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Saturday, 28 September 2013


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I miss people like Dave. A few honest opinions will be sorely missed.

I have often wondered if the state of the art world is a conspiracy by the wealthy elite to create a completely false economy to employ their hapless offspring and keep them off the family payroll.

Or more likely, to artificially inflate the value of a lot of unwise investments.

Does he have a blog? I'd read it!

Hickey looks good in a Nascar jacket.

If you click on the links you provided, then click on the links on those links, you can spend a couple of good hours reading some very interesting work.


A portion of the art world is indeed a sort of "false economy", but not in the way you might imagine. Well-known art has a certain value, whatever you may think of it. And certain investors (think insurance companies) place extraordinary value on diversifying their investment portfolio. In particular, they are keen to invest in assets whose value either (a) isn't correlated with movements in the value of other well-known asset categories, or (b) is inversely correlated with changes in the value of other assets those investors hold. The goal is to ensure that if one part of your investment portfolio is heading south, then other parts of your portfolio either aren't following suit, or are even increasing in value.

So there are a number of investors who purchase art not because they care about the art itself, but only because it helps them diversify their portfolio. These investors could care less whether they are buying a Jackson or a Renoir, provided their investment objectives are met either way.

I have no idea what share of the high-end art market these investors make up, however. It could be it is very small. Then again, it could just as easily be that they account for a very, very substantial portion of that market.

It is also worth noting that insurance companies don't just throw darts at a Sotheby's catalog when deciding what to invest in. They hire consultants who -- as you might expect -- are well experienced with the art market, whether as gallerists, auction house employees, or collectors. So it is reasonable to assume that even when an insurance company is investing, that purchase is being guided by the same thinking, preferences and prejudices as governs most other transactions in the market, even if the motivation behind the purchase itself is different. Nonetheless, the presence of these investors inflates the value of certain artworks (although, again, I caution you that I have no idea by how much).

Best regards,

It's funny that Hickey's face looks as though it were Photoshopped into the picture (I'm not claiming it was, just that it almost looks as though it was). The lack of definition in the black jacket makes it look as though his neck was just pasted onto a black background...

Adam, I was being a little tongue in cheek, but I was not so much concerned with old masters, which are valuable in their own right as artefacts, but a lot of contemporary production that has little established value and is therefore somewhat subjectively assessed.

Anything that is placed in the pantheon after a few decades of reflection probably deserves it's price. But what proportion of any century's output makes the grade and what is being overlooked?

It seems like the interview was actually by Sarah Douglas, from last October, http://galleristny.com/2012/10/dave-hickey-retiring-sort-of-interview.

Adam, above, makes very salient points. Let me add several. (BTW, my youngest daughter is interning with Christie's this year in San Francisco, and one of my brothers works for Christie's real estate division, after having worked at Sotheby's real estate division. He has had some quite piquant things to say about the high end real estate market. Distilled, when asked if something is "worth it", he has answered "no, but that is what you'll have to pay to get it".)

First, the correlation between inherent value and market value isn't always a very strong bond, especially when we get into astronomical prices. This is not true of the art market only, and recent financial affairs of the last 20 years ought to be enough of a lesson in that (dot com crash, anyone? I personally know a guy who made $40 million in one morning of his company's IPO. He's still got his money. Company is long gone. None of us who knew him could figure out WTF his company actually did...)This lack of strong correlation is often lost on the "secular" observers.

I'll repeat myself here that a lot of the monetary values applied to things, especially "luxury" goods or goods no one really "needs" in any survival sense, has more to due with the valuelessness of money---for those who have so much of it---than anything to do with the "value" of the desirable objects. At a certain point money itself doesn't "do" anything for those who have it, in terms of public status. Therefore one must demonstrate one's ability to throw money around---on yachts, art, mansions, philanthropy, whatever---to get that attention. Art is a great place to do this, and almost always was back to the bronze age at least.

One miracle of art, therefore, is that it can transcend this aspect of its usage and actually be a vessel for all sorts of other cultural values besides just wealth.

In this last century and continuing into this one, the "beauty" problem has been an interesting one with an interesting trajectory, one that isn't quite finished. None of the artists I personally know have been or are doing their work for cynical reasons, and nor am I. That's not to say those people don't exist, but they are in a very small minority. Why we actually do our work is a bit mysterious---considering that for most of us it's very costly over time and gets us almost nothing in return practically. That's a topic for another discussion. But one thing all of us are indeed involved with is beauty. It's just beauty from unlikely sources. In photographic terms, we wouldn't ever look at war photography, or photography of street people, or disgusting African conflict mines, and etc., if there wasn't (and this is a disquieting thing, and part of what art does for us) and awful beauty to it as well.

Finally, as far as the burgeoning bureaucracy of art is concerned, how is this different from other aspects of life in the 21st century on a planet with over 7 billion people on it? What bureaucracy is small today? Of course it has deleterious effects, but then it has other curious effects as well. It is idle to wish it to be something other than what it is. A more productive approach would be to look at the whole thing with clear and unprejudiced eyes.

I remember my first awareness of the "beauty vs the academy" problem. I spent an afternoon in Edinburgh, first in the university's faculty show at the art museum, and then wandering through the art galleries. The faculty show was filled with the most uninspiring, ugly, conceptual art I'd ever seen. It was all meant, as far as I could tell, for a tiny community of theoreticians who could decode it, rather than to please the heart and eye. By contrast, some of the paintings in the galleries were astonishingly beautiful in fresh and unique ways - images that enchanted the mind into seeing the world differently while still being lovely in new and mysterious ways. As an English professor, I immediately recognized what was going on - academics performing for a sliver of other academics on one hand, and lovers of the art and craft of their field on the other who innovated while still keeping an eye on beauty and accessibility. I hope others take up Mr. Hickey's torch!

Dear Steve,

So far as I have read in history, the art world has been "corrupted" (not your word, I know, but it's the way some would put it) by the forces you describe ever since we've had patronage and wealth-concentrated civilization appeared. Several thousand years, in other words.

There has not been some undistorted art world one might return to.

The difference between then and now is that you have less (or no) personal familiarity with how the sausage used to get made, you just have an idea how it currently is.

It's not worth worrying about, unless you run a butcher shop.

pax / Ctein

I love "Air Guitar" and have been known to give it as a gift.

"Also, the art world has turned nasty for some reason and my gentility has come out of the closet."

The art world has turned nasty as it is desperately resisting being disrupted by technology the way that the music, movie/tv, and photography industries have been radically changed in the last 10-15 years.

Thank you for posting this.

Dear Ctein, you are right up to a point, but patronage usually followed talent when the talent was plain for all to see (what wealthy man would hire a bad portraitist?)

One simply cannot argue with the technical talents of Velasquez or Rubens.

Today we lack common referents. Art for art's sake, like modern classical music, is preaching to the choir, but losing its connection with ordinary people. A phenomenon that seems to have started with the disillusionment of 20th century social conflict.

Indeed I would go as far as to say that the role of representational art has become almost completely taken over by photography, and the establishment almost closed its doors on that.

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