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Art Market Watch


by Charlie Finch
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People will tell you, in art or in sports, that "it has always been about the money." The difference in the present day is that "the money" has been elevated to the prime esthetic reason for the art or sports experience, the consequence being that the dominance of the elites is reinforced, justifying making money as the only reason to exist.

Turn on a televised baseball game, for example, and the announcer will say, "Joe Palooka is coming to bat. Joe is in his walk year, making $15 million, and his agent is rumored to be negotiating for a minimum six-year contract with the Red Sox or maybe the Rockies. Here comes the pitch. Strike One. Whether the Rangers will trade Palooka before the All Star break depends on management's willingness to eat a big chunk of Joe's current contract."

Similarly the coverage of the recently crazed week of New York art fairs went like this, "The Larry Solomon Gallery told this reporter exclusively that its stand was doing a brisk business during the opening night benefit for the Hedge Fund Retirees Settlement, as Damien Currin's paintings sold for $750,000 apiece and a series of Tracey Sherman video stills brought $250,000 for the set, edition of five."

What's missing in both narratives is the traditional public interest that used to motivate the whole process. Did the batter hit a homer? What did the work look like? And the answer from the rich and powerful is essentially that these are constructs no longer intended for public entertainment, but merely to justify the exchange of large amounts of capital between the 1% of the 1%.

But without the support of the suckers in the public who remain the engine of the spectacle, the whole upper tier quickly collapses, so the public essentially settles for a watered down product to fulfill its nebulous fantasies at higher and higher prices.

If you are an NBA fan, for example, there are 30 teams to choose from, many of them have terrible won-lost records, you will probably never experience a championship for "your team" in your lifetime, yet "your team's" star players still make millions and your seat in the rafters costs $50 plus popcorn and parking.

If you are an art fan, the Armory Show charges you $30 admission (or the upcoming Frieze New York fair charges you $40) and you walk among the various booths and stands, getting tired from overexposure to a dizzying variety of high-priced work which has been already snapped up by the wealthy, for whom you are an extra in their money-driven show.

What's wrong with this picture is that the great majority is left out and, by this, I mean the players and the artists, for, while it may appear that more and more teams and fairs means more success for more participants (putting the "fans" aside, for the moment), the reality is that both art and sports depend on a hypersystem of planned obsolescence to feed the money beast's constant need to prettify the act of consumption with the new.

Hence, you could be a college football star, drafted into the NFL, get a contract with no guaranteed money, injured and working back at Walmart in two years, which is the norm for NFL players. Or you could be an artist who graduates from RISD, gets that performance gig at the Whitney Biennial, competes like hell to get one grant and ends up as an adjunct professor with no benefits at Schlump Community College by the time you are 35.

In this way, rich elites create the illusion of opportunity to justify your reification of their greed and selfish habits, in much the way that billionaire Warren Buffett creates those "entertaining" Geico commercials to suck your money in the insurance gambit (the celebrated Buffett owns half of Geico through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway). Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban or Los Angeles macher Eli Broad are definitely not you and want to be worshipped for it constantly. As long as they thrive, everyone else suffers.

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