Investing in art, meanwhile, did not really begin until the 19th century, and only in earnest when dealers like Bernard Berenson and Alfred Duveen took advantage of continental poverty and a newfound American acquisitiveness to cart back fleets of old masters to the palaces of Gilded Age royalty like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet those investments were at best fractional when compared to the increasing commercialization that art would experience in the period following the Second World War. Bolstered by the late twentieth century’s great liquidity—as compared, for example, with the relative land richness and cash poorness of previous historical periods—it suddenly became possible to conceive of a quick killing not just in stocks and bonds but in dear old art. (Note, dear reader, that I have just paraphrased the title of an excellent if cautionary book on Jean-Michel Basquiat.)
Fast-forward several decades to Sotheby Parke Bernet’s New York evening sale of 1973.
“I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit,” Robert Rauschenberg shouts at Robert Scull, taxi-magnate and art world profiteer, before socking him in the jaw. Scull has just made an $84,000 profit on a Rauschenberg combine he purchased years earlier for just $900. That night, Scull walks away sore, but two million dollars richer from his confrontation with Rauschenberg and philanthropic ethics. What is more, the sale of his contemporary collection proves nothing less than a historical watershed. The idea of an art as a dicey investment vanishes like so much smoke and with its passing the modern-day art speculator is born. A complementary if less chronicled artistic movement is also afoot: leading Pop Art artists everywhere are effectively and quite successfully commercializing the avant-garde.
In less than three decades, Andy Warhol’s almost innocent disco-age proposition that “making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art” becomes the norm in the unregulated province of art land. Not long after, a growing riot of figures—among them Peter Max, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince—complete the task that Warhol and others had begun: they finish grafting art’s financial value onto its less yielding symbolic value. Then in 2006, Tobias Meyer, Christie’s chief auctioneer, finally gives away the plot. He hiccups that “the best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank has just sold for $12 million to hedge fund gazillionaire Steve Cohen. That sale, among many others, serves to illustrate art’s current creative logjam as well as its actual moral quandary. Put in Hirst-speak, what Meyer’s slip reveals is nothing less than The Practical Plot Against Any Other Ideas Besides Money Guiding the Careers of Marquis Artists Living or Dead.
Of course, the writing was on the wall long before the global recession pointed up art’s present-day crisis of values. One prescient figure who saw what was coming quite clearly was art historian Leo Steinberg. Noting as far back as 1968 that many Abstract Expressionists died before striking it rich while most Pop artists experienced a more profitable fate, Steinberg delivered himself of the following oracular pronouncement during one memorable MoMA lecture:
“Avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. And this is because its occult aims and uncertain future have been successfully translated into homely terms. For far-out modernism, we can now read “speculative growth stock”; for apparent quality, “market attractiveness”; and for an adverse change of taste, “technical obsolescence.” [This is]a feat of language to absolve a change of attitude. Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.”
At the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, the nature of the era’s art-financial shenanigans has become transparently clear. The veil has been pulled off the high end of the art trade and its jowly face reveals an Andy Warhol portrait of Bernie Madoff. What confronts art today is nothing less than what the young Colombian artist Santiago Montoya has accurately dubbed “The Great Swindle.” A historical moment where the symbiosis of commercial value and artistic value is complete, our own age offers up, amid the worst global recession in half a century, thousands of art works so expensive that they provide their own legitimacy—like name debutantes at a cotillion. Or so their grasping logic goes. However you look at these multimillion-dollar sculptures and paintings, what they chiefly represent today is the era’s own profligacy. Koons’ shiny stainless steel dog balloons and Hirst’s dot paintings don’t just currently advertise their own banality; instead, they symbolize the promises of a free-market ideology that is in ruins.
More broadly, what the ascent of couture Pop encapsulates is the politically convenient idea that art is by and for the rich, the notion that wealth is a sign of virtue, and, ultimately, the Dale Carnegiesque myth that financial success is its own reward. Those, in a nutshell, have been the non-fact based yarns advanced to effectively swindle generations out of a meaningful visual culture. But what, you may ask, about the art of our time going forward? One thing is sure as bank debt, greed looks grasping (if not outright cruel) in tough periods, never flashy or ironic.
Just one more bit of history before we look closely at the critical, cash-obsessed work of Santiago Montoya. While Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions raked in millions in 2009, sales in New York were generally buoyed by the weakness of the dollar relative to other currencies. Ironically, one of the premiere lots for sale was Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills (1962), a painting originally owned by Robert Scull. Sold by Scull in 1986 for $385,000, 200 One Dollar Bills fetched a whopping $43 million dollars at Sotheby’s. One clear conclusion to drawn from this event is that, as the dollar depreciates, a crude illustration of money has become a more highly prized representation of value than money itself, even as that art work and others inch closer to a rumored reckoning. More than a few art experts and financial journalists have characterized the current high-flying art auction market as a Ponzi scheme. John Paul Getty, for example, was quite explicit about why the rich should refrain from gambling among themselves. Money is like manure, he said, you have to spread it around or it smells.