In 2000, Maurizio Cattelan created “Not Afraid of Love,” a life–sized, taxidermized elephant covered in a white sheet, with only its eyes, legs, and trunk exposed. If Jackson Pollock’s splashes or Mark Rothko’s blocks of color had proved shocking half a century earlier, it was now clear that the new millennium would see art take off in unforeseen directions. The piece was sold by Cattelan’s dealer, Marian Goodman, for roughly $350,000 to $500,000. Within only one year, the enormous mammal was sold for $2.75 million at Christie’s auction house, surpassing Cattelan’s previous record by approximately $700,000.
While thinking about what profound meaning could make “Not Afraid of Love” so valuable, I cannot help wondering if the piece means absolutely nothing. Perhaps it is Cattelan’s prank on the art world. Maybe Cattelan gets the last laugh as people stare with furrowed brows and heads askance at the beast, trying to interpret the piece’s profundity, while he makes a mockery of these same people who bid millions on his work. Perhaps he chose the elephant—besides the inherent humor in the immensity and gracelessness of the beast—to subtly point to the “elephant in the room.” Everyone feigns understanding, but nobody really understands.
This is certainly not to say that contemporary art is valueless and empty. This is to say that contemporary art is actually undervalued: not in the monetary sense, but in the sense that so many of its investors do not adequately appreciate it. The semi–ridiculous interpretation of Cattelan’s piece above is a testament to the contradiction of the modern art world: contemporary art is actually beautiful, but, surrounded by status–seeking buyers feigning artistic appreciation, its meaning is often lost.
The contemporary art market is largely filled by rich individuals who participate simply because they can. These super–moneyed hotshots have caused a stir among artists, collectors, and distributors because the market is attracting a crowd interested in the art solely for the investment and not for the art itself. Despite the lack of aesthetic appreciation from the flashy but undiscerning cohort, however, the art produced in today’s market is certainly not lacking. With so much demand, the market is enjoying an age of more complete artistic freedom in which artists are pursuing new exploration and diversity in their work.
Glitz and Glamour
“Not Afraid of Love” is just one example of contemporary art’s dramatically increasing popularity. This past June, Christie’s auction was monumental: for the first time, the post–War contemporary art collection brought higher prices than the Impressionist and early modern art collection. At a Sotheby’s auction the month before, a Rothko painting sold for an astounding $72.8 million, tripling the artist’s previous record.
The contemporary art scene has exploded within the last five years due largely to technological advances and also to smaller factors that have further catapulted the market in recent years. The Internet has turbocharged and globalized the market, connecting industry figures across the world. Televisions and computers have affected the market in another, less obvious way. Frank Moore, a respected New York City–based collector for nearly two decades, believes that flat–screen TVs and computers have changed general aesthetic conceptions, adding appeal to the sleek, flat images of photographic art so common in contemporary collections. In addition, Diego Cortez, a prominent art consultant based in NY, tells Adam Lindemann that “there was an emotional solidarity with contemporary art and culture during the difficult period following 9/11,” in Collecting Contemporary, Lindemann’s collection of interviews with major players in the contemporary art world. Like other cultural symbols of the time, contemporary art facilitated a sub–cultural community within New York City that allowed its followers to replace their anxiety with a reinvigorated focus on art, adding dynamism and dedication to the art scene.
It also helps the contemporary market that Impressionist art is scarcely available, as most is already owned by private or museum collections. This reality further pushes art consumers toward the ever–growing plethora of contemporary art.
But arguably the most significant transformative force has been the rise of hedge funds, and with them, an emerging class of super–moneyed moguls eager to spend and willing to do so in whopping quantities. They’re upping the ante so much that long–standing collectors are concerned that the new astronomic prices are reaching beyond their spending capability.
But it’s not only about collecting art, especially for the haut monde. Buying contemporary art means buying into a new lifestyle—one replete with world travel, fascinating personalities, culture hot off the press, and exclusive parties. It’s called the contemporary art scene, the market playing only one factor in its appeal. Buying the art amounts to buying a VIP pass to the most elite club in the world. Participants can stand on common ground with some of the hottest names in finance, business, and media, interfacing with the highest end of the society. “You’re achieving something close to celebrity,” said Sandy Heller, a young and ubiquitous art consultant known for market savvy, art smarts, and representing hedge fund moguls.
It is exclusivity open to the glamorous, competitive, confident, and connected. There are courtships and relationships between galleries and artists, galleries and collectors, collectors and auction houses, collectors and museums, consultants and collectors, and critics with all of the above. There are huge parties with lines out the door, auction preview parties, gallery openings and dinners, and festivities around the world. “The contemporary art world is fast becoming a major social event,” writes Lindemann, “and people are there to see and be seen, as much as to look at and perhaps buy art. This phenomenon is particular to contemporary art alone; if you start collecting antiquities, tribal art or even Impressionist works, you will never find the excitement, the number of events and the overall buzz of the art scene today.”
Buyers are drawn to the art for the status symbol, for what Lindemann calls “the ego trip of possession,” the “look what I’ve got factor.” There’s risk, the potential to win big is sexy, and as collecting contemporary becomes increasingly popular, there’s a natural curiosity among those not yet involved. Acquiring a good work of contemporary art is a twofold achievement: not only can you afford it, but you just scored a hot piece, which in itself says something about your prestige. Gallerists and dealers won’t sell big names to just anybody. “It is somewhat shocking,” writes Lindemann, “to experience how spending some money, or making believe you will, can suddenly bring so many people to your doorstep.”
Who Determines the Bunny?
Amidst the fluidity of today’s art market—filled with artists, gallerists, collectors, critics, consultants, and curators—it is increasingly difficult to discern who sets the trends. Beauty is subjective, so how does one piece of art become popularly recognized as “good art”? Who determines which artist will be the next superstar? In short, who makes “hot” art “hot”? In 1986, for instance, Jeff Koons made a series he called “Statuary,” which included Rabbit, a stainless steel bunny that became the decade’s iconic work. How did it happen that a 3D image of a bunny became so hot? Who declared that Rabbit would become so monumental?
Some say that herein lies the fundamental flaw of the market: the art that makes it to the top is the result of the whim of a few prominent players, and the rest of the crowd simply follows in line. The major players include three broad categories. The first are the mega–gallerists who scout out new artists, assemble exhibitions to showcase the work they represent, and serve as the primary source of art for collectors, auction houses, and museums. Then, there are art consultants, often responsible for forming the tastes of moneyed collectors, for disseminating facts about auctions, exhibits, and artists, and for contributing to market hearsay and whispers. And last but most certainly not least: the mega–collectors. Serving as “trendsetters,” these aficionados number at about ten, and include such names as Francois Pinault, one of the wealthiest men in France, and the Rubbell family in Miami—both of whom have their own museum. What they buy influences everyone else who tries to emulate them.
It is said that “choosing the bunny” is ultimately a collective effort. The gallerists depend on the artists to perform and the collectors to show interest. Collectors depend on gallerists and auction houses to showcase. Curators depend on critics for good reviews and on collectors to sell them art. For a piece to succeed, it needs the “three Cs” going for it: collectors, curators, and critics. The path of an artist to stardom is what Heller calls “a perfect storm,” a conglomerate of different people and various opinions coalescing in agreement.
This process is certainly steered disproportionately by a handful of big names. “They’re like prophets,” Moore said. “And once people realize these people are right, they have a tendency to listen to them.” Does this not hint at mass manipulation by the major players and at mass blind faith on the part of everyone else? What kind of negative effect might that have on the market?
The Emperor Has No Clothes
This new emphasis on the avant garde art scene has also raised skepticism concerning the quality of both the art and its collectors. With collectors seemingly more interested in status than artistic appreciation, and with little background in the traditional markers of art quality themselves, how are they capable of recognizing good art? If a significant number of the contemporary art market’s participants are in fact incapable of recognizing good art, what is happening to the quality of the art on the market? Is art in danger of becoming yet another materialistic symbol for celebrity–hungry hedge fund managers and their hip, corporate peers? With a new brand of collector characterized more by finances than art appreciation, and a collector who often relies on art consultants to do the bidding and choosing, a sense of art’s purity is lost. One cannot help but be skeptical of today’s collectors’ understanding of the art they purchase.
Individuals stand in front of pieces of art in auction houses, stare intently, and convey a look of focused curiosity and profound understanding. I can’t help but ask: What are they really thinking? How many of these people really understand the art, and how many are striking the pose, wondering what it is they’re supposed to be thinking? In this way, the auction house is perhaps a modern day case of the “emperor has no clothes,”—a situation in which the majority of observers willingly share a collective ignorance of an obvious fact (i.e. nobody understands what he or she is looking at), despite individually recognizing the absurdity. Parallel to the well–known fable, nobody dares admit that they don’t see the value of the art, preferring instead to feign understanding. Thus the serious art–gazer at the auction house strikes the pose, dresses the part, but her understanding of the work before her is questionable
Maurizio Cattelan’s “Horse, Sans Titre” (2007).
There is currently a second major critique of the market: none of the art, no matter how groundbreaking or extraordinary, is worth the money being spent on it today. To spend millions on a work of art seems extravagant, and this is where much of the criticism of the contemporary art world derives. It is an archetype of ultra–consumerism, the existence of which draws sneers from many sectors of society. Outsiders approach the contemporary art scene with a preconceived negative bias of money over–spent and better spent elsewhere.
A Trojan Horse
When I walked through a recent Christie’s auction, I found my eyes drawn equally as often to the price tag beside the pieces as to the pieces themselves, the numerical values serving as much as a spectacle as the art to which they referred. Is it possible to see the art without seeing the monetary value when so much of the culture is financially based?
According to Moore, not all hope is lost. He believes those who enter the market for purely financial reasons do gain a sincere appreciation for the art through their involvement. They acquire art, hang it on their walls, and, after living with it for some time, are affected by their “investment.” “The whole purpose of art,” he said, “is to generate a response from the person looking at it. So if you’re a collector for the wrong reasons, but you bring art into your own home, eventually you may turn out to be a collector for the right reasons. The art has either taught you or contaminated you, depending on how you want to look at it.”
Matthew Goulish, in his article “39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance” dealing with how to approach art, writes that “we look at each work of art...for its moments of exhilaration...and thus effect a creative change in ourselves...In this way we will treat the work of art...not as an object in this world but as a window into another world. If we can articulate one window’s particular exhilaration, we may open a way to inspire a change in ourselves.” Good art bares the capacity to enjoin change in a good observer. A masterpiece hanging in one’s apartment will eventually elicit from its owner an appreciation, understanding, and respect for its quality.
On my tour around Moore’s art–filled apartment, we stopped at a Christopher Wool painting hanging right outside his son’s room. In his signature style, Wool’s word art showed the words “Troj[a]n Hors[e]” displayed down the canvas. Moore explained that to him, Wool’s simple painting encapsulates the power of contemporary art. “The piece embodies the whole concept of bringing the whole Trojan Horse inside your house, and that’s how it affects these new collectors.” Today’s art is implanting a seed of appreciation within its collectors that grows with time and experience. Though they might not begin with any sense of appreciation for the art they are purchasing, buyers and collectors may develop that appreciation over time.
An Age of the Art
Moreover, the art itself is flourishing. Because of the sheer multitude of artists today abounding from diverse backgrounds, contemporary art boasts no dominating artists or movements. A hierarchy of artists does exist, but no single artist leads the movement, and no single aesthetic defines “contemporary art,” which includes abstract impressionist, color field, stuckism, and many others. The large market also means more room for ideas, which leads to what art critic Jerry Saltz calls “interesting cross–currents,” with different streams of art under the contemporary umbrella influencing and contributing to each other. Contrary to the belief that artists cater to their audience, creating what they think is wanted rather than what they think is good art, Saltz wrote that “artists and dealers don’t have to cater to the market, because the market is catering to them. More artists can take matters into their own hands, curate shows, write, and make publications.” Artists’ success, he believes, allows them to pursue their creative inclinations with less risk of rejection.
This is where the role of the major players becomes an indispensable element of the contemporary art market. In this era of prolific art abounding and consumers ready with infinite cash, these savants are actually crucial if the art market is to continue to flourish on a solid foundation of worthy art. In an era when so many collectors lack art appreciation skills, these major players—indeed, “prophets”—who decide which art is “hot” are actually exercising quality control, not manipulation. Those prophets, have extensive experience and nuanced intuition for the art. The purity of the art now depends on the market’s genuine participants, including these key figures and individuals like Moore, who still appreciate the art for the art itself and recognize its aesthetic worth stripped of its financial value, preserving its quality while simultaneously leading the undiscerning consumers toward it.
As for the profligate spending, it is what makes the contemporary art scene such a defining cultural phenomenon of our era. The fact that Wall Street’s status symbol de jour is contemporary art indicates that art has entered into the culture of mcmansions, yachts, and jets and has become another means of comparison with other super–wealthy people, another way to keep up with the Joneses. The competition is only growing, and contemporary art is fueling the ultra–consumerist fire.
So contrary to the fable, the emperor in this story is wearing clothes, and those clothes are indeed beautiful, but like the fable, the majority of the people are incapable of seeing them. It is those same people who are shelling out large sums for prestige more than for the art itself. However, let criticisms not blind us to the merits of this significant and representative cultural phenomenon. We are an age of the artist, with abounding creativity and vibrant culture that spans the globe, creating an international cultural community among an often–unlikely conglomerate of nationals. Where all this is headed, how much farther it can be pushed, and for how much longer it can last, only remains to be seen.
ABOVE: Jeff Koons’ “Elephant” (2003).
EMILY STEINBERGER is a sophomore in Columbia College. She would love to accompany you to any of the contemporary art exhibits in NYC, especially if it includes Richard Prince