Ronald Reagan campaigned for President in 1980 on a platform of slashing government spending and fiscal responsibility. Instead, under the guidance of his treasury secretary James Baker, he created the debt-dominated capitalism which is unraveling today.
Baker revolutionized the market for U.S. Treasury debt, traditionally a sleepy haven for long-term investors, into a system of tranches in which variously amortized Treasury products furiously competed with each other on the open market. Today’s hedge funds essentially mimicked this model, in which debt became king, on the theory that we are all mortal, debt will always be with us, and debt can always be restructured and rolled over with slices off the top forming an unlimited tide of profit opportunity.
This not-so-brave new world also transformed the nature of fine art as a financial instrument. The best art became a fulcrum for swapping, loans and value appreciation. We are now on the verge of a Depression. If you doubt me, turn on CNBC and watch their analysts repeat the same mantra 24/7: "We know nothing."
What this means for art is a return to the tired old verities of uniqueness and connoisseurship. The implications of such a reality over the next year are as follows: Conceptualism is dead. Artists as interpreters of esoteric events, from their daily perambulations to global warming, are dead in the water. Painting will be prized, but many of the overpriced contemporaries will be downsized. Look for a new appreciation for artists such George McNeil, Catherine Murphy, late-career Francis Picabia, Richard Estes, Jules Olitski, Kerry James Marshall, Al Held, Wayne Thiebaud, David Park -- in other words, artists with a traditional painterly view of the universe.
What follows from this is that individual works will be prized on the market over the artist-branding that has driven the market for 20 years. There will (finally!) be distinctions made between individual Doigs and Rauchs, and, hell, Frankenthalers.
Traditional, recently undervalued, areas of the art market will rebound, precisely because of the new premium on genuine connoisseurship. These include Old Master drawings, Pop prints from the ‘60s, Ash Can School, postwar sculpture that you can hold in your hands, even now-eclipsed ‘80s stars like Judy Rifka, Rebecca Howland, Robin Winters and Richard Bosman. The point will be to glean the few masterpieces from the above and make specific markets for them.
Chinese contemporary is over, for awhile, but since China holds one trillion dollars in U.S. debt, the surreal possibility which I broached in a column last spring that the Chinese perspective could become the dominant orientation in contemporary is a strong possibility.
Finally, for true connoisseurs of contemporary, bargains will be everywhere for those left with cash to spend, as evening sales will look like day sales and many good things will go for ten cents on the dollar. Hopefully, auction house fixes will be a thing of the past, as high rollers should balk at playing the game, and perhaps auction land will be a true, sort-of democratic market again. We can only hope!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).