I was invited to DJ a donut-themed (!) (?) concert at McKibbin last weekend! Played this Metro Area/Giorgio Moroder/Italo Disco set (thanks to Ted for the expert Italo Disco consultation). Got two rather timid requests: “some TLC” and “some real grimy disco.” Actually I thought my disco was pretty grimy already, so I wish I’d asked him to clarify that one.
After a few years of living in New York and following contemporary art—including the auction houses and galleries and web start-ups and PR companies—I developed the conviction that I should write something about the history of all that. About how in the 60s it was possible for middle-class Americans to collect significant contemporary art and how those times are over. How vast quantities of capital rushed into the art market, a tributary of the same flow of money that flooded the equity market of the late 90s and that continues to seek outlets in arcane financial instruments.
The New York auction houses did $1 billion of sales in a single week last year, and I heard that even within Christie’s and Sotheby’s people were spooked at the sheer quantity of money. Auction sales sagged for a year and a half when the financial crisis hit and Lehman Brothers collapsed and the finance industry got bailed out—anything else would’ve been in poor taste. After that the art auctions grew faster than ever. The 2012 international art market totalled $64 billion according to some estimates, though the market is unregulated and undisclosed and rife with manipulations, so who knows.
I had this idea that I should write something about the history of all this. The British art historian Gerald Reitlinger did once, published The Economics of Taste in 1960. It covered 200 years ending at 1960, during which time the modern art market developed and the modern banking system made it possible for the rich to draw on large quantities of capital with which to purchase expensive artworks. Reitlinger loved art collecting. Robert Byron’s The Station, a 1928 novel about an expedition to Mount Athos, includes a character based on Reitlinger: “financially independent; and emanating from a large house of his own in Kensington filled with rare and austerely disposed Oriental potteries.”
A decade after the first volume of The Economics of Taste, Reitlinger felt the market had changed so dramatically as to merit a new volume for the years 1960-70. The tone of the introduction is alarmed: art had become an investment. The role of taste was disappearing from the economics of taste. Turn to the crotchety Texan critic and dealer Dave Hickey, emanating from his Austin gallery of minimal and conceptual art, and you get another version of that story with things starting to go bad a decade later.
Either way, the history ends up involving the finance industry getting out of control, the US on the brink of losing its middle class, various speculative asset bubbles, and the political policies that facilitated and enabled it all. One small part of that story is $64 billion of art.
The English art critic John Ruskin, in an 1857 lecture on the political economy of art, argued that buying fashionable, expensive art is unconscionable:
Once get the wealthy classes to imagine that the possession of pictures by a given artist adds to their “gentility,” and there is no price which his work may not immediately reach, and for years maintain; and in buying at that price, you are not getting value for your money, but merely disputing for victory in a contest of ostentation…. You are in fact ploughing and harrowing, in a most valuable part of your land, in order to reap the whirlwind; you are setting your hand stoutly to Job’s agriculture, “Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley.”
You know what? Ruskin got it right. The $64 billion is a symptom of ostentation and, in an indirect way, bad economic policy. For now, I think I can let the story end there.
Image: Philippe Nuell, Installation a 33 Bond, Avril 09, oil on wood, 18 x 28 in.
Dr. Bashford Dean: Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History, founder of the department of Zoology at Columbia, founding curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms and Armor Department, designer of protective helmets for trench warfare.
Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to by carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Born thirty years ago
I’ve traveled countless miles
along rivers where the green rushes swayed
to the frontier where the red dust swirled
I’ve made elixirs and tried to become immortal
I’ve read the classics and written odes
and now I’ve retired to Cold Mountain
to lie in a stream and wash out my ears
-Cold Mountain (Hanshan), translated by Red Pine
Brice Marden, Cold Mountain Studies 10, from a series of thirty-five sheets, 1988-90, ink on paper, 8 1/16 x 9 7/16 in.
Then Tchaikovsky got married, quite on the spur of the moment. The explanation for this rash action is open to a broad range of speculation and interpretation. Perhaps it had to do with anxiety about his quite overt homosexuality; perhaps it was an act of filial devotion to an 81-year-old father, who viewed marriage as the principal goal of a man’s life. Whatever the reason, Tchaikovsky fled in panic two weeks after the wedding, had a nervous breakdown, remained unconscious for two weeks, and woke up to a life that would no longer include his wife (although they would never divorce).
-New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks Playbill (July 11-17, 2012)