PRINT April 2008


“TODAY, A MEGAYACHT IS INDISPENSABLE. It’s not like 15 years ago, when a yacht was a luxury item.” So says Olivier Milliex, head of yacht finance at ING bank.1 The art world has heard the call and mustered its response: SeaFair’s $40 million Grand Luxe took to the seas in 2007. Up to twenty-eight commercial galleries, each paying $10,000 to $30,000 per week for a showroom, can be accommodated on board. SeaFair made its gala debut while docked at the hedge-fund epicenter, Greenwich, Connecticut. “What we have invented,” declared the ship’s proprietor, “is the mobile luxury shopping venue. . . . Wealthy people in the U.S. have more money than time. This is designed to make it an interesting, easy experience within 15 minutes of their house [sic].”2 The yacht’s ports of call, to date, have been along the shores of northern Long Island and across the sound in Fairfield County (with a foray to Miami for Art Basel). To welcome SeaFair’s arrival in Greenwich, Peter Sutton, director of the city’s Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences, mounted the third installment of an exhibition highlighting works lent by local collectors. He called it “Contemporary and Cutting Edge: Pleasures of Collecting.”

Those searching for the telltale peak of excess in the recent expansion of the art market may take some perverse satisfaction in items like this one. But betting against the purveyors of excess, even those so unaware of the Gatsby-like ludicrousness of their behavior, ought to be undertaken with caution. Even if impending financial collapse in the United States has begun to take the burghers of the New York suburbs out of the market, the Grand Luxe can no doubt weigh anchor for the Baltic or the China Sea and find eager customers among those who stand to benefit from American economic distress.

Many observers committed to art as a disinterested cognitive practice take particular offense at the rise to prominence of art fairs and even more at the feeding displays on view at these events. Leaving matters of taste and decorum to one side, however, it is surely a curious position for anyone with a vocational and emotional investment in the centrality of art to complain that it has come to be overvalued by society. While there may indeed be a proliferation of meretricious art called into being by market demands, as was argued concerning the ascendancy of the neo-expressionists during the Reagan era, just how great the proliferation or how meretricious the art, then and now, remains open to question. And have such developments ever meant that there is less of the art that rewards the attention of serious viewers? Indeed, the opposite could be the case. While Damien Hirst might be anathematized for seeming to track market excesses with relish and as a core content of his work, the recent megasculptures of Richard Serra depend equally on the nearly unprecedented marshalling of resources that current market conditions make conceivable.

Writing in these pages last year, David Joselit put the matter as forthrightly as possible: “It is probably crude but nonetheless important to acknowledge that a work like [Serra’s 2006] Sequence could only be made for an art market bloated with huge financial profits corresponding to ever greater national and global inequality,” and it is precisely to this expanded market (and expanded audience) that Joselit traces the artist’s recent “combination of jumbo scale and ingratiating effects.” In contrast to Serra’s more modest and fragile-seeming pieces of the late 1960s, Joselit argues, the monumentality of the newer work obviates “the dangers and difficulties attendant on that period’s struggles to invent new models of collective being.”3

It could be said in reply that Serra began his sequence of outsize Torqued Ellipses in the mid-’90s, well before the international market had come anywhere near its present scale and frenzy; and, further, that the evident weakness in the West of the struggles to which Joselit refers could make an art dedicated to their memory an unrealistic form of aesthetic compensation. And it may well be a fallacy in any case to take the sheer size of a Serra, or the diamonds in a Hirst, simply as mimetic mirroring of a hyperexpanded or vanity-ridden marketplace. Better, perhaps, to ignore such material seductions for a moment and think instead about a trait that both artists share, which is a reliance on uncommonly labor-intensive procedures. Far beyond what used to be regarded as a normal complement of studio assistants and fabricators, the output of each can depend on collaborators and assistants operating on multiple continents and numbering in the scores. Hirst (like Takashi Murakami) has further consolidated these dependencies into a vertically integrated organization, the members of which are employed exclusively by him and function as a group wherever he may be working.

These enterprises constitute mini economies in themselves, and an understanding of their logic and means of operation matters as much to an understanding of the art market as does the business model of a gallery, auction house, or art fair. Any artist capable of building and mastering such a complex and extended organization is in a position to offer his or her clients a more distinctive and sought-after end product. As part and parcel of that rarefied appeal, such an artist also gains standing vis-à-vis worldly powers that would overwhelm the frail resources of an individual practitioner. As the clout of certain megacollectors increases, art requires defensive formations formidable enough to introduce some degree of equality into the transactions between maker and buyer—such as that enjoyed by Hirst with a Charles Saatchi, or Serra with an Eli Broad.

Artists on this level—and Jeff Koons certainly must be added to the list—are no doubt conspicuous exceptions to the norm in having achieved such commensurable weight in the marketplace on their own account. But the truly market-making consumers of their art are also few in number. And the old-style designation “patron” may in fact suit them better. A mega-collector needs to be distinguished by a public relationship with a mega-artist. A good deal of the highest-level commerce in the art world is bespoken, that is, founded on prior agreement, much as princely patronage functioned in the distant past. When Hirst evoked “a life without God aboard the ship of fools” in a 2006 exhibition title, SeaFair’s Grand Luxe had not yet been launched, but its customers occupy their own self-deluding low end of the market, however much they may be paying for the privilege. They are interchangeable, just like the objects of art as seen through the conceptual framework of commodity exchange. Indeed, the quality of consumer in this case and the quality of that concept roughly match each other—that is, both explain relatively little about the behavior of the current art market as network and system.

FOR ANY BUSINESS hoping to sell something at a premium, the worst fear is that its product will become, in the language of economists, “commoditized.” What that means is a descent into interchangeability with any other good in that category offered by any other producer. Pure commodities include bulk raw materials and agricultural products—tons of copper and carloads of wheat—with respect to which no distinction between one quantity and another makes any difference to the buyer. Many other ordinary goods approach this condition without falling into it entirely. As the Forbes “Investopedia” tells us, “When a product becomes indistinguishable from others like it and consumers buy on price alone, it becomes a commodity.”

In very few cases—whether or not one attaches the term fetish—does the term apply to the upper levels of a market, in which the best-placed consumers pride themselves on their personal relationships with the producers and even intimate acquaintance with their places of work. While commoditization offers advantages to purchasers in many markets, in that they can pit producers against one another, it is to the advantage of neither the buyer nor the seller of art, who share a common interest in the perceived incomparability of the product. This has, at least, been the case since the eclipse of the medieval guilds, which did encourage something like a commodity condition, an enforced absence of meaningful product differentiation within the price-fixing monopolies they wielded. Our modern notions of art and artist arose as certain exceptional talents fought their way free from guild restrictions in order to market that very freedom as a quality exceeding in value even the most precious materials.

That gambit, however, would have met with little success had such artists not found ratification among patrons with an appetite for signs of distinction to match the terms of their own self-regard. In early-modern Europe, such self-flattery typically channeled itself into magnificent displays of donated religious art. In the case of the great carved and painted altarpieces of southern Germany, new wealth that overwhelmed the capacity of the old guilds opened a space for a new style of artist, one who could offer his patron—in place of piecemeal dealings with multiple craft specialists—a production integrated in practical, financial, and aesthetic terms.

I choose this example not only for a coincidence of conspicuous new fortunes (like the Fuggers’, which laid the foundation of international banking capital) and superior artistic enterprise (like that of sculptor-entrepreneurs Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss). The interplay of mutual flattery between patron and artist also prompted a popular outcry against the ruinous reign of money crowding out traditional virtues of piety and restraint. With the onset of the Protestant Reformation, that resentment flowered into iconoclastic fury, fueled by religious objections to pride and idolatry, deeply damaging the old art economy with its subtle weave of client and producer interests.

But such an act of rebellion against these early manifestations of capital in art only accelerated and widened the development of an incipient modern market. Artists dispossessed and dispersed by the iconoclasts were forced for reasons of survival to turn their energies toward producing increasingly private and modestly scaled objects for greater numbers of clients in more places, large and small. And this link between iconoclastic protest and market expansion has been repeated at intervals throughout European history. Toward the end of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands, Protestant stripping of the churches pushed artists toward appealing to private buyers with secularized, portable landscapes and genre scenes—painting types that came to define Dutch art in its golden age of trading prosperity.

Two hundred years later, the political fury unleashed by the French Revolution forced a scattering across Europe of the art objects amassed by both aristocrats and even more pretentious nouveaux riches, displacing works (among them many prized seventeenth-century Dutch paintings) from their moorings in delicately composed interiors and in the process enormously enriching and expanding networks of trade—creating opportunities for new collectors to enter the marketplace. The American grandees of the Gilded Age were among the ultimate beneficiaries of this great dispersal.

There may be a lesson in this ancient history, such that hostility and aggression toward conspicuous, consolidated consumption of art have been instrumental in pushing significant new waves of market expansion and penetration, in the process making art producers ever more beholden to market-driven behaviors and imperatives. Might there then be a more contemporary example of a parallel process at work?

IT CAN BE ARGUED that the shape of the market as we know it today was an emergent phenomenon of the late 1950s and 1960s, one indelibly associated with the names of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, his ex-wife and amicable partner in establishing the crucial beachhead from which Castelli’s American artists won access to European museums and collectors.4 In the era bookended by the 1954 enactment of favorable tax regulations concerning museum donations of works of art and the first major (and successful) auction of contemporary American work, held in 1965 at Parke-Bernet in New York, Castelli not only did more than any other individual to bring a sophisticated national market into being; he also succeeded in exporting that model abroad. And key to that enterprise was his having embraced a mode of art fashioned from readily recognizable and indelibly memorable imagery—that is, the work of the chief progenitors and exemplars of Pop.5

That link was lost on no one, and the old avant-gardists, wedded to struggle and sacrifice as the price of artistic integrity, naturally bridled at the surrender to the vulgarity they perceived in the Pop vision: art that looked like products being sold like products. The rough-edged Robert C. Scull, his name emblazoned on scores of New York taxis, debuted the role—assumed in the present by Saatchi, Broad, and Steven Cohen—of the collector who inserts the new art of the day into a public theater of self-assertive wealth. The novel international focus on American artists in fact boosted the entire market, enhancing demand for the work of older artists like de Kooning, Kline, and Rothko. This general effect of the Pop-inspired marketplace prompted the emergent Conceptual artists, along with those advancing the first stirrings of institutional critique, to look at work in any established medium as belonging to the devalued category of tradable goods. Diversion from art’s animating ideas to their compromised material embodiments began to appear as a form of secular idolatry.

Douglas Huebler, in text included in his Location Piece #2, New York City–Seattle, Washington, 1969, put the matter plainly: “Since Impressionism most art has been based on an inference that our experience of natural phenomena necessarily calls for its transposition into visual manifestations. My work is concerned with determining the form of art when the role traditionally played by the visual experience is mitigated or eliminated. . . . Whatever is visual in the work exists arbitrarily and its real existence remains as itself—in ‘life’ along with everything else—and separate from art or the purposes of art.” While iconoclasm can of course involve damage or destruction visited on physical works of art, it can also manifest itself, as here, in a lofty indifference to art’s sensory trappings and a tacit discouragement of any further object making. The arguments for Conceptual art amply fulfilled the latter two traits, and the question consequently arises whether Conceptualism—following the historical pattern—can then be said to have helped engender the conditions underlying the next wave of market expansion.

In answer to that question, one could observe that the displacement of the unique, crafted object into any one of a number of discursive substitutes—textual instructions, deadpan descriptions, graphic formulas, photographic documents, dictionary definitions, performative stagings—reinforced a principle of equivalence, thereby shifting artistic practice closer to the fluid exchangeability that characterizes the true commodity. The relative weightlessness of the Conceptualist artifact removed friction and production bottlenecks from the system. And one particularly cost-efficient vector proved to be the relatively unimpeded movement of artists to more geographic locations than ever before, which had the added effect of transforming the maker’s presence and personality into the main guarantees of a work’s authenticity.

Once the art object had been divested of its still-semisacred status, there followed what empirical investigation would surely reveal to be substantial increases in market liquidity, labor mobility, density of communicative networks, and structural flexibility. These developments are of course equally susceptible to description as productive networks improvised by the field’s best and most creative minds (like Huebler’s) in order to make the most meaningful art they could, while voluntarily forgoing the obvious avenues of material support.6 The effort here is to describe these developments as features of the evolution of markets rather than in the more customary terms of resistance to an alien intrusion. For a time, indeed, they were both. But the political shibboleths of the 1960s soon weakened, and the low-friction productivity and distributive flexibility fostered by Conceptualism proved to be neutral in application. The traditional media, having been cut from their old moorings, could themselves circulate and be recombined with new freedom. As soon as credibly self-aware projects in painting and sculpture reestablished themselves at the margins of the new system (mainly in Germany and Italy), the system’s mechanisms simply took over, moving margin to center, channeling the collectors’ capital that had been waiting in the wings, and all but guaranteeing the carnivals of consumption that have followed in waves up to the present.

The process calls to mind Kafka’s parable—a little worn from use—about leopards breaking into the temple and desecrating the vessels so regularly that the beasts become incorporated into the ceremony. The understanding of any economy depends on the positing of abstract models combined with long-term tracking of behaviors of all the significant actors. Despite the efforts of well-meaning economic historians tracing price data in old inventories and auction records, nothing like this exists for the sphere of art. And that absence ought to limit confidence in one’s judgments concerning the deeper effects of the current market boom. This is not to say that vigilance and outrage have no place in the ethical outlook that Joselit rightly counsels us to maintain. The scandalous rise in inequality of income, which provides the wealthiest collectors with so much spare cash for art, has arisen in part from the systematic transfer of public assets into private hands that characterizes the reign of the New Right. The core of its Long March Through the Institutions has been the unfair reduction of the tax obligations of the uppermost tier—at grievous expense to the commonly held social infrastructure. Leaving aside the gaping need for public investment in schools, roads, bridges, and mass transit, virtually every university, research laboratory, and museum that depends on tax revenue is hurting, at a time of unprecedented demands for their services. And the new masters of private wealth have hollowed out the cultural commons even further by altering the terms of the philanthropic support that they remain willing to provide.

Eli Broad may not have invented the term “venture philanthropy,” but he has done much to give it currency and demonstrate the practical consequences of the concept where the arts are concerned. Amid a great deal of high-flown phraseology, the practice (also called “high-engagement” or just “the new” philanthropy) amounts to donors imposing their own claims to expertise and executive authority over the professional staffs to whose training and experience their predecessors were generally content and even proud to defer. The recent turns of events around the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, inserted within the public complex of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have given Broad’s present and prospective collaborators a taste of what they are in for. In a move now so well known as to need little detailed description, Broad foreswore—virtually on the eve of its opening—any tacit commitment that he would donate art to fill the galleries of the highly visible building named in his honor. LACMA could simply take its place at the head of a line of putatively grateful dependents on the Broad Foundation holdings, to be doled out on the model of a lending library. As he put it to one unctuous interviewer: “Most museums—with all their burdens to pay for exhibitions, administration, and security—really don’t have any money really to acquire art, with few exceptions. So we said we could. And that has worked out very well.”7 Indeed, he might well think so (“Can I get you on the record saying that you really are having a ball?” asked the same questioner). Far be it from Broad to offer support for unglamorous necessities of staffing and maintenance; far more attractive it must seem to have one’s name on both the visible shell of a public museum and the collecting trophies inside, over whose choice and disposition one retains, in a final act of bait and switch, the final word. Martin Filler, writing in the New York Review of Books on the opening of BCAM, did not mince words: “Broad’s de facto privatization of a big chunk of LACMA—the cultural equivalent of a leveraged buyout, or taking a public company private—[has] done a grave disservice to the taxpayers of the county, who, whether they like it or not, will be footing the bill for much of Broad’s monument to himself. . . . Strange as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the ways of American museums, art world veterans agree that Eli Broad pulled off an enviable deal for approximately $60 million.”8

THE SPECTACLE OF A HIGH-PROFILE DONOR successfully depositing his large cuckoo egg in the LACMA nest can only further fray long-standing relationships of trust on which American artistic life depends. Adrian Ellis, whose profession is to offer strategic advice to cultural institutions, writes with deep and justifiable concern about “a new generation of proprietorial museum board members who feel that, as in their own professional lives, ‘rules are for other people’ and that, whatever the formal legal status, these institutions are an extension of their own private property and can be run as such.”9 Broad can make his play because he possesses an enormous competitive advantage in the marketplace and can therefore hold a large accumulation of assets as leverage over his nonprofit and public-sector clients—if they choose to go along.

A hyperactive market can also provide an obvious incentive to liquidate assets held in public trust in order to relieve customary social and financial pressure on private philanthropists. A current case in point, unfolding as this essay is being prepared for publication, involves a group of paintings owned by Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, including major pieces by Edward Hicks and George Bellows—the best-known works in that small school’s important collection of American art. In a course of events both tragic and farcical, the unknowing (and since resigned) director of the college’s Maier Museum of Art found herself confronted by the college president himself, who demanded that the paintings be turned over to him on the spot. She was, as she told reporter Lee Rosenbaum, to remain under supervision in her office, phone and computer lines cut off, while the art, not even crated at this point, was removed to a waiting truck. Cooperative Lynchburg police declared a false bomb alert to clear the area of curious onlookers while the removal proceeded.10

All of this barbarism is being aided and abetted by Christie’s, which dangled an estimate of some $32 million in front of the Randolph trustees, who want the windfall for the school’s endowment (the costs of a controversial move to coeducation by the former women’s college are at issue). A current college senior commented on a blog affiliated with the local newspaper: “It is a knife in the back to the students who raised money for the George Bellows in 1920, which was sold at a discounted price because Bellows said ‘artists care less for money than for the placing of their art.’”11 An alliance of groups opposed to the sale succeeded, this past November, in securing a temporary injunction against the sale but failed in February to raise the necessary bond ($1 million) to keep the injunction in force. A trial date to determine the rights of the college to sell the works has been set, but nothing now prevents their dispersal, as a Randolph court filing makes plain: “The College plans to sell the Four Paintings at its earliest and most financially advantageous opportunity. Although the College has no immediate plans to sell the Four Paintings until after the circuit court trial, the College cannot represent that it would not sell if the temporary injunction were dissolved and a willing buyer made an offer acceptable to the College’s Board of Trustees.”

Who needs iconoclasts at the door when the vandals are inside the walls? There is a symbiosis emerging at the moment between what appears to be a peaking art market and a disquieting development in trustee culture: that is, a desire to enjoy the prestige of position while off-loading—despite unprecedented private wealth—the obligations to give and to raise money that traditionally came with it. One might regard the scandal at Randolph as unrepresentative, an exceptional measure by a cash-strapped institution far from the limelight, but Rosenbaum’s critical reporting for the Wall Street Journal (Capital seems to be of two minds about all this) brought to light parallel actions by as august a cultural institution as the New York Public Library.12

In possession of major bequests of American painting, the library’s trustees (as glittering a board as there is) convinced themselves that selling off the patrimony of the institution and the city was preferable to the embarrassment of a fund-raising failure. In a 2004 report, a trustee committee concluded: “The idea of attempting an endowment campaign first, and then selling artworks later—if the campaign failed—did not gain much Committee support. Failed campaigns are seriously injurious for many reasons.” The sale of a single painting by Asher B. Durand in 2005, brokered by Sotheby’s to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for her private “Crystal Bridges” museum in Bentonville, Arkansas (within a month of the deaccessioning’s semisecret announcement), gained the library’s endowment as much as Randolph College is currently expecting at auction from all its own deaccessions. Sixteen more works from the library’s collection went on open auction later that year.13 Though the takings were in fact disappointing (one of the two Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington sold well below its estimate—again, to Walton—and the other failed to sell at all), the results today could have been considerably more rewarding. This entire discussion might seem mysterious to Europeans, whose public institutions and their holdings are just that—public. But the more delicate threads of custom and obligation that have created and supported civic culture in America may be most at risk while we indulge less consequential discomforts with the excesses of the art market.

Thomas Crow is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.


1. John Tagliabue, “For the Yachting Class, the Latest Amenity Can Take Flight,” New York Times (October 2, 2007).

2. Marcelle S. Fischler, “Art That Follows the Money,” New York Times (September 30, 2007).

3. David Joselit, “Richard Serra,” Artforum (October 2007), 363.

4. Here I draw on the research of Hiroko Ikegami and Titia Hulst. See, e.g., Ikegami, “1964: Robert Rauschenberg and the Beginnings of Globalization in Modern Art” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2007), and Hulst’s recent article “The Leo Castelli Gallery,” Archives of American Art Journal 46, nos. 3–4 (Fall 2007), 16–22.

5. See Jennifer Wells, “Pop Goes the Market,” in Definitive Statements: American Art 1964–1966, exh. cat. (Providence, RI: Department of Art, Brown University, 1986), 57.

6. An eloquent recent account in these terms of a similar phenomenon in the wake of the market collapse of the early 1990s can be found in Jerry Saltz, “Has Money Ruined Art?,” New York Magazine (October 15, 2007), 39.

7. Eli Broad, interviewed by Willow Bay, Huffington Post (February 8, 2008).

8. Martin Filler, “Broad-Minded Museum,” New York Review of Books (March 20, 2008), 16.

9. Adrian Ellis, “The Problem with Privately Funded Museums,” Art Newspaper (February 2008), 24.

10. Lee Rosenbaum, “The Maier Monday Massacre: Ex-Director Describes What Happened,” ArtsJournal (October 4, 2007).

11. Quoted in Darrell Laurant, “Right Now, Randolph Is Not a Peaceable Kingdom,” Blog of the Seven Hills: Thoughts from the Columnist Darrell Laurant of the News & Advance in Lynchburg, VA (October 2, 2007).

12. Lee Rosenbaum, “A Betrayal of Trust: At the New York Public Library, It’s Sell Now, Raise Money Later,” Wall Street Journal (November 1, 2005).

13. See Carol Vogel, “Library’s Art Auction Fails to Meet Expectations,” New York Times (December 1, 2005).