The Art Glut (1986)
Arts, December 1986, pp. 22 - 23.
Art is too popular. There is too much of it. I remember when everyone wanted to be an actor. Now everyone wants to be an artist. I read in a magazine the other day that there are 90,000 artists in New York City. 90,000! That's more people than there are in Scranton. Probably more than there are working as cab drivers and short-order cooks in Manhattan. I don't know where they got the number but I assume it is somehow "official." Is it too high? Half as many would be amazing. Call it 50,000. If each of them makes just twenty works a year that's a million works of art made in New York City each year. In ten years, ten million. Add in all the art made in other cities and art centers and the endless boondocks and you've got one stupendous lot of art out there.
The article didn't say how many art dealers there are or how much art gets sold. But an awful lot of that awful lot is sold, and for high prices and with high expectations. Original art is de rigueur. The yuppies of yesteryear got by with a litho of Van Gogh's Sunflowers done up in driftwood grey wormy chestnut. Now it's got to be real painting, real up-to-date painting. Everyone is in on it. Instant collections by the dozen grace the pages of Town & County and Architectural Digest. No "prestige" building gets put up without at least one major monster made to order by a Certified Artist. The insidious "1% rule" - 1% of a building's cost set aside for art - is being pushed through bemused state legislatures by determined culture mavens everywhere. Freshly-minted post-deb MFAs, secure in the certainty that art began with Warhol, wing about scarfing up everything in last month's art mags to adorn the halls and lobbies of Corporate America. The more the secretaries hate it the more "advanced" it must be, right? Mini-versions of the Tilted Arc controversy smoulder across the land.
The article also did not say why this is happening. I don't think anyone can. Not really. A team of anthropologists and social psychologists might figure it out. It has nothing to do with art per se. Art is just the inert part, the commodity. The "larger" ingredients are money, prestige, and fashion.
Art has always been high-status. People want high status and if they have enough money they can use art to help them get it. There is plenty of money around and there are plenty of people buying art for status reasons. When you buy art for status you don't spend time figuring out what you like, you spend money buying what other people like, or, more accurately, what people like yourself will freely admit to liking. In a word, what's fashionable.
Now, history tells us that the fashionable art of a time is never the best art of a time. It tells us that the best new art is always pushed into the background by second-rate, fashionable new art. Unless you think that history, in an uncharacteristic fit of perversity, has decided to go along with the current whims of the art business, it is the same today. If you don't believe it go read a 1975 Artforum or a 1955 Art News. Today's fashionable new art, like yesterday's, is second-rate, middlebrow art. New highbrow art cannot be fashionable because there are not enough highbrows, especially rich highbrows, to make it fashionable. Besides, highbrow taste goes by what it likes. It is personal and private. It doesn't look around to see what's "in." It doesn't make fashion, except in the long run. Highbrow art must win out over time by the peculiar staying power of artistic goodness.
Highbrow taste goes for pleasure; middlebrow taste goes for prestige. Highbrow taste can be "wrong" but it doesn't get suckered because it likes what it likes. Middlebrow taste insists on being "right" and always gets suckered because it either pretends to like what it doesn't like or is led into liking what isn't worth liking. The highbrow uses personal taste like a sense organ, to locate a source of esthetic pleasure. The middlebrow mistrusts personal taste and suppresses it in favor of the fashionable, which by its nature can be identified and labelled. The highbrow wants the experience of taste in action to be clean, simple, and straightforward. The middlebrow puts "importance" ahead of experience and fortifies his choice with "meaning" and "significance." Highbrow taste is always repelled by aggressively bad art and recognizes that the best new art right now is contrarily "easy." Middlebrow taste, blind and insecure, thinks history tells us that good new art is always "disturbing" and "outrageous," so it goes for aggressively bad new art.
But good or bad doesn't mean a hoot to fashion. Fashion neither needs nor wants its art to be good. Goodness, as Mae West would say, has nothing to do with it. With status as the goal and money as the engine, fashion takes charge, coercing and appeasing, working a double whammy on the monied middlebrow. First it weans him of the habit of personal judgment, demanding he abandon taste as the price for a place in the fast lane, hypnotizing him with a witch's mirror reflecting the hideous image of the damners of Cézanne and all the benighted out-of-it fogeys of art worlds past. And then, as Middlebrow sinks slowly to his knees, desperate, imploring, fashion winks and smiles and whispers the wonderful secret of secrets: our art is no threat. It's just popcorn! All you've got to do is call it art!
That does it. Where Middlebrow's soul goes his money soon follows, blown into an oblivion of faint hearts twisting in the winds of fashion. Why is fashionable new art bold, crude, heavy-handed, graphic, ugly, ornate, garish, gaudy, bizarre, glitzy, obvious, inane, outlandish, portentous, "zany," "mysterious," "mythological," "powerful," "primitive"? Because that's what totems and ritual objects are like, that's why. These puffed-up clunkers are the emblems of a ceremony of belonging. Fools crave the company of fools and revel in the grotesque tokens of their affiliation. No plain everyday thing will do. Neither will good art.
Fashion has taken over. And fashion, because it cohabits with commerce, puts a premium on newness, not originality but newness, constant newness, newness for the sake of newness. As John Russell complained in the Times one Sunday last spring, all anyone wants to know from him is "What's new?". "Put up or shut up," he wrote, "is the order of the day." Incessant newness increases quantity and speeds obsolescence. What will happen to it? The few pieces of good new art will find safe haven as they slowly rise in the esteem of the culture. Unsaleable amateur art works its way into cellars and attics and that great art graveyard in the sky. But what about all the rest, all the art that gets sold? Someone told me that half the people who ever lived are living now. I'll bet that half the art ever sold has been sold in the last ten years. As Carl Sagan might say, there are "billlyuns and billlyuns" of paintings and sculptures and all the other stuff we have been calling art piling up out there, some in fashion, some out of fashion, some never fashionable, all bought for one reason or another. It is going to be a real disposal problem.
In the past we absorbed the lesser art pretty well. There was less of it, for one thing, and it was better, for another. Your basic Sunday painter of 1885 had more simple craft proficiency than 90% of our Soho Superstars. Their paintings were not masterpieces but they still look good on the wall. More recently the appetite for new art has been equal to its production, and the huge increase in prices has given rise to ingenious ways to make older art of little esthetic or monetary value "collectible," to be "rediscovered" as quaint, or camp, or folk, or period or whatever. But there is a point, a crossing of curves as imperceptible as jet trails at midnight, when production outstrips demand and zooms out ahead of all the ways fashion can refashion demand to make greater demand. I think we are already well beyond that point and don't know it. The products of the vast art factory of recent years have hardly begun to hit the secondary market. They are still in Limbo, still on the walls of nervous collectors, still out there moving from place to place, still "hopeful." Museum basements are not going to hold them all. Our government tried to set up an art bank about ten years ago but that got nowhere. We give subsidies to farmers not to plant, perhaps we should give subsidies to artists not to paint. Maybe the National Endowment for the Arts should become the National Endowment Against the Arts.
It's no joke. Overproduction, overpricing, and obsolescence are very dangerous for the visual arts. A painting is one-of-a-kind; the money spent on it is locked up in it. Works of literature, music, and film are reproduced in quantity, given a commercial run and then let go. They move in and out of fashion at little cost to the individual consumer. Architecture can get awfully silly around the edges, but a building is a building and rents get paid. A painting, on the other hand, cannot generate return. It just sits on the wall, ticking away like a taxi meter, or a time bomb, or both. If you spend $50,000 on a painting and then see an auction price of $75,000 for the artist you are pleased with your investment. If you spend that $50,000 and then hear that the artist's reputation is fading, and quickly call Christie's and learn that they already have three of them in the next sale at an average reserve of $8,000 you get a little green around the edges. It's not just money, after all. It's your reputation as a connoisseur, as a smart dude riding that "cutting edge." It's your status. If you got carried away and bought 10 or 12 works by this artist, and you know others who have done the same, you get real nervous. You call around to various collectors and dealers and everyone tells everyone reassuring lies. Then you go sit on the couch, light up a cigar, stare at the paintings and feel uneasy. These things are happening right now. No one has had any experience with a market like this. Not since 1929, anyway.
Ironically, it may be this very vulnerability which saves painting in the long run. Painting may be bound to seriousness by economics. The other arts can grind out fashionable schlock forever, the more the merrier. Painting, simply because of its high unit cost, can do so only at great risk and for a short time. When the crash comes a lot of money will be lost and a lot of reputations will lie twitching in the rubble. But painting, cut back to its roots of refined craft, ingenuous seriousness, uncomplicated delight, playfulness. subtlety and surprise, can rise, vital and refreshed, free from this orgy of belligerent silliness and far-out affectation, free from poisonous irony, predatory intellectualism, and the perverse abhorrence of ordinary pleasure, free from the arrogant posturing of no-talent egomaniacs.
It will be a hard lesson, but I can't wait.