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Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (1988) (image from wikipedia.org)

Felix Salmon just posted an incandescent piece on the State of the Art World seen through the lens of Davos. At a meeting of plutocrats and artists, Salmon sees collectors buying art not for its aesthetic quality but for its aura: the respect and awe that comes with owning something really expensive.

Salmon writes:

I finally got an answer, for instance, to the question of why someone like [collector Victor] Pinchuk would go around spending hundreds of millions of dollars on shiny, evanescent art.

It’s all part of the same drive which brought Pinchuk to Davos in the first place … the desire for international recognition and respect. Buying art gets you some small measure of that, and the more expensive the art, the more respect you get, in the art world at least. But the art world is small, while the number of people who admire philanthropic ventures is higher — so Pinchuk is trying to combine the two, as improbable as that might sound. He even commissioned an utterly bizarre video laying out his vision of art changing the world.

The piercing essay outlines the idea that “the art market has become less and less about art, and ever more about people.” The actual art recedes while the personalities and identities that go with it come to the foreground; it’s more about the brand of the art bought, “the degree to which the art is instantly recognizable,” than its artistic significance.

Sure, mega-collector Dakis Joannou can get Jeff Koons to paint his yacht. But Victor Pinchuk can get Damien Hirst to let a crowd of richies make carnival sideshow copies of his work. Who wins in the clout department? It’s the collector who can pull off the most ridiculous art world stunt, making use of the best of-the-moment artists, that comes out on top. It’s not about art, it’s about reputation and pull.

The same branding that plutocratic collectors appropriate is now an unavoidable part of the art world for artists. Salmon pins it down in his conclusion:

Once upon a time, artists painted in schools, and it took a certain amount of education and taste just to be able to distinguish one artist’s work from another’s. Those days are long gone: all the most successful contemporary artists have their own unique schtick, and could never be mistaken for anybody else. It’s a necessary condition for success in the art world today: you need to do something no one else has done, and which can be recognized as being your work and nobody else’s in a fraction of a second.

This frustration combined with the growing interest in social media art and the more populist-oriented work of artists like Loren Munk, William Powhida, and Jen Dalton (see #Rank and #Class) make me think that a shift in the discourse might be slowly developing. Anything to get away from collector (and artist-celebrity) megalomania.

Editor’s note: Sorry for the late notice, but tonight at The Elizabeth Foundation, there’s a panel discussion titled, “A Love/Hate Relationship: Artists Explore Their Fixation with the Art World as Subject.” The panel features curator and artist Eric Doeringer in conversation with artists Jennifer Dalton, Loren Munk, and William Powhida. The description explains that the “panelists will discuss their reasons for making art about the art world and the ways that their subject matter and art careers have influenced one other.” The panel is related to an exhibition of the same name taking place now until March 5 at The Elizabeth Foundation (323 W 39th Street, Third Floor, Manhattan).

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

8 replies on “Are Plutocrats Collecting Art or Collecting Artists?”

  1. He makes some valid points in that article. It’s just a shame that these kind of tacky baubles for rich people with bad taste have come to symbolise ‘the art world’ for many people. The whole concept of an ‘art world’ seems rather absurd anyway. There are actually many different art worlds, some of which are in violent opposition to each other.

      1. Well, it sets up a kind of lose-lose dialectic in my point of view. On the one hand “successful contemporary artists have their own schtick” (which I agree sucks, bad art is bad, doy). Opposite this he seems to lament the “good old days” when “artists painted in schools, and it took a certain amount of education and taste just to be able to distinguish one artist’s work from another’s.” Yikes, wealth drenched connoisiurship. I dont like my options in this over-reduction is all.

  2. Although I agree that what is described is a sad state of affairs, I also detect an undercurrent of conservativism here.

  3. “Salmon sees collectors buying art not for its aesthetic quality but for its aura: the respect and awe that comes with owning something really expensive.”

    I don’t think this is a good thing, but I was under the impression that this has been true for centuries. I would like museums to take less of this perspective for sure.

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