The Big Idea

The Sacred Cows of the Art World (Or, Why Everyone's So Nervous About Stefan Simchowitz)

The Sacred Cows of the Art World (Or, Why Everyone's So Nervous About Stefan Simchowitz)
One of the cows.

The herd is spooked. That's one interpretation of why there has been so much outrage over the the borderline heretical views that the collector Stefan Simchowitz espoused in Artspace's recent interview with him—what he said has evidently struck a chord that resonates jarringly with collectors, dealers, artists, curators… everyone, really. A collector who has amassed a hoard of recent art, much of it (Oscar Murillo, Parker Ito, etc.) stratospherically in demand by the market, Simchowitz is unabashed in his almost evangelical enthusiasm for flipping art (for profit and to buy more), outright disdain for the traditional gallery system, and libertarian-scented strategies for advancing what he sees as artists' best interests. From the conversation that has blossomed online, it seems many people don't know what to think, falling somewhere between Simchowitz's extremism and the surging response led by Jerry Saltz that frames the collector as a radioactive threat to art. But is he such a threat, top to bottom, through and through? 

The reason that Simchowitz is proving so destabilizing is that, without making it overtly apparent, his approach to collecting and nurturing artists systematically abrogates—annihilates—a whole series of beliefs that lie at the foundation of the art world's critical, institutional, and commercial structures. These beliefs are not codified anywhere, but they could probably be recited catechistically by anyone who's worked in the art field for a bit. And while many of them have been violated (for instance, by Duchamp, Warhol, and their followers) and some are possibly more honored in the breach, they persist as rules, with each new breakage carrying the frisson of taboo. Often, they come down to business models, and often—and this is important—they concern what is said and done in public, rather behind the scenes. 

Art, as a business, has boomed to unprecedented heights even as most other cultural industries have been thrown into existential struggles by the rise of the digital era. Verities have crumbled across the board: movies are social experiences that can only be enjoyed on the biggest screens possible, music is about the album, people don't want their romantic lives to be governed by robot matchmakers, journalism is a lucrative business. The biggest winners in this period of upheaval have been the people who went counter to these verities, and the biggest losers were the ones who rigidly stood by them. In that light, it might be useful to take a direct look at some of these sacred cows—and consider a few real-world caveats that apply to them, with or without Simchowitz.  


When Damien Hirst held his one-man auction at Sotheby's in 2008 and then embarked on a half-decade of making art about and exploiting the art market, the conceptual oomph tying it all together was that he was breaking this tenet. It is a powerful one. Take art fairs. Chuck Close once said "for an artist to go to an art fair, it's like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse"; for John Baldessari, "Visiting art fairs is like hearing your parents having sex." Same goes for auctions. When Murakami attended a Sotheby's sale in 2008 to watch his sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy quadruple his previous auction record, the rarity of the phenomenon made news. Artists are supposed to be pure, uninfluenced by market concerns in their pursuit of truth and beauty, and leave their dealers to dirty their hands with money issues and things like marketing strategies.

The romantic ideal here is the artist who starves for years before being recognized as a genius shortly before—or, even better, only after—their death. Rubens, who ran a business to rival Warhol's Factory, with an army of assistants churning out pricey tapestry copies of his paintings for clients, was one artist who took a different approach. Van Gogh desperately wanted to sell his paintings. It's a 20th-century phenomenon that artists should be shielded from their markets, one may have something to do with then sympathy of the intellectual left (read: art critics) for Communism in its ideological battle with capitalism over that century's course. 

Plus, it bears mentioning: the artists whose work gets swept up by an overheated market do not stand to make any money off of their resale. In other words, the Murillos, Itos, and others of the current moment might seem wildly successful, but their secondary-market prices don't translate into fortunes for them—just for their collectors. An unlikely campaign in Washington is trying to change this, but good luck with that.


This certainly remains true, since they can powerfully advocate for an artist's worth and strategically place their work. But an assortment of alternatives are in their infancy, with freelance agents and managers springing up to supply assistance for artists who have not entered the gallery system, either out of choice or because they failed to penetrate it. Once could imagine a scenario when particularly savvy, self-directed, and Internet-optimized artists could construct an alternative infrastructure outside of the system entirely.  


Matisse used to tell his students, "You want to be a painter? First of all you must cut out your tongue, because your decision has taken away from you the right to express yourself with anything but your brush." The audience alone is supposed to complete the work, filling in gaps of meaning with their own interpretations. But with the advent of social media, an artist's voice can be tremendously powerful in advocating their worldview and heightening the visibility of their art. 


This is certainly the most controversial of Simchowitz's apostasies, because he essentially reprises Gordon Gekko's line—"greed, for lack of a better word, is good"—in his advocacy of flipping as a way of making money and sending works flying around from one collector to another in an increasingly heated cycle of venality. It suggests a climate of cashing in that could lead to a day-trading sensibility, an investment outlook that did not serve the financial markets (or the rest of the world) well in 2008. But selling in itself is not a sin, and even Warren Buffett will part ways with an asset for strategic reasons, and would be a fool not to. The collector should be no more of a market virgin than the artist. But just as with artists, there needs to be balance.


The market is everywhere. 


This philosophical tenet lies at the heart of the art establishment, and the fact that its widely believed is one of the reasons why art has managed to elude the depredations of digitization, which compressed records into bytes and newspapers into HTML pages that commanded far lower prices—because they didn't have as strong an aura as artworks do. This has a lot to do with the fact that individual works of art can contain "the artist's hand," evidence of the individualistic manner in which the artist manipulates the work while making it that magically gives the possessor a psychic piece of the artist him or herself. But mostly is has to do with obvious factors of supply and demand. 

The whole idea, of course, found its best expression in Walter Benjamin's famous essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which was attempting to situate art within the proto-Internet disruptions of his day—photography, the mechanized printing press, etc. It is a philosophical creed that has been dissected and pulverized and revived and rekilled by artists from Duchamp to Warhol to Richard Prince to basically everyone. But when it comes to the market, it doesn't matter if an artwork is unique, it only matters if it's the only one available.

So, unique works must be the most valuable, then? The most expensive work at auction by a living artist is currently Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange), which Christie's acknowledges is "one of five unique versions"; the most expensive work ever to sell on the private market (as far as has been reported) is Cézanne The Card Players, which is one of a series of five, three others of which are nearly identical. Leonardo even made a copy of the Mona Lisa, which is at the Prado.  


This is a corollary of the previous one, predicated on the way art has historically been displayed. Ancient sculpture was meant to be engaged with and circumambulated in public or sacred places, Renaissance frescoes seen in Churches where they would instruct and inspire prayer, 19th-century paintings in academic salons where their content and mastery of paint-handling could be evaluated. It has been vital that the original work be present for viewing, to the extent that masterworks are routinely shipped overseas at enormous expense for the edification of foreign audience, who may or may not be able to appreciate the subtler niceties of patina and impasto that would be lacking if a reproduction had been sent in its place. Because, as Benjamin wrote, "even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." 

This exact sentiment was recently repeated by Artforum contributor Brian Droitcour in an online essay titled "Why I Hate Post-Internet Art," taking to task the primary group of artists that Simchowitz is championing. Droitcour writes: "The post-internet art object looks good online in the way that laundry detergent looks good in a commercial. Detergent doesn’t look as stunning at a laundromat, and neither does Post-Internet art at a gallery. It’s boring to be around. It’s not really sculpture. It doesn’t activate space. It’s frontal, designed to preen for the camera’s lens." However, it's hard to say what's "really" sculpture without falling back on Benjamin's almost Aristotelian emphasis on the unity of time and space. 

The way we look at things in the Internet era is changing, and so naturally modes of display are changing to suit the new visuality. If collectors are more concerned with how artworks look on their Instagram account than on their wall—considering how many more people can see it online—then why blame the artist for making work that looks good in that medium? A lot of installation art that looks great in a Annabelle Selldorf-designed gallery will look like a mess in people's homes too, but that's not where it's conceived to be primarily encountered, or what the artist has in his or her head when they're making it.

In the 1960s we had the dematerialization of the art object; now we're experiencing the dematerialization of the art audience. 


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