In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:
It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.
At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.
Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:
While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”
Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”
At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”
Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).
Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…