Monday, November 17, 2008

What's Next?

Biff Elrod, "Met Steps 2006", 2006
oil on canvas, 48 X 48 in, (122 x 122 cm)
Everybody saw it coming, nobody saw it coming. Really, in truth, it is unlikely that most artists and gallerists would have been able to foresee conditions becoming as bad as they are today. High ranking officials within the government were blind-sided by economic events because they chose to ignore the warnings which preceded them.

Many younger artists and gallerists have only experienced buoyant art markets like we have had for the past decade. For them to assume "that's how it is" is reasonable even though it is incorrect. So I can sympathize with their surprise and dismay as they experience the current unravelling in the art markets.

We only saw the seven fat cows in Pharaoh's dream.

But for those of us who are older, perhaps a bit wiser, there had been signs, voiced concerns over frothy prices reaching into the stratosphere. Never the less, the cheerleaders for the major auction houses, wined and dined the affluent, assuring them the trend would continue. "There is value there"

Prices continued to rise, and rise, and rise. All the while, the insiders of Sotheby's were unloading their stock, month after month, share after share, there was value there? In the face of their manipulative hubris, the house of cards has collapsed, Sotheby's, and the others as well, I suppose, are under financial pressure.

We now see the seven ugly cows in Pharaoh's dream.

Where do we go from here? What's next?

Forget about, the talk coming out of the bankrupt auctioneer's mouth. Yes we will continue to see "record prices" for great works of art but the truth lies in the second tier sales, the afternoons, where prices and dollar volumes have collapsed. There is no solace there, when the leaders of the art-commodity market, Hirst and Warhol fail to make the bid. Shame?

Forget about, the dwindling ranks of the billionaires, the Russians or the Chinese. Forget about, the rash speculators driving up prices of the young innocents, profiting from the flawless skin of youths ambition.

Forget about the money game, the social jukes between billionaires pitching pennies. Prices are falling and it is not, as Eli said, a "half off sale" it's a market with no bottom in sight. Prices will continue to fall.

Biff Elrod, "Puppet Show Crowd", 2005
oil on linen, 56 X 36 in.
Where do we go from here? What's next?

In the face of fleeting moments of fame, fashion or fortune we may forget the source of this wealth, the fount of Solomon's song, the creators of that which we love and desire.

It is the artists who are the sources, the artist who is a source. The artists who sacrifice everything to give us a unique insight into the very reality of our existence, into a moment of quiet pleasure, or just make us smile for no reason at all (Miro).

In the frantic quest for career, for fame and fortune, for social status, we forget. We forget that art stands as one of the highest, if not the highest achievement of humankind. That while we may consign it momentarily as flotsam in the world of commerce, it ultimately comes to rest, giving expression to the soul of our fleeting historical era.

What's next? That is always the question. The moneyed collectors, grayed at their temples, are making their play. Casting their chips at the high stakes table they reaffirm what we, as artists, already know. What was.

Biff Elrod, "Life by the Tracks ", 2008
oil on canvas, 72 X 72 in.
What's next? It's what is being done now, in the studios or on the streets, whatever or wherever, time and life allows. This is the new art, the art the moneyed collectors of the future will lust after, but for now lies sprouting in the furrows below their horizon line.

What's next? While the millionaires fret over their lost billionaire status, artists continue working despite circumstance. They work, as always, with their generation's hope for the future. The artist is the source, the fount of creativity.

In this new era, with markets now tempered by past follies, the collector will gain new status through insight not fashion. The critical community must again rise to the occasion by providing insightful guidance. They must stake their reputations, and give a personal opinion of what they believe in, despite the pressures of the marketplace.

A flood has washed over the land. What lies sprouting forth in the fields, are the hundred million dollar artworks of the future. They are not being sold by Sotheby's or Christie’s, but by gallerists and artists across the land.

I'm not impressed by the rich collector's "eight million dollar bargains". It is an expression of aging impotency, and the fear of death which distances them from "wasting" the money on 200 works by "less established" artists. The money is squandered on a monument to their death, the venture capitalist has finally become the vulture capitalist.

I am aware that in past downturns, the high end of the art market has held up best and the less validated parts of the markets have fared the worst. While there is little reason to expect that this distinction will change, it might. In this economic cycle, prices at the high end of the market went hyperbolic and will fall much farther than anyone is now willing to admit.

It may well be that, until the high end auction markets stabilize, the best investments might be among artists who are less established. Discerning collectors may find that the best "values" are also more affordable and have less downside risk.

It is a rare moment for new collectors, for collectors who are inquisitive and daring enough to acquire and enjoy artworks which haven't been diluted and branded into mediocrity.

References:
Genesis 41:26
Biff Elrod, a NYC painter and friend.
Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927–1937 at MOMA (recommended)
Edward Winkleman's blog post which inspired this commentary.
What Is Art For? NY Times, Daniel B. Smith writing about Lewis Hyde.
In Faltering Economy, Auction Houses Crash Back to Earth by Carol Vogel for the NY Times

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