Sunday, March 12, 2006

Art, Money and Fashion

How much money is there in the world? I found this answer via Google which is $46.513 trillion, let's call it $50 trillion dollars. Why would I wonder this? Well, the Forbes list of billionaires was just released (3/9/06). The list has a record 793 members with a net worth over 1 billion dollars. According to Forbes, combined the're worth a cool 2.6 trillion dollars. Expressed another way, a tiny fraction (0.0000122%) of the worlds population controls a suprisingly large amount of the wealth. Carl Marx must be rolling over in his grave.

In an earlier post I made some observations on the art market as we start the 21st century. The art market has expanded considerably in the last twenty years. I am suggesting that the expansion is more or less permanent and caused by factors alluded to in the preceding paragraph.

The question I am pondering is how does this influx of capital affect the art?

While I am not sure how this will play out in the future, I have a few speculations.

From a purely financial point of view I would expect the marketplace to become more tiered in terms of pricing. How the pricing is established is more of a mystery but for the moment it doesn't really matter.

One major difference between Fine Art and other art forms, like music, literature and cinema, is that it offers a singular product (exclude multiples for the moment) In comparison, the other art forms market copies of the "original", razor blades instead of the razor. This mode of distribution has both advantages and disadvantages. In the case of the distributed art forms, the buying audience acts by consensus to establish demand. In essence, the buying audience acts as a group in a critical role. The downside of this methodology is that the "producers", armed with the best market research that money can buy, will often tailor their product to the audience. Sometimes this is effective and sometimes it is not. Regardless, the group critical role helps establish a tiered marketplace sorted first by popularity and second by quality.

Market popularity has also been a factor in the visual arts. In the past the market place was implicitly divided, with "fine art" the term used to label what I am generally referring to as "art" today. In other words, I would discount artists like Kincade and Vettriano as playing to the popular audience, "popular" art or as Greenberg might have called it, kitsch. Never the less, I would suggest the influx of capital into the fine art market has had a destabilizing affect on the boundaries between "fine and "popular" art. When capital flows are directed primarily as "investment", purchasing decisions are based first on the idea the artwork will appreciate in value. For a good speculator, the "appreciation potential" decision is disconnected from aesthetic value, it is totally irrelevant as long as the price goes up. While many art lovers will rail at this comment, years of studying how the auction market for stocks behave, convince me that this is true. A sharp speculator will buy a worthless stock, a bankrupt company with a ton of debt and negative net worth, as long as he believes he can sell it at a higher price. In the equities market a manipulation of this sort is aptly called "pump and dump". The art market is no different, to quote PT Barnum "there is a sucker born every minute" (wahtever)

How does the artist fit into this paradigm? Although the artists are the "source" of the "product", the producer of the art, they are more often than not treated as the low person on the totem pole. The speculator isn't sharing his gains with the artist, he tries to buy the work inexpensively from the artist and sell it at an inflated price. The artists sell the work for what they can get because they need to pay the rent.

In todays upswing of the economic cycle it becomes apparent, even to the most financially inept artist, that there might be a marketplace for what they produce. For most artists, I would suggest that just knowing there is a marketplace has an influence on their production. I know that a lot of artists might say they disagree with me but I would suggest that it doesn't necessarily matter one way or the other. Regardless of the motivation, let's assume it is always personally honest, what occurs in the marketplace, what we see in the galleries affects our thinking about our own studio practice. It becomes the creative zeitgeist, a psychic soup we are immersed in. One can go with the flow, fight against it or decide to ignore it altogether.

It's "fashion week" in the artworld
Saturday afternoon I ignored the "fairs" but took the time to wander through the Chelsea galleries. I'm bringing this up because what I see in the galleries, my so called "creative zeitgeist" is less than impressive. I am a gallery outsider, I don't specifically know what motivates their decisions but I have a fairly good eye. I wish I was wrong but I believe what I am seeing in the galleries is skewed by a desire to capitalize on the current craze for art, as investment or just to look cool. In an affluent period the emphasis is always on "product", marketable product. So, what is a "marketable product"? Something you can sell to the less informed because it carries one of the litany of stylistic identifiers of "art". The "identifiers" are always changing and in themselves are not necessarily bad. Rather than name them, I'll leave that up to the reader, what one likes another may hate and that is how it should be. Never the less, there appeared to be a significant amount of work in the galleries which was marginal at best. There also was a fair amount of work which I would call "polished" or "ready for market", professional, good looking but designed and therefore riskless. In a few cases there were handsome exhibitions of work which relied on obviously high production values but when they failed it was garish.

Now I suspect some smart MFA grad will assail me with the idea of "issues", how this work or that work is addressing certain "issues" I won't disagree but I'll suggest that "issues" are nothing more than a nice term for fashion, one of the litany of stylistic identifiers. Even an anti-art response, the collective attack, "unmarketability", the non-gallery etc will inevitably be consumed by the marketplace.

Art has become a fashion business.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Trader Joe's comes to NYC

File under the heading, nostalgia.

The NY Times did a nice piece on the new Trader Joe's opening March 17th in Union Square. I can't wait.

I grew up six blocks from the original Trader Joe's on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena. Along with Mijares, Trader Joe's was a part of my families weekly shopping ritual.

Mijares was a "house restaurant" in a residential neighborhood, our source for fresh tortillas and hand made tamales. You brought your own pot and Mijares filled it with tamales. I remember when they got their first "tortilla machine", an odd contraption with rollers and a long belt to move the tortillas. It was a long time ago and now Mijares is a chain of Mexican Restaurants.

Initially Trader Joe's was a nearby source for essentials, milk, bread, cheese, truly what one would think of as a "convenience store". Over the years as they refined their offerings (see the NYT article) our family refined our tastes. White bread was out, wheat bread was in, that sort of thing.

I've been in NYC for over 20 years, Trader Joe's is just about the only thing I miss about Los Angeles. Whenever I am visiting in LA, a trip to Trader Joe's with my mother is a must. My mother, 90 years young, is the quintessential "little old lady from Pasadena". She still continues to patronize the Arroyo Parkway store long after the Piggly Wiggly has faded into a pink memory. Curiously, even though I know it is not true, the original Trader Joe's, feels just like it did 40 years ago. I suspect this perception is similar to why our friends seem to look the same as they become older, small incremental changes blend into an even continuum and remain familiar.

Needless to say, I'm as happy as a clam that Trader Joe's is opening a store here in NYC