To all appearances, the outright scammers on Wall Street, like Bernard Madoff and Marc Dreier, are outnumbered only by the greedy schemers who benefit from a corrupt system, like John Thain and Maurice Greenberg. The ethical transgressions of the art market are puny by comparison, if only because the stakes are so much smaller.
So it was with some amusement that we greeted the announcement last month of a "debate" on the proposition that "the art market is less ethical than the stock market," with art dealers Richard Feigen and Michael Hue-Williams and collector Adam Lindemann taking the "pro" side and artist Chuck Close, critic Jerry Saltz, and auctioneer Amy Cappellazzo opposing the notion.
The event was organized by the London-based debating society Intelligence Squared and sponsored by the Rosenkranz Foundation at Rockefeller University, New York. At its conclusion, the proposition passed by 55 percent, according to a vote of the audience, with 33 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided.
Here, Jerry Saltz -- from the losing side -- takes up the issue once again. The entire debate can be watched on YouTube here.
In the green room, minutes before going on stage to debate the proposition, the man who helped organize the debate told me that he had become involved with Intelligence Squared after working in "conservative think-tanks for years." I said, "I’m just curious, did you vote for Bush twice?" He replied, "As a matter of fact, I did." I then asked, "Does that mean you also voted for McCain?" He replied, "Yes." Then I said, "Don’t you think that may mean you have no sense of judgment about these things?" He stared at me and led our team to the debating floor.
As we entered the auditorium I noticed that I barely recognized anyone in the packed audience, and that the crowd looked fairly conservative. We were on stage by the time I put two and two together and understood why Karl Rove and Dick Cheney had participated in other debates sponsored by Intelligence Squared. By then, I knew our goose was cooked. I don’t blame losing the debate on the crowd being conservative. Rather, I blame myself and my team for having no idea how to debate, and for existing happily in what I consider a parallel art world.
Intelligence Squared framed the question (which seemed subtly slanted against my team’s position and laced with Schadenfreude), and assembled the teams. Our team -- Chuck Close, Amy Cappellazzo, who is deputy chairman of Christie’s, and myself -- defended the position that the art world is not "less ethical" than the stock market. Their team was art dealer Richard Feigen, who the day before sold a J.M.W. Turner at auction for more than $12 million; Michael Hue-Williams, owner and chief executive of London’s Albion gallery; and super-collector, and nice guy, Adam Lindemann (who during the debate said, "I wish I was on your side").
To me, their side was making a logical-sounding but smug, monstrously cynical argument. Their position essentially broke faith with art, believed in the hype of the past few years, was nihilistic and hollowed out. They said that even with all the abuses on Wall Street, the fall of Enron, insider trading, Bernie Madoff, the collapse of the stock market, widespread job losses, rampant suffering, and the world economy in a shambles, the art market was still less ethical than the stock market! Ironically, all those on the other team were in a position to benefit from most of the unethical behavior they railed against. To me, this seemed infinitely hypocritical and self-hating. But evidently not to the audience, who seemed to agree with every stone they lobbed at the art world, and sneered at every mention of bad behavior by the art world.
Our argument was simple and straightforward, even if we utterly failed to make it properly. The art world, we said -- like all worlds -- has unethical practices.
"Chandelier bidding" happens and is disgusting; art dealers can be sharks; art fairs are like tent-city casinos; the market revved up the bullshit machine. Yet even considering all this, we said the art world is not more corrupt and less ethical than Wall Street. We acknowledged that the system may be damaged, but added that in our studios and in front of works of art when we experience moments of genuine stillness, intensity and meaningfulness, places on the edge of language, the market cannot strip away these things. In this imperfect realm, we sometimes experience the elemental otherness of art. That cannot happen in the stock market, ethics or not.
Hue-Williams talked about how the art world has no regulations and that anyone can get into it. I said that other than basic guidelines already in place (especially in the auction sector), the art world is a "world" and not an industry. I’m lucky that "anyone can be in the art world." I have no degrees and no qualifications, other than the fact that I want to do it. If there were guidelines about who could be in the art world, most of us wouldn’t be allowed to be here at all. Basically, they were arguing for a form of cultural-ethical cleansing. They claimed that with no regulations the only thing an art dealer needed was "to have two eyes."
Once our side admitted to "chandelier bidding" and the rest, however, the day was lost. To the audience, the argument turned on the concept, "the art world is unethical." To us, it turned only on the word "less." Either way, these are semantic points that we clearly lost. As one blogger later noted, "I found that the ‘against the motion’ side made many errors of strategy and fact."
Debate strategies and rules aside, I think it’s utterly ridiculous to claim that the art world is "less ethical than the stock market." The stock market made more people richer, made more people lose money, and brought the U.S. to its knees. By comparison, the art world is relatively benign, and the unethical parts are relatively limited. No one in the art world jumped out of a window because a painting’s price decreased. No one was put out of their home because of the art market. Even at its height, only a small fraction of all artists made money selling their works. You can rail against the business practices of the art world, but even in flush times reputations are built on credibility, not on money or the market.
The public is suspicious of the art world because the art market, and not art, is what they saw first when they saw art. Regardless, just because a dealer makes a lot of money doesn’t mean that they have the respect of the art world. Money doesn’t earn respect. Respect exists outside of the market. If you are in art for the money, you’re not really in art at all. As Brice Marden said, "It’s not the art that’s suffering; it’s the market that’s suffering. They don’t have anything to do with each other."
An audience member identified himself as a lawyer and said he agreed with the proposition because we can never be certain about the true value of art. I agree -- the art world, especially now, is not about "certainty." The art world is a space where uncertainty, doubt and paradox exist, and can transform the world. Art is not a decorative ornament on the edifice of philosophy, religion or economics. Art is not optional. Art is a universal force that helps make things happen, even if some of those things are tainted.
The debate made me understand several things: cynicism about the art world runs deep; I have no clue how to debate; the art world exists in a realm that can be described by words, but is nevertheless beyond them. The following day, an old Beatles lyric drifted through my mind: "Although they thought I knew the answer; I knew but I could not say."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. This essay was originally posted by the Art Newspaper; it can be found, along with several reader comments, here.