An art world in crisis
Obsessed with economic worth on one side and claiming to be our conscience on the other, the global scene is risking its relevance, Russell Smith writes
In an episode of Absolutely Fabulous, the British sitcom about 1990s materialism, the trendy Edina is given some earrings by her daughter that come in a Christian Lacroix box. Edina is thrilled. "Are they Lacroix?" she asks. "Do you like them or not?" her daughter replies. "I like them if they're Lacroix," Edina nervously says.
Edina might as well be in charge of the endless controversy over the provenance of a possible Caravaggio found in a French attic in 2014, and still being examined. Everyone is going to like it if it's really by Caravaggio. The painting is a lush, gory drama, Judith beheading Holofernes, an educational Christian scene much represented by Renaissance and Baroque art. Several experts have examined it at this point, and they are divided: Some say it is a genuine Caravaggio (which would date it at around 1600), while others say it's more likely the work of one of that artist's followers, the Flemish painter Louis Finson, who is known to have done an almost perfect copy of another (certified) Caravaggio of the same scene.
Judging by reproductions, it's a painting that is both creepy and beautiful. Both Caravaggio and Finson were exquisite painters. It has their typical darkness, the midnight-black background that led to so many of his disciples being called "tenebrists" (what a lovely word! I want to be a tenebrist!). It has sex and violence and moral complexity. There's a knotted red curtain. There's an old woman with a monstrously swollen neck – a goiter – just to add a little grotesquerie.
But no one wants to talk about it as a painting, or about such beautiful words as chiaroscuro or tenebrist or even goiter. What we want to talk about is its value. If it's Caravaggio, it's worth somewhere around €120-million (or about $180-million).
Lawyers are girding up for a fantastically lucrative battle over this as we speak. Art historians are only involved for their use as verifiers.
Put this together with the Jean-Michel Basquiat news coming out of Christie's last week ($110.5-million [U.S.] for an untitled 1982 painting, making it the most expensive piece of U.S. art), the Peter Doig news coming out of Phillips a few days later ($28.8-million for one piece of the British artist's work, making him that country's highest-priced living artist), and all set against the backdrop of the naively political Venice Biennale, and you have a portrait of an art world in a sort of crisis. Obsessed with economic worth on one side and claiming to be the world's conscience on the other, contemporary art is just not very convincing right now.
The kinds of people buying these pieces are obviously in the superrich class, rarely from North America or Western Europe (the purchaser of the Basquiat was Japanese online fashion entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa), and competing in some kind of status game that is completely outside normal experience or understanding. According to Forbes, Maezawa spent $98-million on art in the span of two days in 2016. It looks, from the outside, quite simply insane.
Even in Canada, we are not immune from the bubble. Just this week in Toronto, a Jean-Paul Riopelle sold for $7.4-million (Canadian) – $6-million higher than its estimate, and coming close to the Canadian record ($11.2-million for a Lawren Harris).
Business newspapers (including this one) have started to come out with investment advice for this terrifying market, and advice on what to do about inheritances if you find yourself in possession of one of these valuable "portfolios." The biggest art experts these days are accountants.
People in the art world – particularly young artists – hate this nonsense because these prices reflect nothing but tendencies in commodity speculation.
This frenzy of speculation crassly materializes art, and restricts it to the ultra-wealthy. All true. But those same young artists are also highly competitive about their gallery representation and professional about their résumés and websites – because, who knows, anyone could get picked by this great wheel of fortune to be the next superstar.
Art as a profession is a paradox: It is badly underpaid, and artists tend to be proud of their poverty and romanticize it. Randomly distributed into this life of poverty are a handful of golden tickets, and no one knows whose chocolate bar they will be in. It's a situation that will make anyone neurotic, suspicious and angry.
And then there's the current artistic backdrop: the Venice Biennale, the most romantic and most highbrow art show in the world, where half a million visitors arrive every other year to see those chosen to represent their country as the most interesting artist of the moment. To be chosen for Venice is like joining the Olympic team, and every important critic and curator has to go to see it. Verdicts are coming in from critics. And there is a bit of a sour tone to many of them. This year's Biennale, curated by Christine Macel, of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, has not been an overwhelming critical success. People, even art people, are getting tired, it seems, of riddle-like conceptualism and earnest hand-wringing both. They are tired of nexuses of art and money and power.
Recurring complaints are that the show is dully, politically didactic, with a lot of expressing solidarity with migrants and refugees from the virtuous position of famous artist. There were lots of workshops and activities and little painting. There were even complaints that the curator had engaged in nepotism by including her own romantic partner as a participating artist. (This was dismissed with shrugs, as the whole powerful art world is interconnected; it's impossible to avoid.)
A particularly angry reviewer in the online journal Art F City decried the show's political activist stance as "Save the Children earnestness" and "yoga-mat platitude art." He lambasted the arrogance of artists who think that pointing out ecological disaster or inequity is solving problems: "Art has no impact on Donald Trump's actions, the FBI or any of the Republicans in the Senate and Congress. People can call their representatives. Art cannot. All of which is to say, the art professional who believes artists are magical unicorns who will save us all is looking increasingly silly."
The Sydney Morning Herald review, titled "Mediocrity Suspended Between Poles Of Earnestness And Silliness," was blistering about the audience: "… Expose a group of arty people to something boring and incomprehensible and they'll swear it was magnificent." The reviewer also wondered if people realized that "It's too easy to mistake bleakness for profundity."
Note that these are art critics talking, not Wild Rose candidates from Lethbridge. Talk about neurosis, anger and suspicion. One doesn't want to say that art is in crisis – it's always in crisis – but there is at least a noticeable self-doubt in the air.
Artists are wondering what it is that they actually do. Do they make rare objects for billionaires to trade? Or do they attempt to convince people not to vote for Marine Le Pen? Are there not inherent contradictions in these two goals? (Basquiat himself, a Haitian, was said to be expressing rage at racism and exclusion in his tortured work; how would he have felt about becoming the billionaire's prize commodity?) Is there not something else art might be doing?
A part of me is hoping the Caravaggio is proven to be fake; I hope it is stripped of any monetary value. And then we might be able to look at it and see a scary story rendered in gorgeous paint, and decide if we like it or not.