Critical value and market value way out of whack? So what?
My column for the January-February issue of ArtReview. Read the whole issue for free here
The extreme mix of art and money that makes up a large part of the artworld has few defenders at the moment. After all, how can the values of art – which is supposed to be something good, exemplary or at least disruptive in a positive way – have got so entangled with the values of money, with the apparently evermore- venal culture of ostentatious luxury and financial chicanery that now seems to be the main driver of the international market for art?
Denunciations of the current state of affairs are now regular occurrences. In October, the lauded American critic Dave Hickey declared in comments to the UK’s Observer newspaper that he was retiring from writing regular art criticism, having become disillusioned with the incursion of lazy collectors and their armies of art advisers: “They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious,” Hickey told the British newspaper. “Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”
Meanwhile, in the autumn 2012 issue of Francesco Bonami’s very cool Tar magazine, you could find the not-much-lauded (but somehow listened-to) British art-market commentator Sarah Thornton declaring that she was giving up on writing about the market, listing her top ten reasons why. Thornton’s complaints range variously from the commonsense to the banal: look, the art market gives too much exposure to artists who achieve high prices at auction; hey, the market is easy to manipulate by the unscrupulous; and, er, the pay for being a writer is appalling. These are fairly lazy arguments to make, but Thornton’s musings get a bit more interesting on a couple of her odder points. At number five on the list is the fact that ‘oligarchs and dictators are not cool’, although Thornton is quick to insist that she has ‘no problem with rich people’, pointing out that ‘some of my best friends are high net worth individuals’. (It’s not the money, you see, but the way you carry yourself that’s important.) And as well as uncool rich people, what Thornton really hates is how collectors manipulate the critical reputation of artists by bidding up their work (Urs Fischer’s Untitled (Standing), 2010, sold for $1.3m, is her example), while a work by an artist she does like (Sherrie Levine’s Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991) ‘doesn’t even crack a million’.
But Thornton’s complaints that the artworld is no longer ‘cool’ because it’s led by the big money of uncool oligarchs, and that critical value should dictate market value yet doesn’t, are ones shared by Hickey. And the parallel is worth noting. Even if Hickey is way more cool when he argues essentially the same thing. In an interview on the US blog Gallerist NY that anticipated his comments in The Observer, Hickey declared that what he missed about the artworld was ‘being an elitist and not having to talk to idiots’; while on critical value and market value, Hickey was typically succinct: ‘Most of my writing is market-driven. I have this old-time notion that there should be some equity between price and value. If I think somebody is underpriced, I try to raise their prices. If I think somebody is overpriced, I try to lower their prices.’
But why should art’s critical value ever be authentically represented by its market value? Thornton wants to get back to a situation where critical seriousness is taken seriously by collectors, while Hickey’s moist-eyed vision of a golden age of the artworld, the days in which ‘we were all just freelance adventurers and we used to hang out’, and market prices were the product of critical gut-instincts, is as nostalgic as it is utopian. The reality, and how to respond to it, is going to be more complicated.
Because the global art market is now almost schizophrenically distorted by the tidal washes of liquid capital looking to get itself out of cash and into another safe haven, and increasingly extreme displays of chest-beating by status-conscious uncool global oligarchs. In such a situation, there’s no possibility of an easy consensus between critical value and market value. But if we were to push the point, we’d ask: why should criticism ever worry about the longevity of the critical (and thus market) value of an artist’s work? That’s the job of art historians, museum curators, biennial directors and the other bureaucrats tasked with running an artworld based on certainty and authority rather than on open enquiry, conflict and doubt. So on this point, art criticism should borrow from the language of the market: critical values can go down as well as up, and you may get back less than your original investment.