October 16, 2013 · Print This Article
The Art Market is inflating out of control, making all but the wealthiest few cry foul. Like it or not, this is affecting the way contemporary art is viewed and thought about. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons continues to be the perfect Poster Boy for the inflation, and it just so happens he has work depicting the nothingness inside the bubble. Simultaneously, Banksy goes for a stroll in New York’s neighborhoods proposing a different model. Is this the beginning of the end of the glutonous market? Or is this merely a long beginning?
Don’t make the mistake of trying to analyze the Jeff Koons album cover work for Lady Gaga as if it were art. Think of it instead as a publicity stunt to drum up hype for his upcoming retrospective at the Whitney this summer. On the day the album cover was released, mtv.com ran a story with the headline: “Lady Gaga is Jeff Koons’ Biggest Fan…But Who is He?” This collage of leftover studio remnants and a Botticelli print gets him access to a generation of people who are not likely looking at a lot of contemporary art, beefing up his celebrity status which he craves, at the same time adding to ticket sales. This, and the animosity from art enthusiasts will help make his retrospective THE BEST EVER!! Just a couple weeks before the Lady Garbage cover, T magazine – the glossy pulp supplement in the NY Times – had a stereotypically vapid conversation with the artist about his recent commission from Dom Perignon to made a limited edition DNA – shaped champagne bottle. Low end and high end commodity containers from ol’ Koonie Balloonie. Not too different from anything he has done in the past, but the labeling becomes ever more irksome. Consider his output for the last decade, where most of his work is sold before its finished, and may only show at auction instead of a gallery or museum. Not that this is such a terrible thing. What has basically become a high end boutique practice is frustrating mostly because it is helping fuel the glut of the art market, and then regurgitated into the art world as important to the production and dissemination of art, to negative affect. As long as we wallow in the crystal palaces of Koons, Hirst and Murakami, we’ll think that art is as uninspired as Gormley, Marden and Whiteread.
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: “Koons can be the art world’s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.” Everything about the work is right there, so there’s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this week’s art fair, London’s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Both interesting and frustrating is how Jeff Koons’ rise to the art commodity machine that he is may have helped shape the way the art market is an increasingly insiders game of fewer and fewer players more knowledgable about trading commodities than how to tell good work from bad. And with the auction prices soaring, the big named galleries just keep getting bigger in a kind of go-for-broke mentality* (not breaking them, just the artists they rep, in less of a financial type of broke and more of an artistic quality and integrity type.)
[*for a throughly depressing take on this, see Jerry Saltz’s article on Vulture this week.]
At the same time all the grumbling about Koons’ latest fart hit the web, Banksy has been doing a residency in NYC, creating work in the city in his typical fashion – covert and unannounced – the opposite of how you’re supposed to make art. While seemingly on the other side of the art world, there are a lot of similarities between the two artists. Maybe Banksy isn’t able to sell his graffiti work for 33 mil, but he is still operating inside the art market, selling regularly and at high prices. Lately, his work is often either garishly covered by a piece of plexiglass bolted to the wall he painted it on or is removed and sold, either way being seen by an enterprising public as separate from graffiti art and reborn as high art/commodity. His work is no stranger to auctions, museum and gallery shows, while being loved by mainstream society. His imagery is understood at first look, you don’t need to read into it, and if you are, then you probably don’t get it. Also like Koons, art critics hate writing about Banksy, saying there isn’t enough to write about, because it is too surface and he isn’t playing the game. But this game is being co opted by the wealthiest of collectors who have realized there is a market that won’t burst and can’t crash, so they’ve taken advantage of it. Buying a Koons gets you a ticket into a very exclusive club. Buying the Banksy at auction though, means that you probably don’t get it, because his work is to be freely viewed and is mocking the very lopsided system of capitalism that allowed you to buy it at auction in the first place. Getting it, though, is no longer important. Its having it.
As his position in the art world becomes more clear, Banksy’s art frequently criticizes the market, and the latest example of this was a street sale of many of his iconic works on white canvases for $60 on the sidewalks of NYC. The work and the sale later appeared on his website, which is his way of providing provenance. These single color spray painted politically charged images lost all meaning shoved within the borders of these small store bought canvases, sold on the street among vendors hocking watercolors and prints of impressionist styled paintings. Subverted now to talk about the politics of class, taste and accessibility in a market that is more often hurting artists and keeping way too many people out of collecting art. It stifles artistic creativity to the point where every idea is either a recombination of greatest hits by the artist or an experiment to see how much money can prop up a bad idea. Artists start to flounder when they should be thriving. Shows are created for the specific tastes of the market and of a few clientele. Everything becomes dross and it feels like you are wading through a lake of effervescent puke whenever you go to a big exhibition, and anymore, they’re all big. ‘Cause if not, they may as well not happen at all. More and more, it sucks harder and harder to be a practicing artist in this climate. Unless, of course, you’re Jeff Koons.