Why Is The Artworld So Irrational And What Can Be Done About It?

There are two phenomenon at play here, the academy and big money. When all art becomes subjective then determining which art is best becomes essentially political.

The source of the problem is in the academy itself. The university has become a place of indoctrination rather than bonafide critical thinking. Hiring and tenure at the university have become almost entirely political. Dissident scholars and artists are either denied access to tenure or not hired at all. But to be fair, there are precious few dissident scholars trying to get in because undergraduate indoctrination has been so successful that meaningful dissent is practically unknown. There are more dissident artists but, without their corresponding colleagues in art history and philosophy, there is nobody in a position of authority to advocate for outsider art.

Magazine cover lauding Jeff Koons.

New York Magazine cover lauding Jeff Koons.

Many in the fine art field voice their dissatisfaction with the arbitrary nature of exorbitant pricing for contemporary Bluechip art.  But few in the field are inclined to ask the underlying reasons for the arbitrary values of contemporary Bluechips.  The academy has itself created a value vacuum.  As Jonathan T. D. Neil observes in his piece for the Summer 2014 issue of  Art Review entitled, On Derivatives and Value in Art, “So ‘liberated’ from categories of talent, taste, skill, history, innovation or critique, the work of art ‘floats free’ in an unregulated sea of differential value whose prices can inflate, bubble and pop according to their own autonomous dynamics.” It is the academics who “liberated” art from these constructive, if delimiting, categories. But nature abhors a vacuum and so a value is set by the market.

Since the Bluechip market is overwhelmingly made up of people in the finance industry then it is not surprising that, in lieu of any other authoritative mechanism for establishing value, these financiers would in turn resort to the instruments they know best and attribute value in the same manner they do for other speculative financial instruments, namely the derivative.  Until the academy regains its sense and derives some more concrete mechanism for establishing aesthetic and intrinsic value then the market is going to use its own mechanisms and most of what we read in the press regarding art is going to sound more like a report on oil futures than a discussion of the aesthetic merits of the work.

We need not wait on the academy, however, to address some of the problems that have created such a distortion in the evaluation of contemporary aesthetic production.  As Neil states when comparing the contemporary art Bluechip to a futures contract, “left unregulated and fed back into the financial system, they can generate greater uncertainty and augment risk to a perilous degree.”  So as much as I am loath to suggest it, some constructive regulation is in order.  The key is in getting the incentives right.

Art is a relatively unique commodity in that it is not fungible, unlike a barrel of oil or a pork belly, it has no intrinsic financial value and one work is not of equivalent value to another. Contemporary art is not unlike the tulip market: its financial value is inherently arbitrary. This problem is compounded by the phenomenon of the monopoly inherent in the art market. Only Jeff Koons’ shop can create a Koons. So regulating art as one would any other monopoly is inherently problematic.

Gallerist Helly Nahmad

Gallerist Helly Nahmad

But regulating dealers is more practical. Perhaps eliminating dealer exclusivity on works by artists whose art brings six figures and up might be a place to start. Dealer exclusivity on Bluechip artists can be viewed as a restraint of trade.

Perhaps the least onerous types of regulations would be those that were designed to create more transparency. Transparency on transactions would be a mechanism for reducing market manipulation. If there were reporting requirements for all transactions in excess of $20,000 then a centralized database could be set up to reflect real time market values for art. This database should include the price for the work but also the transparent identity of individual buyers and sellers including of individual members of consortiums who go in together on a sale or purchase. In this way the activities of market manipulators could more easily be tracked and monitored. This would also allow the market a better sense of which collectors are sitting on large stockpiles of works by a single artist. 800 Warhols in the possession of a single owner are a looming threat to anyone who intends to invest in a Warhol that comes to market.

A handful of speculators are dominating the market for works by a select group of artists and they simply shill up the price on any new work that appears lest the asset value of their stockpiles be substantially diminished by a single bad day at the auction house. Since they borrow against their art assets to create liquidity for other investments, then their incentives to ensure the stability of value of their leveraged art are immense. Perhaps regulating the percentage of value by which art may be leveraged might be a constructive step. If collectors could only leverage up to 20% of an art asset’s value then this would reduce incentives to shill up prices to maintain the art portfolio values. If collectors require more liquidity then they can transparently sell their art for a fair market value.

Larry Gagosian

Larry Gagosian

At the high end of the market, transactions are not always done in cash and this is a significant problem. Gagosian and others make tremendous commissions on brokering art swaps. This practice is fraught with corruption, is inherently clandestine, is widely used to hide assets, conceal transactions and lends itself to international money laundering, bribery and a host of other illicit activities. It is also a way of avoiding capital gains and sales taxes that can amount to hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars on a single transaction. Wealthy collectors view art swaps as a loophole in the current financial regulatory schemes and this loophole must be closed. Prohibiting art swaps on works valued in excess of $20,000 would be a significant step toward bringing much needed transparency to the market.



The other problem is the monopoly of auction houses. Sotheby’s and Christies dominate the worldwide auction market in a manner that is obviously a restraint of trade. They have both been convicted of price fixing, trading in stolen and looted works, forgeries, false provenance and optimistic attributions yet nobody seems to want to tackle these giants and break up their stranglehold on the auction business. Indeed, the two auction houses seem more inclined than ever to stray into the role of commercial galleries in contemporary art so as to engage in pump and dump schemes that only further exacerbate market manipulation. Nobody seems to have an interest in breaking the stranglehold of this duopoly. Artists, collectors, speculators and dealers all profit from these one stop shops’ ability to inflate market prices. Smaller auction houses mean smaller turnouts of bidders and lower prices for works. Speculative greed from all players in the market is producing selective blindness to the corruption.

Government has tended to view auction houses as if they were a “natural” monopoly like a stock exchange or a commodities trading floor. But unlike other commodities trading, there is virtually no regulatory oversight to protect consumers and traders against pump and dump, self dealing, insider trading and various other conflicts of interest. And there isn’t likely to be anytime soon. The only people with a stake in the auction houses are the economic elite and they are not complaining about auction house ethics because the fuzzy practices, as often as not, serve their interests. There is no political pressure to more stringently regulate the auction houses because this is a rich guy’s problem which the rich don’t seem to mind and the rest of society doesn’t care.

The more intransigent problem is at the university level since they are the source of the subjectivity and politicization that facilitates the irrational nature of the contemporary art market itself. The problem of hyper-politicization of epistemology did not emerge over night. It took the better part of a century for us to reach the status quo and this will not change over night either. One might acknowledge that epistemology always had an element of politics in it, but to simply acknowledge this fact and then use it as an excuse to unapologetically reduce all epistemology to raw politic has produced an untenable situation in the academy. Politics got us into this situation and some politics will ultimately be required to get us out.

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes

People who are dissatisfied with the status quo in the arts and humanities must reenter the fields and not be content to simply throw stones from the sidelines. If you don’t agree with Derrida and his ilk, then pursue advanced degrees in philosophy and author tomes to refute him. If you are interested in art but are appalled by what you see, then pursue a PhD in art history and write articulate critique of the current canon. Form coalitions with like-minded intellectuals to establish publishing houses and academic periodicals. This will not be easy but they don’t call it a “Culture War” for nothing.

Realize that there are more than two sides to the Culture War and develop more holistic, interdisciplinary and inclusive methodological approaches to art criticism that address the legitimate concerns raised by Modernism and Postmodernism. (Yes, there were legitimate concerns!) It is not sufficient to just turn back the clock to the 19th century and act as if none of the phenomenon of the last century ever occurred. It is time for dissident scholars to be more than merely conservative.

Sabin Howard, Atelier

Sabin Howard’s studio

They must be innovative and conceive new arguments for the role of art in a new society. These arguments must be inclusive and multicultural without succumbing to the knee-jerk self advocacy of the past few decades. Start enthusiastically advocating for the best of art produced by women and minorities and you will earn the credibility required to legitimately critique the work that is merely mediocre and politically correct. Multicultural doesn’t inherently mean “anything goes.” Come up with better defenses for legitimate intellectual and moral justice and better intellect and better justice will be the result. Pursue this arduous course and we will all be blessed with better art as well.

4 thoughts on “Why Is The Artworld So Irrational And What Can Be Done About It?

  1. Dear Mr. Bravo, I just finished reading your blog with interest.

    Thinking your blog over as I mowed my lawn I have difficulty understanding the fundamental “problem” of today’s art world. Time will Always sort it out.

    So what if Jeff Koon’s has a net worth of a 100 million dollars!


    Put simply if there is a “problem” is with our society as a whole, contemporary art is only symptom of our problematic culture.

    Big money in art is nothing new big money is in everything.

    For instance over 60 million people play golf, millions of people make living supporting golfers through the management of golf courses, tourism and the manufacturing, selling/distribution of golf supplies.. Not to mention scores of people invest their time and fortune in designing the next new thing in golf from materials books to instructional media. Thousands of people work on the infrastructure of professional golf managing tours and sponsorships. Now several thousand people barely make a living playing professional golf barely making ends meet worrying about how they are going to pay their bills or even get to the next tournament. Now put these millions of people, amateur and professionals alike next to the several hundred who have become fabulously wealthy through the playing of golf, we do not begrudge Tiger Woods for having a 500 million dollar net worth, we as culture celebrate him!

    Take ANY thing in our world there are hundreds of musical instrument manufactures who churn out 100s of millions of musical instruments every year to the millions of budding musicians every year. How many of these millions of new musicians will ever make a living with their music? We do not begrudge Sir Paul McCartney’s 650 million dollar net worth, we celebrate him!

    There is a reason why it is called the 1 percent of the world who is very rich the rest of us, the 99 percent must get used to this or get working on being born rich, born talented, born in the right place and time or getting very lucky. Or we 99 per centers can work very hard becoming a genius or just working very hard and you must be in the right place at the right time and meet the right people and make the right impression when you are lucky enough to meet the right person at the right place and time. It is hard to climb out of the 99 percent!

    So what if Jeff Koons has a net worth of a 100 million dollars! Why are we not celebrating him? ; Tiger Woods has five times more money and Sir Paul McCartney has over six times more money?! Oh, perhaps the thought creeps in that, Woods and McCartney have talent and Koons does not have the same kind of talent. That is simply not true. There are only a couple of artists in this world that are more talented in making money than Jeff Koons is.

    Don’t you think as an educator you should we hold him up to the millions of budding artists and say, “see what you can do if the stars align! If everything goes perfect for you and you take the right personal and artistic risks meet the right people and make the right impression on the right people and if you are in the right place and time, and if you have a modicum of talent . You too can be fabulously rich and famous and have you art collected by the greatest museums in the world!”

    I love Jeff Koons; his work is of the highest quality. It really is he employs over a hundred people along with some of the finest craftsmen in the world to fabricate his work. Koons is a fantastic businessman and self-promoter.

    Some of the finest artists in the history of the world were also some of the most successful self-promoters and businessmen, Michelangelo died fabulously wealthy with a backorder of commissions. Shakespeare bought himself a title, the largest house in town and retired early with lots and lots of money. We tend not to look down on the money Shakespeare earned.
    Don’t get me started on Picasso the world’s wealthiest communist! Dali who just signed blank sheets of paper near the end or Warhol who said, ” I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting; I think you should take that money, tie it up and hang it on the wall. Then, when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.”

    It is our culture that has the problem over time the art will sort itself out, over time.

    Look at recent film “the grand Budapest Hotel” Jonathan Jones writes that in the film everyone is coveting the painting, ” Boy with Apple is a quintessential product of the Czech mannerist, Habsburg high Renaissance, Budapest neo-humanist style.”…´ Boy with Apple really is priceless, as an art history in-joke. The punchline, however, comes when the film’s villain realises it is missing. In its place hangs a watercolour of lesbian lovers by real-life Austrian genius Egon Schiele. In his rage at losing a completely fictional work of 16th-century art, the character smashes this modern treasure over a chair.”


    it takes a long time for the art world to sort it out but it tends to, remember Vermeer died broke and was not acknowledged as a great artist for hundreds of years, Rembrandt died broke without commissions and of course Van Gogh. Hell most of the impressionist could not sell anything in 1880 and at the SAME time there were important and wealthy artists like Léon Cogniet , Félix-Joseph Barrias, Louis-Ernest Barrias, Pierre Auguste Cot and Jean-Paul Laurens who had no difficulty earning fame recognition and a living.

    You would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to trade a single Van Gogh painting for a room of Cots and Cogniets paintings.

  2. Dear Mr. Bravo,
    Thank you for such a kind and thoughtful reply.
    I guess I might have put too much of a fine point on my golfer analogy.
    My point was to point out that there are 60 million people who play golf, I wanted you to imagine the millions people who paint as a hobby or recreation.
    There are thousands of people who support the hobby of golf as well as thousands of people who support the act of painting. Now there are thousands of people who consider themselves “professional” golfers who struggle to make a living such as clubhouse pros just as there are thousands of professional artists who struggle to make a living working in the industry or in academia. My point was that there are only a small percentage of golfers who are part of the 1 percent just as there only a tiny percentage of professional artists who are very wealthy from the sale of the art.
    Just because tiger woods earned 500 million dollars does not lesson the joy of the game of golf for 60 million golfers. My point was to point out that just because 1 artist who has earned 100 million dollars does not diminish the practice of painting for millions of artists.
    The same as anyone picking up a guitar and enjoying playing music the knowledge that only a tiny percentage becomes wealthy rock stars does not diminish the joy of music.
    We compare artists from different times which is as problematic as comparing athletes from different times.
    Today a handful of artists make 100s of millions of dollars tomorrow those same artists may become eclipsed by new artists or may become canonized as truly great artists.
    This is a problem with our limited lifespan; we never know how the whole thing will turn out.
    When I went to art school in the 90s there was a real fear of post modernism that somehow the art world specifically painting was at the end, it turns out it did not happen. Painting has been killed off several times already.
    To make a point, Norman Rockwell has gone from a popular artist that only the base masses enjoyed (old fashioned and hopelessly romantic), eclipsed by abstract impressionism and modernism, to being recognized as a great American artist.
    I firmly believe that in time unrecognized artists will be recognized and over recognized artists will be forgotten.
    This does not do much good for anyone pursuing an art career today but we choose to become artists and continue to make art in spite of all kind of opposition for a number of reasons, for me one reason is in the hope and knowledge that my life’s work is and will be worth something in the end.

  3. “When all art becomes subjective then determining which art is best becomes essentially political.” The absence of objective standards means that the judgement of artistic value tends to become based on political or ideological considerations, but the inverse is also true – when political and ideological considerations are given precedence over other aspects, the idea of objective standards of aesthetic judgement will be dismissed as irrelevant, and even an obstacle to a purely political/ideological approach to works of art. When ideology is the main factor in discussing art, all other criteria are a simply an interference and must be discarded.

    “Hiring and tenure at the university have become almost entirely political. Dissident scholars and artists are either denied access to tenure or not hired at all.” That is certainly true, and the pressure to conform is intensified by the disproportion between the number of teaching positions available in academia today and the number of PhDs awarded. But then you go on to exhort your readers to “pursue a PhD in art history and write articulate critique of the current canon.” In other words, to spend years writing a PhD that would in effect sabotage any possibility of having an academic career. That’s why dissent is so rare, and why the current ideological hegemony in academia, which systematically co-opts conformists into its ranks and eliminates dissidents early on, is so powerful, and perhaps impossible to overturn from within.

    Although I agree that the art market should be regulated to a greater degree, I don’t think that is enough. The absence of objective standards in the contemporary art world, and in particular the fact that skill is not a criterion of quality, are one of the conditions that allow the contemporary art market to function as it does. If the work does not need to have any intrinsic quality, it can vary much more in price, which makes it an ideal commodity for speculation. If you know the right people – the right critics and curators – you can buy a piece of art for next to nothing and then get its value to increase astronomically, as the artist is shown in the right museums and gets positive write-ups in the right places. Outsiders will be unable to predict which work will grow in value, since there is no intrinsic quality in the work itself that can determine that value. In a situation where there are clear criteria of quality, value is more predictable and speculation has a much more limited range.

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