Inside New York’s Modern Art Supermarkets—and a $100 Million Lawsuit
The true value of art and the power of the artist are highlighted at New York’s major art fairs, and in Robert Cenedella’s lawsuit against the five largest museums in the city.
Robert Cenedella is also known as the “Art Bastard”—though he doesn’t seem to mind.
Born 1940 and based in New York, he has for the past five decades made a career of pissing people off, rendering in lush oil paint his trademark mix of biting cultural commentary, rebellious iconoclasm, and Alfred E. Neuman-inspired satire.
To wit: Santa Claus crucified over a pile of Christmas presents, Adolf Hitler conducting an orchestra that obediently follows his lead, Donald Trump presiding over a post-apocalyptic pop cultural explosion with devil’s pitchfork in hand.
Yet despite his long history of gallery exhibitions, brand collaborations, and tabloid headlines, Cenedella’s prolific output cannot be found in any museum. He earned the title of “Art Bastard”, after all, not only because of the content of his work, but because of its reception (or lack thereof) from those rarefied institutions-cum-tastemakers.
He wears it like a badge of honor, an eff-you to the capital-A “Art” world that has shuddered him for so long – but there still exists a kernel of sincere resentment behind the farce.
Having work in a museum, he explained to The Daily Beast in April, is for any artist “a seal of approval,” and, for him, a childhood dream. “The inference would be that, if you're not in a museum, you're not of museum-quality.”
Which is why, in February, Cenedella filed a class action lawsuit against the five largest art museums in New York—the MoMA, Whitney, Met, Guggenheim, and New Museum—to the tune of $100 million: because they wouldn’t display his work.
Not only, his suit claims, have the museums denied him rightful place amongst their collections, they have also all conspired to reduce competition in the art market by “driv[ing] up prices for contemporary art created by a limited class of artists whose work they own in their permanent collections.”
Cenedella writes in the suit:
“I firmly believe it has become my duty and responsibility to expose, what I believe to be, the corporate museum cartel for the role they play in the manipulation of the overall art market.
The system today – put in place by galleries, auction houses, and art critiques – has nothing to do with talent, development of skill, or maturation of the art world.
I am taking extreme, legal measures — suing the museums — not just for myself, but for the innumerable other deserving artists as well. Contemporary art has become a Con and Temporary. It is the artist’s job to question and never flinch from the truth he discovers.”
This has been, he says, a long time coming: a structural problem decades (if not centuries) old, and one against which he now seeks legal reparations only as a last hope. “If I was going to live to be 200,” Cenedella exclaims, “I might not have done it!”
Indeed, the suit (which may or may not be a work of satire, itself) was precipitated by a slightly less litigious gesture: a work called “Disclaimer.” To be displayed by and in museums, it reads in part that
The fact that we, as a MUSEUM, reject WORKS of “art” does not mean that the ARTISTS who produced those specific WORKS are any LESS COMPETENT or that the the [sic] WORKS in question are of any LESS QUALITY than works our EXPERT HIRED staff has chosen for display. And in fact WORKS rejected may be of GREATER QUALITY than those SHOWN…
“I thought [“Disclaimer”] was a friendly idea,” Cenedella says. “I would say that it's not what they show that bothers me. I'm not looking to censor anyone. It's what they don't show.”
Here—behind the personal resentment of exclusion—is the core of the lawsuit: an indignation at the unregulated business mechanics underlying major art museums and galleries, and the seemingly arbitrary curatorial standards they (arguably the authors of art history at large) employ. “No one really knows what their criteria is for selecting art,” says Cenedella.
All five museums declined to comment to the Daily Beast on either the case or their curatorial philosophies. On April 27, the museums’ lawyer, William F. Cavanaugh, Jr., filed a motion to dismiss the suit, writing that Cenedella “is disappointed that the five museums named as Defendants in this case have not purchased or exhibited his artwork.” Cenedella has until May 18 to respond.
The only set of criteria usually made available to the public by museums are their “collections management policies,” which outline the institutions’ mission statements, acquisition protocols, object care practices, etc. When it comes to the actual selection of art, however, most are vague, indicating that work should be chosen to significantly further the museum’s “stated mission,” which itself is presented in lofty ambiguities and does little to provide objective standards.
Art, however, is inherently without standards. Since Duchamp presented a urinal as a sculpture in 1917, the frame of reference has been blown wide open, if not completely erased.
Much has been written about this academically, along with the function museums play in reifying the designation of “art,” but suffice it to say that anything nowadays can be considered so—should the right people say. Anyone who has recently set foot in a contemporary museum will likely agree.
That lack of objective standards and intrinsic value has led the art market to be, as Quartz describes in depth, “one of the most manipulated markets in the world.”
In his lawsuit Cenedella cites an investigation by the Art Newspaper which found that “almost one-third of solo museum exhibitions in the US are of artists represented by one of five prominent commercial galleries: Gagosian Gallery, Marian Goodman, Pace, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth.”
Of those five galleries, only Marian Goodman responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, but said Ms. Goodman was traveling at that moment and not available for comment.
To get an idea of money’s increasing role in the art ecosystem, look no further than the near constant procession of art fairs that litter destination cities around the globe: Art Basel, the Armory Show, UNTITLED… the list goes on.
Though well attended by connoisseurs visiting for “art’s sake” and tourists looking for photo-ops, these events are nevertheless unabashedly commercial venues where everything is up for sale (although the price tags are rarely displayed publicly).
This past weekend saw a convergence of fairs descend upon the greater New York area: the massive Frieze occupying Randall’s Island, TEFAF at the Park Ave. Armory, and Art New York at Pier 94 (not to mention a number of others in Brooklyn). Entering one of these massive spaces, full of seemingly innumerable booths stacked side-by-side, is not unlike entering a supermarket—albeit one with extravagantly dressed patrons and even more extravagant prices.
“I suspect that most dealers have mixed feelings about art fairs,” says Carol Lee Corey of Danese/Corey Gallery. “On the one hand, it’s a chance to be directly in front of a lot of clients who are looking to buy art. That’s a great opportunity. It seems that in the galleries these days, people are coming less and less often… On the other hand, it’s not a way where you’re introducing people to an artist in depth.”
“The fairs tend to be about commercialism,” she told The Daily Beast at Art New York. “That’s not necessarily the best context in which to show art.”
Indeed, fairs are routinely and roundly criticized, not only for the explicit materialism on display (which some see as contradictory to the lofty ideals often associated with the arts and humanities), but also for the exorbitant fees galleries must incur to take part, which leads inevitably to the exclusion of smaller-named organizations and artists alike.
Though the milieux of these art fairs may seem a far cry from those of major museums, the question remains as to the degree of their intersection. How else can an artist be discovered by a museum outside of showing in a major gallery?
“A lot of the curatorial independence of the museums is completely compromised,” says Brian Balfour-Oatts, director of London’s Archeus/Post-Modern. “There’s a lot of funding and back-scratching and looking out for themselves. That’s very well known, but it’s still possible to arrive, and for new artists to break through. But you have to be discovered in a certain way.”
“I would argue that technical merit has very little to do with it nowadays. You don’t have to be good demonstrably,” he says, pointing to the famed Tracey Emin, who “does the most appalling 7th grade shit, and is successful despite this.”
As for the “Art Bastard,” however, well, he’s “obviously shit,” and “just some ropey decorative artist who just hasn’t made it.”
“Quality” doesn’t matter, it seems, until it matters.
Balfour-Oatts had heard of the case before being approached by The Daily Beast. “I don’t think [Cenedella] comes through the proper channels,” he said, explaining that if one is to expect any success as an artist, he or she must begin as a student and eventually get “spotted by the people who actually take the time to go around and find new people of merit.”
The flip side to this is that not only are artists like Cenedella excluded from the market, but so too are what Dr. Maura Reilly, author of Curatorial Activism, calls “Other” artists: “women, non-white, and LGBTQ artists.” Feminist art collective Pussy Galore, for example, embarked on an investigation in 2015 similar to that of the Art Newspaper, finding that only a few major galleries had rosters of over 50% women.
Even Cenedella will admit that there are “a million artists more qualified than me” whose works are not currently hanging in museums.
Perhaps it is naive, then, to imagine a world where capital-A “Art” is unencumbered by money.
Drs. Maryanne Genovese and Ronald Raspa, dressed for Art New York in matching lime-green attire, take a more realistic approach. “Everyone can’t be in a museum!” says Genovese. “It’s a business. People have to make money as well. That’s the reality of life,” adds Raspa: “Art is not a guaranteed way of being successful. It’s almost like trying to be a movie star.”