Monday, October 11, 2010

Thompson on the Art Market

I spent the last couple of evenings with Don Thompson's The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, a highly entertaining and somewhat instructive account of--well, of what, exactly?  The subtitle is "The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art," but that is at best an oversimplification.  Thompson makes it clear at the outset that he isn't really clear on the meaning of either "contemporary" or "art."  As to "economics"--Thompson says he was inspired by Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, so perhaps he has read a book by  an economist.  But for his own work, a better category might be "marketing," because "marketing" is indeed what the book is about, and if he uses the word "branding" one more time, I'll be tempted to slap him on the butt with a piece of red-hot iron.

A useful way of understanding the book is to recognize that he's considering at least two separate, albeit overlapping, phenomena.  One is the closed circle of  "art as event" and "event as buzz" and "buzz as money"--here encapsulated in the story of Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi and gaping yokels who surround them.  Saatch in particular: without, so far as I know, ever tapping a brush on a pallet, has made himself at least as much of a swaggering alpha in the art world as Michelangelo or Monet--or, come to thaat, of Hirst himself.  It is Saatchi, after all who personally reduced the Tate Modern--intended to be the crown jewel of British art showcases--to the status of shopworn second-best against his own gallery a bit further upriver.

The Saatchi/Hirst net nexus can be disentangled and distinguished from the "other" art world--the one that revolves around the great auction duopoly, Sotheby's and Christie's.   Here you may find stuffed sharks and condom-strewn beds and other treasures of the contemporary art world.  But you're at least likely to find Monets and Cezannes; you'd even find the odd Michelangelo if one ever came on the market.   The driving force here is not precisely contemporary so much as it is scarce: we are in the world where the super-rich are clawing each other's face off in the one game that they and only they can play.  Fun fact: Thomas says there are only three Raphaels in private hands.  If one of them comes on the market, I doubt that the auction houses will reject it on grounds that it is too old..

"One game only they can play" is the operative part.  There re so many things that even the merely rich can buy these days: nice cars, fancy vacations and suchlike--that's harder and harder to prove that you really are in the top tier and not just the great vulgar unwashed semi-top.  So if you are (say) a 30-year-old hedge fund manager, you announce your arrival in the first tier by transferring $10 million to Sotheby's for something to hand on the wall of your $10 million apartment.  It tells the world you're one of the inner circle; it may also say that you are "cultured" although I suspect that is more or less of an afterthought: if the buyer spends $10 million for it at Christie's, then it is culture, end of argument.

One large area of overlap between the Saatchi buzz and the auction house market is the matter of --yes, here it comes--branding.   I gather that Hirst himself doesn't "make art" any more than Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse--these days, the work is done by the poor slobs down on the shop floor.  But the mere fact tht Hirst smiles on an item is enough to add value.  And apparently the everyday auction house conversation is littered with phrases like "you know, Saatchi almost bought this one," or "Saatchi has one like it"--heaven forbid you learn that your new acquisition was once owned by Saatchi and that he tossed it aside.

Hirst is a brand; so is Saatchi and it is an interesting question which is bigger.  So are Sotheby's and Christie's and so, come to that, I suspect, is Raphael, if he ever comes to market.  And in this sense, the art world turns out to be just like any other where the buzz of association seems to drive the economics.  Think sports teams, university faculties,  rock bands (world's most successful brand: Grateful Dead).  And just about any other activity you can think of; here's David Carr in this morning's NYT:

More nd more, media outlets arae becoming a federation of individual brands ... Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players seves a platform and contet for highly paid, high-impact players.
Carr himself, we may note, is a recovered junkie who leveraged himself into prominence with an account of his own unsavory past.  Maybe he can get his old needles into a diisplay at the Saatchi gallery.

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