A slice of the profit: Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” passes through the shredder at Sotheby’s

Art for oligarchs’ sake

Divorced from aesthetic considerations, the modern art business is a refuge for the uber-rich

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How useless is painting,” wrote Pascal, “which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!” This is the sort of reaction that might well be engendered in the uninitiated after a visit to the exhibits of the annual Turner Prize in London’s Tate Gallery. It may or may not be deemed an adequate response to Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’Artista, a limited edition of 90 small cans, each containing a 30-gram turd of the artist. (Or possibly not containing the turd, because an obligation enjoined on the purchasers was that the cans should never be opened and so far apparently none of them has been. The last [unopened] can to appear on the market fetched £97,250 at Sotheby’s in 2008.) 

Pascal’s insight could certainly be applied to Jeff Koons, the cult artist of crass consumerism and infantile jokes, whose works include Rabbit (the cast of an inflatable plastic bunny which allegedly “parodies” Brancusi’s bird sculptures), vacuum cleaners framed in Plexiglass or the artist’s take on kitsch ornaments such as a pig flanked by angels from a series aptly named Banality. Koon’s genius is to “amplify an object’s quiddity through a framing device even more puissant than a pedestal”, as one curator of a Koons show put it in a catalogue blurb which is itself beyond parody. This quiddity stuff was apparently Koons’s big idea; according to the critic Jackie Wullschlager he hasn’t had any others. His career, she writes, has been spent in “elaborating that gesture: exaggerating the aura of cheap, ordinary things, aggrandising them into works of art in increasingly expensive materials, and proffering them back to the one per cent as ultimate positional goods”. This is the cutting edge of a phenomenon whereby, as Jean Baudrillard puts it somewhat hyperbolically in a 1995 essay, Aesthetic Illusion and Disillusion, “Art as a whole is now merely the metalanguage of banality.” Acceptance of Koons’s art is effected by the sort of aggressive marketing that is familiar from social media campaigns aimed at the impressionable: “If you’re critical, you’re already out of the game,” announced Koons’s dealer, while Koons himself explains that “when people make judgments, they close all the possibility around them”. This observation is sadly not seen for what it is, complains Wullschlager, namely “the reversal of the spirit of intellectual openness that has allowed art to flourish since the Enlightenment”. Anyway most critics tend to play along with the Koons freak show (it wouldn’t do to look out of touch). As the New Yorker’s man put it: “[Koons is] the signal artist of today’s world . . . if you don’t like that, take it up with the world.” 

The shift to an almost purely commodified art world surely begins with the rise of the art dealer as influential trend-setter and arbiter of taste from the 1870s onwards; it has reached its apotheosis with the dealer-led commodification of contemporary art. Instead of reflecting institutional, social or aesthetic preoccupations, much of contemporary art is primarily a refuge for oligarchs’ money and a prestigious type of investment in a world where the global über-rich have more wealth than they can imagine outlets for.

This sort of art market, divorced from aesthetic considerations based on any agreed norms, is the artistic parallel of the property market, with the difference that its players have devised a way of keeping it permanently aloft by a system of thinly- concealed price-fixing. Awards such as  the Turner Prize and the much-expanded phenomenon of art fairs help to keep the business rolling along.

Since modern culture has insisted on its taboo-breaking role, it has been running out of taboos to break

This combination of ostentation and secrecy reminds one of the Marxism-based theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who believed that the financial and social elites used culture as a means of distancing themselves from the rest. The immediate consequence is that art is considered to be anything which the well-oiled PR of the art market decides to label as such, for example light bulbs going on and off in a gallery room (which won the Turner Prize) or a neatly arranged rectangle of bricks. What started as a simple provocation (Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, which originated in 1917) became the precarious pedestal on which “conceptual art”, later “performance art” were to rest. Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: art is something you piss on.

Although the Americans and the British have expanded the definitions of art most arbitrarily and enthusiastically, Central Europe has provided the key inspiration in the work of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). The latter’s inflated rhetoric about the artist’s role in society (unkindly described by a hostile critic as “simple-minded utopian drivel”) was complemented by his gift for devising attention-grabbing stunts that launched a thousand imitators in the dreaded field of “performance art”.  One of the most hyped of these performances was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965).

Here is Wikipedia’s description of the latter: “The artist could be viewed through the glass of the gallery’s window. His face was covered in honey and gold leaf, an iron slab was attached to his boot. In his arms he cradled a dead hare, into whose ear he mumbled muffled noises as well as explanations of the drawings that lined the walls.” Such materials and actions had specific symbolic value for Beuys.

For example, honey is the product of bees, and for Beuys (following Rudolf Steiner) bees represented an ideal society of warmth and brotherhood. Gold had its importance within alchemical inquiry, and iron, the metal of Mars, stood for a masculine principle of strength and connection to the earth. A photograph from the performance, in which Beuys is sitting with the hare, has been described by some critics as “a new Mona Lisa of the twentieth century”, though Beuys modestly disagreed with the description.

This pretty much sums up the problem with performance art, as with conceptual art, namely that they tend to require a lengthy verbal explanation of the arbitrary significance attached to their component parts, some of which may chime with archetypal symbolism, but most of which appear to have been thought up smoking marijuana in the bathtub.

Abstract art, while still alive and not always well, has been outflanked by a frantic search for ideas and actions that scandalise or titillate the public (for example with blasphemies and pornography). This is highly reductive, just as the reiterated use of formerly taboo words like “fuck” in contemporary drama has a deadening and weakening effect rather than a shocking and dramatic one.

Since modern culture has insisted on its taboo-breaking role, it has been running out of taboos to break. The last frontier, as Martin Gayford has mischievously suggested, is political correctness. Of Sarah Lucas’s sculptures at the 2015 Venice Biennale he wrote: “[There are] a number of life-casts of the lower halves of women with cigarettes protruding from their intimate crevices. This last is outrageously daring, smoking being one of the few truly taboo subjects in the modern world.”

An exception to the banality of such “shocking” artistic statements might be the “Actionism” of the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, whose “Aktionen” hark back to pagan sacrifice and symbolic rituals transposed onto a Christian backdrop. His “Orgiastic Mystery Theatre” (Orgien, Mysterien, Theater) consisted of “actions” that included animal sacrifice and simulated crucifixion with the active participation of helpers (for example to chuck buckets of blood around), as well as music and dancing. This required elaborate staging and quite a lot of participants (indeed audience participation) that raised it somewhat above the level of solo artists, or a small group, simply trying to outdo each other in weirdness.

The mingling of ritualistic slaughter with sadomasochistic elements and parody of Eucharistic symbolism seemed designed to épater le bourgeois, an intention shared with the notorious New York happenings that foreshadowed the Orgiastic Mystery Theatre. In particular the crucifixion parodies were evidently intended to outrage, as the following description of the high point of one Aktion suggests: “The naked man lies as if crucified. Viscera (or brains?) are put on his sex organ and doused with buckets of blood by Nitsch. The man is again given blood to drink. He kneads the mess on his own body for a long time with apparent enjoyment. Then he is taken away on the stretcher with a cacophonic noise followed by a charming violin piece.”

The one hundred and thirtieth Aktion (in Naples in 2010) involved the “crucifixion” of two “curators” of Personal Structures, an “international contemporary art platform” with which Nitsch’s later work is associated. It was considered such a success that its documentation was exhibited at the following year’s Venice Biennale, together with Marina Abramovich’s video installation of her locked in a staring battle with a donkey.

Much questionable artistic production today is financially underpinned by taxpayers’ 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 freemasonry 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 and victimhood.

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’s most damaging legacy as a performance artist was his pronouncement that “everyone is an artist”.

Even more dubious than such an aesthetic is its commercial underpinning. Nowadays “guarantor purchase” often operates. 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.”

In other words, as Bendor Grosvenor revealed in a Financial Times article, auction houses may be 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.

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”. 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. 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 on 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”. Banksy later capped this joke by having a work called Girl With Balloon, that had just sold for more than £1 million, self-destruct at the auction house. The website that sells Banksy’s work revealed the intent behind this prank, tweeting, “This [picture] is now part of art history in its shredded state and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50 per cent to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2 million plus.”

Beuys and hare

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 Sturtevant making a statement (ironic, of course) about the superficiality of easily imitable art? (“Way down deep, it’s shallow,” as someone memorably said.)

Sturtevant claimed to embrace “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”.

Elaine Sturtevant in front of her work “Warhol Flowers” (1990) at MoMA

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 $3.52 million. They are indistinguishable, says Bendor 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”. The thing is, they are not “original”, since Marcel Duchamp touted the same object as art. 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?

The logical progression of irritart or anti-art is the abolition of art itself. Connoisseurs will be pleased to hear that this happy apotheosis has already been achieved in 2019 by an MA student at London’s Royal College of Art whose Master’s work consisted of changing his name by deed poll to Mx Name Surname. He was given an exhibition pod in which to sit alongside the old- fashioned daubs or artefacts of the other students. “It’s about an individual’s relationship to society and power,” explained Surname, who was keeping mum about previous name, age or place of birth. You could stop by for a chat with this rather lugubrious-looking person, who would offer you his valuable opinions on the oppressive British state, cultural appropriation, transphobia and so forth.

Hermann Nitsch, Schüttbild, 2011

Surname’s “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 Madrid or Picasso’s Guernica because the artist’s self-absorption gets in the way. It’s “look at me!” rather than “look at this!”

It is no longer self-evident that the licence which implies a complete absence of any normative aesthetic 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.”

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 epiphenomenon 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.”

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