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Good Art, Bad Art

by Mickey Cartin
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For about 20 years, from 1985 until 2005, I saw just about every single commercial art gallery exhibition in New York.

Every ten days or so from September to June, I would make 48 to 72 hour treks, from as far away as Florida -- or at the very least from central Connecticut, where the drive would take between 2.5 to 5 hours. It wasn’t convenient for me to get to the galleries, but it was exciting to see what younger artists were doing, and I was often thrilled by things I saw and intrigued by the ideas that gave birth to them.

Now I live less than a mile from Chelsea and I rarely get over there. Since September of 2010, other than for brief visits to see shows of friends, I have gone exploring in Chelsea only four times. I went there recently and saw a wonderful Sol LeWitt show, a very interesting exhibition of Louise Lawler images, and I saw the remarkable grouping of Picassos at Gagosian Gallery. But during the other two hours I felt the same disappointment and frustration that I have been experiencing over the last few years.

Those two hours turned out to be a great waste of time, and it made me angry and also made me wonder if it is a good thing that so many young artists seem to be selling things for so much money. My first impulse was to blame those artists for the time I had wasted. I rejected that idea and then questioned the motives of the dealers; mostly, the whole thing made me wonder who was buying all the soulless crap that I saw.

Let me start with the artists. I do not think that artists should starve -- it would be great if they made a good living. It would also be better if merit and quality had something to do with that. In a merely just world, not even in a perfect one, those with talent, energy, and something to say would flourish. Of course, the art world is hardly just. From the looks of things -- and this is not the fault of the artists -- there are too many of them showing their work before it has become anything that merits our attention.

About 10 years ago, the applications for graduate programs in fine arts started to swell. Like law firms and investment banks, art dealers began recruiting artists on campuses. They began looking for inventory, and young people began to think, understandable, that all they needed to do was turn out some stuff and they could make a good living. The more ambitious of them thought that they would also become rich and famous.

Reasons like these take people to Hollywood, and if you go to the movie theaters, and if you consider the kind of people that become Hollywood stars, you will know why the proliferation of wealth and fame at the exclusion of quality poses a grave motivational problem for young artists. Movie-goers keep buying tickets, and consumers of “art” keep buying meaningless things. The problem is that as long as there is an indiscriminate demand for production, artists will keep producing all of this mediocre material.

I am not arguing that all young artists are rooted in mediocrity. There are a number of them that are displaying courage and invention. Some develop extremely interesting ideas, and find a successful strategy for translating those ideas into their artistic production. But there are far too many of them that do not. The immense amount of money spent on stuff of lesser quality is doing nothing for its young producers. Someone should help this ever-increasing stable of uninspired artists to realize that they would be better off going to dental school. But it’s not their fault: it’s the system. These “artists” themselves are blameless.

But if not the artists, can we blame the art dealers for their indiscretion and for their insistence on showing so much work that fails to inspire? I often try to blame the dealers, especially those who know so little about art and who demonstrate such consistent indifference toward it. There are some art dealers who love art, and from whom I have learned very much over the years. It is difficult to find that kind of art dealer today, but even so, it is not their fault that they are able to sell such vacant garbage for such high prices. After all, even the greatest, most inspiring art dealers are, in the end, merchants.

And if merchants can sell things for higher rather than lower prices they most often opt for the former. They pay huge rents to house their galleries, and they incur large overhead in the staffing of them. To draw attention to their stable of workers they invest a lot of money in parties and promotional activities. To stay in business they must sell things for prices that, for me, are difficult to justify. But even with all of those expenses, they seem to be surviving. They must be selling things from the mostly disappointing and unsatisfying shows that I saw today. So if it is not the artists and their dealers, who are we to blame for all of this?

It must be the consumers. In the art world, they are for some reason called “collectors.” I know real art collectors and I know consumers, and the real art collectors are not buying what I saw today in many of Chelsea’s galleries. I’m not saying that real art collectors are not buying the work of talented, promising young artists. They are -- but they are not buying the kind of stuff I’m writing about here. So who is?

More than I can remember, and more than at any other time I have ever read about in the history of art commerce, there is an “art market” today. It is illiquid, but it exists within the auction houses in the most obvious way, as well as in these silly-looking galleries in Chelsea. There are more people than ever buying and selling art in New York, and many more as well in many other cities around the world. The sellers are the dealers I pardoned above, and the buyers are the consumers who are the very reason that there is so much inferior, lifeless material feeding this market.

For some reason, there are many wealthy people who are driven to pay very large sums of money for things that are of so little value. If it is not so apparent in the galleries, just go to an art auction and watch how consumers behave. I will have more to say about that in another piece. The consumer does not realize that the true value of a work of art has nothing to do with its price. They do not understand that art is valuable because it challenges, inspires, and enables us to see ourselves in much more interesting ways. I am one of those ideologues who believe without hesitation, but not blindly, that art makes the world a much more fascinating place. Consumers could care less.

And, of course, I take all of this personally -- not just because I wasted two hours of my time, but also because Chelsea has evolved into a place that discourages art collectors from visiting it. The market supports the ongoing existence of these consumer-driven galleries. Art collectors don’t want to sift through 200 worthless venues to find one or two inspiring, challenging exhibitions, or one or two exciting objects.

And I am making no argument for the relative moral value of the authentic art collector compared to the misinformed, unimaginative, robotic consumer. Self-righteousness is rampant in the art world, and no more is needed here. Asserting the sincerity of this disclaimer is necessary to support the viability of my point of view on the subject of art collecting, so I give it more words here than some might find necessary, and I apologize for that.

To conclude, it is not the dealers or the star-struck artists, as I see it, that cause all these problems, and the art consultants shouldn't be blamed, either. They're selling advice, and at the same time selling merchandise. The fact that the majority of art consultants know little more than the consumers who employ them does not mean that they should be blamed for the lightweight merchandise that shows up in the galleries.

After all, the wealthy consumers could slow all of this down by learning about quality and real value in art, and then demanding it before they spend their money. They could make the art consultants go away by determining the true value of art for themselves, and then they could make their own educated, informed decisions about how to spend their money.

It is their money, and the careless way that they spend it is the reason for the emergence of so much bad stuff. If they stop buying it, the galleries will be forced to improve their programs or close. I run the risk of being told to mind my own business, and that might be justified. Why should I be telling other people how to spend their money? It’s theirs, not mine.

What I do want to tell them, however, is to wake up. When (or if) they do, it is likely that they will stop buying things -- but more importantly, it is also possible that they will discover the thrill that accompanies the understanding of true value in art.

MICKEY CARTIN is a New York-based art collector.