Brave New Art World

Despite cooling sales, more art was produced in the last decade than at any other time in history.

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP / Getty images

Once upon a time there was an avant-garde art world in New York where artists created work unlike anything we had ever seen before. A few people loved it, but the general public was appalled. As a result of World War II, European artists migrated to America enlarging the scene and diminishing Paris as the center. America was beginning its dominance of the art world with the emergence of the Abstract Expressionists. Then in 1956, Life magazine published a piece on Pollock entitled “Jack the Dripper.” It was the first media interest in avant-garde art. Media interest waned until the ‘60s when Pop Art captured its attention as a celebration of the media itself. If Abstract Expression reached for the sublime, Pop turned ordinary imagery into icons. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol illuminated the transformative power of context and the process of reproduction. Claes Oldenburg’s soft ice-cream cones and hamburgers changed sculpture from hard to soft, from stasis to transformation.

In crisis there is also opportunity. Serious collectors who couldn’t get near an object now have access. Prices that were once insane are readjusting and the auction system itself is in jeopardy.

Pop and fashion fused when the haute monde beat a path to Warhol’s Factory door. Society millionaires (yes, there was a time when being rich meant being a millionaire) had their portraits painted by Andy and mingled with artists at Halston’s parties. It was the courtship of art and fashion culminating in marriage and currently rumored to be filing for divorce. There were perhaps 100 collectors of contemporary art internationally back then, and every sale was a miracle. Being there was choosing a life in art. By the 1970s, the Minimalists challenged our perception of the nature of art. Dealers—currently known as “gallerists,” perhaps so as not to be confused with “drug dealers”—supported their artists with modest stipends and exhibitions in which hopefully something would sell.

So what happened to art and how did its commodification become so blatant? Eric Fischl told me that a woman once asked him the difference between the art world in the ‘80s and now. “I’ll tell you the difference”, he said “my generation was living in the art world. The current generation is living in the art market.” That is really the key to where we are now.

Being an artist has always been an imperative—art chooses the artist, but today artists seem to be choosing art. Chuck Close told me, “We thought we had a lifetime ahead, hellbent on purging our work of anything that had ever been done. Today, because of student loans, the cost of studios etc., some artists make ‘slacker art’ that projects the look of a mature vision without being mature. Innovation and personal vision became devalued.”

Historically, art has always had a market. When one medieval fiefdom defeated another they would drag back its jewels, gold, tapestries and art objects as the spoils of war. Art equaled power, riches and culture. It still does.

Flash forward. Another gilded age came to its apex in the 2000s. If there were 100 collectors in 1960, there were 10,000-plus by 2000, acquiring the new art and even buying work that had not yet been made. The waiting list, the “last chance to find the new Jasper Johns” mentality was exploited by the dealers, and some artists abused their talents and power in the service of celebrity and money. It was a craps game.

A new tribe of rich collectors was formed who all acquired the same “hot” art. Like medieval knights, these were their colors and their signs and they competed for whose colors were brighter and whose signs were bigger. The commodification of art became the subject of art itself. For example, Damien Hirst was prescient and responded to the changing value system 15 years in advance. In Warhol’s shadow, he manufactured his work in a factory. However, Warhol’s Factory wasn’t really a factory. It became the locus for the interaction of ideas in the disciplines of art and cinema. Its product was Warhol’s observations and responses. Unlike Hirst’s factory, where quality control is endemic to the art, Warhol’s Factory was a messy and inventive happening, which explains its continuing influence.

The last decade’s production of art paralleled the list waiting to consume it. It was unlike any period of collecting. Having something was more important than learning about what you had. Many collectors working in finance had a market mentality and it was contagious. They didn’t connect spiritually as had previous generations. Winning meant betting on the right artist at the right price and when the price escalated, the profit was irresistible.

Previously, the decline of prices—especially at auction—lagged about a year behind the stock market. In 1989, the art market was driven by the Japanese who were consistently outbidding the American and European buyers. At the auctions it was fiefdom against fiefdom and the spoils were dragged back to Japan. Familiar?

But these collectors were buying name recognition rather than quality. First-rate and third-rate works of the same size brought similar prices. By the time the Japanese economy failed the art market was largely Japanese and there was no one to keep the market up, but the American and European buyers filled in quickly.

The difference between then and now is vast. The Japanese were collecting already famous artists. Whereas the new collectors of the last decade were making artists famous by their rapacious patronage. Is it within reason that an artist’s prices could go from $50,000 in the gallery to $1 million in the auction rooms within six months? They did with Marlene Dumas. And within a two-year spa,n a Nurse painting by Richard Prince went from $120,000 to $10 million.

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The only parallel to this frantic escalation of prices was the tulip-bulb scandal that destroyed the Dutch economy in the 17th century. Today’s art market is global and is therefore susceptible to adjustment on an international scale. Consequently there is an immediate crisis in the art market as in other markets and sometimes they interact. Brandeis University’s decision to sell its extraordinary collection of ‘60s art and close the Rose Museum due to the diminished value of its endowment is just one incredible example.

But in crisis there is also opportunity. Serious collectors who couldn’t get near an object now have access. Prices that were once insane are readjusting and the auction system itself is in jeopardy. We’ll know even more about that after the February London auctions. By offering enormous guarantees, the auction houses irresponsibly projected an expectation of ever increasing value. They helped to put themselves in jeopardy. Christie’s is rumored to be for sale, and both Sotheby’s and Christie’s are closing foreign and domestic offices.

The latest round in this game of art is nearly over, cooled by the economic crisis, but the passion for art, the recognition that it reflects society’s values, is not. More art was produced in the last decade than at any other time in history. And yet most of it will wind up as the landfill of the 20th century. The new, new thing mentality is old now, and somewhere a newer new thing is on its way. And perhaps the art market is ready to be replaced by the art world once more.

Arne Glimcher is the founder and chairman of PaceWildenstein, the modern and contemporary-art gallery with locations in New York City and Beijing, China. Mr. Glimcher is an author, and film producer and director, with movies including The Mambo Kings , Gorillas in the Mist , and his new documentary Picasso & Braque Go to the Movies , narrated by Martin Scorsese. In 2003, he was awarded the Legion of Honor from the president of France.