to drive prices up, so that old white men can line their pockets. While, sure, this is obviously something the old white men approve of, the first thing artificial scarcity does is create demand. No scarcity, no demand. I mean, just look at this stuff?!

No sane human being wants to own a Crewdson. You might well enjoy looking at his prints, you might find much in them to see and to feel and to experience. But nobody wants to own one. The only reason to own such an object is because it is valuable, and it is valuable because that value has been constructed by a system designed to construct just such value.

The system is an ingenious machine of interlocking parts, including critical writing, marketing, salesmanship, and, yes, scarcity.

Right now, despite the predations of the old white curators, Art is available at every price point. From the $10 range to the $10 million dollar range. It sells at, well, at a rate. A very very slow rate. Because most people don't want to own Art.

If, as the good prog-lefties want, we knock the $10 million dollar price point off entirely, as well as all the high end galleries and auction houses and all the accouterments of the optimistically named "late stage capitalism" side of the Art Market, two things happen: one, several billion dollars evaporate from the industry, making it less accessible, and making the people in the industry less well paid; two, demand for art drops.

Trickle down economics sucks, and that is indeed how the system works now. I don't really see any way to make it work the other way 'round, though. It's art, not tortilla chips. You can replace the money with UBI or something, which is generally a pretty good idea, but hasn't anything much to do with Art.

On the demand side, the in the glorious socialist future (GSF), there is no demand for ugly $2 million dollar photographs, because nobody is drumming up the demand. The demand for $500 art stays flat, or drops: if you bought it because you liked it, maybe you'd do it again in the GSF. If you bought partly because you want a piece of the glamour, maybe you won't, because there's nobody drumming up the glamour.

Maybe I am missing it, but I see no way at all that demand rises in the GSF, and I see at least one substantive way demand drops. In the Glorious Socialist Future, even less Art gets sold.

Now, I am no particular fan of the current system. But the choice is not between "a few old white men get rich" and "all the happy young artists get to make a living gluing their underwear into heaps", it's between "some people make money" and "nobody makes any money."

My position has been, and remains, that we ought to be OK with nobody making any money. Especially not the underwear and epoxy crowd.


  1. As a self-identified Old White Man, and a former citizen of the GSF, I approve this message.


  2. In the GSP&P (Great Socialist Past and Present), elites and apparatchiks amassed/amass personal wealth, mansions, limousines ... the whole nine yards. AND buy-invest in expensive art in galleries.

    So there's that.