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Art Market Watch


by Charlie Finch
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Recently, over dinner with the wise art journalist Eleanor Heartney, I asked her, "What I don't understand, Eleanor, is the concept of market esthetics. Your editor (at Art in America) Lindsay Pollock did a lot to advance it in her Art Market Views blog, but I still can't wrap my mind around it."

"I don't understand it either, Charlie," Eleanor replied, "in fact, it makes me nervous." Peter Schjeldahl, in his much-anticipated piece about art fairs in the current New Yorker (“All Is Fairs") refers to the today’s art market as "what money likes" and concludes the article, a kind of dance between the inevitability of art fairs and their resemblance to what one of Schjeldahl's sources calls "going to the dog pound," with the lament that the art world is now a gulf between "those who can afford to buy art and those who just love it."

As if to drop the hammer on us "lovers," one of four versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream has just been hammered down for $120 million to what everyone assumes, based on the number, is the Emir of Qatar, one more marketable esthetic gesture for money to love at the expense of the rest of us. The Scream has become a universal signifier of anxiety and now its record valuation assures us that even anxiety has a price. Here lies the definition of "market esthetics": that money tames, controls and rationalizes artistic expression much as the mythic "hidden hand," invented by Adam Smith, brought rational order to the market of human relations.

To have a price, the larger the better, is to make an image as defiantly crazy as The Scream understandable and controllable, to hide the death nautilus in an ocean of dollars. After all, in refutation to Peter Schjeldahl, is it really possible to "love" The Scream? It can be played with, marveled at, referenced to death (pun watch, folks), but only money can make The Scream safe enough to love. We are all emirs in the art market these days and the only fella with vision is a blind Chinese attorney going over the wall.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).