“We have officially departed reality,” Postmasters Magda Sawon wrote over Twitter Friday night, as Dan Colen’s painting S & M (2010) sold for $480,000 at Phillips de Pury. She’s not wrong. S & M, a bad painting, is made from chewing gum alone, and was part of Colen’s universally-panned show “Poetry” at Gagosian Gallery two years ago.
Sawon’s tweet was just one in a barrage of comments flying over Twitter and Facebook about the auctions last week. Rich people, it seems, are spending their money. The contemporary auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s both did exceptionally well, making blue chip contemporary both bluer and more chipper. At Phillips de Pury, total sales came in just above their low estimate, a performance seen as poor relative to the other auction houses. This prompted some ridiculousness: “We need [Phillips], it’s a great incubator,” collector Donald Rubell told GalleristNY last week. This is true: in today’s market, selling a work at Phillips de Pury is a formative moment in an artist’s career, somewhere between getting a BFA and smelling Larry Gagosian up close for the first time. Gallerist did not provide any quotes to counter the ludicracy of Mr. Rubell’s statement.
This eschews a basic understanding of the world in which artists actually operate. As if responding directly to Mr. Rubell, Jerry Saltz posted to Facebook, “Always people walk out of auction nattering utter nonsense.” He went on to blast the “mindless, clueless joy” of this latest barrage of auction news, adding that “…none of it has anything whatsoever to do with art.”
Of course, that assumes that without the market we’d be talking about art. I see no evidence that that would be the case. Typical stories in my news feed have included a pressing story about how Pace PR Manager Jennifer Joy moved to Lehmann Maupin, an idiotic opinion piece about how Frieze can’t stay on Randall’s Island (because that’s where Randall lives), and a breezy slideshow about art world fashion, likely paid for by the featured vendor. The press is not doing us any favors.
Regardless of all this, Reuters blogger Felix Salmon wrote this morning that he sees hope. “I’m beginning to see the stirrings of something else: a more supportive and democratic art world, taken seriously by respected gatekeepers,” said Salmon, noting how the public’s perception of the auction market has shifted from mere fascination to actual disgust.
“The world of high-end art collectors…has reached a level of obscenity that the art world more generally can no longer ignore. It’s been clear to the more politically-minded for a while, but now we’re seeing the mainstreaming of attitudes which used to be found only on the far left.” As evidence of this shift, Salmon points to Sarah Thornton’s recent resignation through a well-circulated piece, “Top 10 Reasons NOT To Write About the Art Market.”
I see the same thing, though I probably wouldn’t have connected it so closely (as Salmon does) to the surrenders of Thornton and art critic Dave Hickey. Those are people who are attempting to remove themselves from the art world, or at least from the market. They both gave good reasons—corruption and greed—for leaving the art world, but real movers and shakers stay the course. They’re the people who recognize the game is fixed, and who fight to change it.