Don Thompson demonstrates the definitely curious economics of contemporary art

Don Thompson. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (Doubleday Canada 2008).

This book, as thoroughly entertaining & as spiritually disheartening as Seven Days in the Art World, takes a much broader view of the high end art world & the economics thereof, as its subtitle, ‘The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art,’ implies. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing in another gilded age when that .1% had most of the money, got it right in his portraits of the rich, whether or not he actually said they were different from you and me. Certainly, the rich portrayed in this book are definitely different, if only in their ability to spend far more on art, especially contemporary art, than the rest off us, but also in the way their competitive natures drives the ever-upward market. Thompson is an economist, & he constructs his overview of the world of auctions, dealers, fairs, &, oh yes, ‘artists,’ wholly in economic terms; but his point is that those are now pretty well the only terms active. Like Seven Days, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark was written before the Great Recession of 2008, but, as his rather depressing final chapter, ‘End Game,’ suggests, & as the obscene bonuses still paid to the Wall Street bankers etc show, these people can still play the games Thompson tells us about here.

The title piece is of course the break-through work for Damien Hirst, one of the great marketers (sorry, conceptual artists) of recent years. The shark’s tale is both highly informative & full of warning signals. For this is a book about ‘branding’ & its power, most of which lies with the major dealers, auction houses, & collectors, &, oh yes, a few very slick artist-marketers such as Hirst, Jeff Koons (who began as ‘the most successful salesman in the Museum [of Modern Art]’s history’ & then worked as a Wall Street commodities broker for five years), Tracey Emin, & the grand progenitor, Andy Warhol. Still, only a few chapters are devoted to them; most of the book explores the relationships among the other players, whose brands are even more important than those of the artists they sell (especially as their lack of interest can pretty well kill an artist’s economic life in this rarefied atmosphere).

The sales of some earlier art remains important, given ‘the shrinking supply of traditional art’ (54), as the rising top prices for certain works, such as, among others, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which went for $135 million, demonstrate (& just this Fall a Klimt landscape went for over $40 million, so that market seems just fine, as that is a bit above the price for one back when the Portrait sold). Indeed, that sale provokes this comment: ‘The price illustrates the ease with which art history is now rewritten with a checkbook’ (57). And it’s comments like these that give this narrative journey its necessary light (comedic) touch. Still, ‘Another result of scarcity of branded work is that the role of aesthetics in judging art decreases’ (54).

The big, that is ‘branded,’ names fall easily into place, Sotheby’s & Christie’s, Charles Saatchi & Larry Gagosian, to mention just a few. The artists mentioned above, along with a few other contemporary ones, & then the great names of the past, are also reduced to ‘brands’ today. At least when it comes to buying & selling their works. Many collectors buy by ear, without even looking at the art, trusting in the power of the branded seller. I find that strange, since I like to look at the art I like & admire. But then, as Thompson point out, ‘It is easier to appreciate art when what is required is not an understanding of art history, just your memory of a recent article about high auction prices’ (178).

Rather than give us close-up stories of particular events, as Sarah Thornton does in her lively ethnography, Thompson stands back a bit & offers overviews of the workings of the various aspects of this art world. As an economist, he finds it fascinating & deliberately or not reveals that in the art market’s upper tiers, brutal capitalism operates at full throttle, &, especially at auctions, the money wars are furious. But: ‘When the auction hammer falls, price becomes equated with value, and this is written into art history’ (178); & ‘Prices reflect the size of a work, not its quality or artistic merit’ (190). For anyone who actually cares, those are sad comments, indeed.

Thompson covers the whole field, even unto the critics, whose power is practically nil. He quotes Robert Hughes to this effect: ‘One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture. It’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse, you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs’ (209). Sometimes critics write positive reviews that, if they appear in the right place, are nice, but the auction houses & dealers really don’t bother much with them unless they are positive. He sums up one economic circle in his chapter on museums, the poor relations at the market: ‘The museum can influence an artist’s career path by accepting a no-strings-attached painting as a donation and immediately flipping it at auction — and yes, it does happen. The painting commands a higher auction price because part of its provenance is “Consigned by the Chicago Museum of Modern Art.” The donor gets a higher charitable donation, because valuation for tax purposes is based on the gross auction value . . . . The donor may also benefit from higher values for other of the artist’s works in her collection. The auction house’s other lots benefit from being associated with a work deaccessioned by a branded museum. The museum acquires funds for future acquisitions. If everybody gains, what is the harm? I will leave that question to the reader.’

He leaves many such questions up to us, but many of his little asides point our way. One artist not mentioned much here, though he was central to Seven Days, is Takashi Murakami. It seems that Gagosian, who ‘also tries to control the context in which his artists appear’ (222), refused Thompson rights to reproduce his work alongside that of other artists discussed in the text.

As an economist, Thompson offers up in his final chapter, ‘Contemporary Art as an Investment,’ a rather sobering view of how monetarily useful such collecting really is. As he quotes Mary Boone, an art dealer, ‘There are more people collecting for the wrong reasons, basically as the latest get-rich-quick scheme. They buy art like lottery tickets.’ This is slyly funny, putting the super rich alongside all the other gamblers in the larger culture. His facts show that, with the few exceptions mentioned in the book, ‘In the overwhelming majority of cases, art is neither a good investment nor an efficient investment vehicle’ (239).

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is a fascinating book. Still, it’s also, in one important way, utterly meaningless, except as dark comic relief, to someone like me. Living in a small backwater of the empire of capital, where various artists work & display their art, sometimes reaching out to certain important venues & showing in lesser mainstream galleries (where the collectors featured in Thompson’s book would never even poke their noses in), what is one to do? Look for, & at, art as you find it, often by artists you know, that speaks to your aesthetic not economic spirit. Live with it & enjoy it. That works for me.

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