Exactly what process is involved in conferring an outrageous financial meaning to a contemporary work of art? Is there an international committee of art ephors in the Himalayas (or Jackson Heights) who look at and assess a work and decide that it is so meaningful, relevant and transformational that it has to be bought by a wealthy art buyer immediately and then placed in auction (flipped) within 3 years at a value several times its original worth?
Or is there, as I suspect, a more nefarious process afoot. I’m not normally one to buy into conspiracy theories, you understand, but after reading an article in Bloomberg News (yes I’m happy he’s no longer mayor, and, no, I don’t care whether De Blasio eats pizza with a fork) I am convinced there is an organized group of ‘art flippers’ and cohorts who are colluding in the manipulation of prices for individual pieces of (often crappy) art. Some artists are winning the flipping lottery and some are going unflipped. At the openings on last Thursday, in fact, I literally heard someone say, “Has this guy been flipped yet? No, he’s not been flipped? Oh my Lord! Let’s try Zwirner!” OK, I made that up. Sorry.
It’s in Bloomberg News my friend, I kid you not. The title of the piece is: “Art Flippers Chase Fresh Stars as Murillo’s Doodles Soar”. Ms. Katya Kazakina, a journalist for Bloomberg (I won’t hold that against her), did a great job of exposing this latest trend – which just fosters the attitude in many ordinary people that contemporary art is meaningless bullcrap – involving the (apparently random) selection of certain ‘elite’ artists and the various processes involved in quickly inflating the prices of their work.
Ms. Kazakina (See! I can write like a New York Times guy too!) documented that this new trend in art buying involves the identification of young, ‘rising’ artists (all male, of course), whose work has to be immediately gobbled up among the creme de la creme of (gullible, greedy) buyers, who then ‘flip’ the work within an outrageously short period of time, thus helping to artificially inflate the price to bizarre heights as quickly as possible (through some type of shady economic process I was never taught at my relatively good undergraduate institution – I think they teach this in the Ivy League, however).
And don’t try pinning this one on Leo Castelli either; the gentleman has departed from the scene, may his soul rest in peace. And, Madoff is in jail – so he didn’t concoct this type of art Ponzi scheme either.
There are certain keys to messing with the art buyers so that this scheme works (not that the art buyers don’t want to be messed with). Most of the pieces being flipped are abstract. The ambiguity of abstraction allows for all kinds of outlandishly pretentious interpretations to be floated. Also, to those who confer immediate ‘genius’ status on an artist and to those who start inflating the prices of his pieces (yes ‘his’ pieces) anyone doing abstract stuff suddenly ‘answers questions’ posed by Kandinsky, Malevich, Rothko and Pollock and suddenly becomes part of that whole tradition. Which questions? Questions about abstraction dummy! OMG! Look! He uses red paint. He answers the questions of the Constructivists and is in the tradition of Malevich (and other guys). He threw dirt on the painting – Pollock’s process art. He answers Pollock’s questions. Don’t you know anything!? (Cigar chomping in the background.)
What might be perceived (by the unlearned) as ‘goofy’ novelty is also especially lucrative – because, when you think about it, it’s not really goofy, it’s profound (‘also sprach’ the art flippers). Paint with a broom. Use a fire extinguisher to spray paint canvases. That sort of thing. Throw some dirt on your canvas. That really makes the art buyers believe there is deep hidden meaning in the piece so they can cash in on that sooner than later – better sooner than later. Maybe you can cut a cow in half (please let it die first). “Yes, Mildred and I purchased half a cow in the West Village. It goes up for auction Thursday. Damn shame. It goes so well with our carpeting. We wish we could keep it. Money is money.”
You can also pretend to be a renegade. Create art that is so bad you can call it anti-art and then try selling it near Central Park. If it is so bad that the average New Yorker won’t even pay $60 for it, you can mock New Yorkers and generate mucho publicity for yourself as a messianic anti-corporate outcast (with a nice bank account). Try spray painting on people’s garages – that always works. Throw a McDonald’s logo in there. That will get them thinking (and buying)!
So part of the key to this charade seems to be based on the myth of artificial scarcity – only a few artists really ‘get it’ and there are only a select few (male artists) who are really cutting edge, who are really ‘in the tradition’. They will be in museums some day (because the museums seem to be in on the collusion as well). But who is picking these guys?
This is why I have scraped together $500 and am willing, God be my witness, to pay you if you can apprehend this fellow and bring him to me. I live near a subway station – and you can do it at night. Preferably I’d like him alive so I can slap him around for a while and yell at him. Can we identify the leader/leaders of the branding and flipping cartels who are ignoring some damn fine artists and picking others who do, frankly, kind of crappy work? Can we start pointing our fingers at some of this art and laughing derisively? Please? Can we stop this art sham in some peaceful, civilized manner?
The interesting question is: Where does this artificial scarcity in the art world come from? How can they get away with this? I put on my thinking cap (after taking off my art hat) and I think it comes from the real scarcity of the past. Before this whole charade, there were only a certain number of paintings, say, by Courbet, for instance. Let’s say x paintings by the time he died. With the passage of time it was acknowledged that he was a ‘genius’. He was a true innovator and his work had meaning. Art collectors who knew about art then desperately wanted his work – so now you had a demand much greater than the limited supply of art – this gave the work a potentially increasing monetary value due to the competition to buy the pieces. Then the big money guys ultimately moved in, especially once the entire opus was branded as coming from a ‘genius’. (I’m talking JP Morgan, Frick, Carnegie – those guys.) Then they croaked and left their stuff to the MET where official genius status was stamped in perpetuum on the artist, thus finally raising prices into the ionosphere. That’s how it used to work.
Now, however, we have instant genius status being conferred on 25 year olds, two years out of art school, because they do something goofy and some type of ‘narrative’ can be constructed around the goofiness to make the goofiness seem profound. The competition which drives up the prices comes not from a limited number of pieces, but from the need to purchase the right guy’s work at the lowest possible price at the right time. You have to be in on the process – it’s like insider trading – you have to know which 25 year old is going to suddenly be elevated to ‘genius’ status, you have to gobble up his stuff at $1,500 a piece and then you have to start flipping once his reputation soars. The flipping then further leads to the perception that the artist is hot, which increases the value of the pieces even more.
In Mexico a group of ordinary citizens recently gathered against the Knights Templar drug cartel (Dan Brown, are you happy? Every nut in the world identifies as a Templar now.). I’m guessing that there is some guy, and guy is the operative word, behind this whole situation – this branding/flipping cartel. I’m hoping to put together my own posse to find him. Maybe it’s a few guys like the democratic machine in Chicago. It might be an art machine, who knows – but often there’s one guy behind a machine. Help me find him. $500, my friend, can be yours, yours, yours.
Addendum: OK, I’m scared now. I want to point out this was satire (we live in such a literalist world). Please do not hunt down hapless capitalists and bring them to my place. My room is too small to hold them anyway.