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Art Publisher Steve Zevitas Sounds Off

Venting a Jerry Maguire Moment

By: Steve Zevitas - 03/03/2014

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Gallerist and publisher Steve Zevitas.  Giuliano photo.
Gallerist and publisher Steve Zevitas. Giuliano photo.
Recently he had a Jerry Maguire meltdown.
Recently he had a Jerry Maguire meltdown.

I had a Jerry Maguire moment last night. I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to write. The following thoughts are a bit of a ramble – a sketch really – and I leave it to others to expand on the dialogue. If I had a business manager, I’d probably be told that for someone who makes part of their living as an art dealer, putting these words “out there” is not a particularly bright move. If I had a boss, he might fire me. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I don’t have either.

If you were to walk through the aisles of any one of the dozens of art fairs that now take place globally on an almost weekly basis, you would get the sense that the art world is a happier place than Disney World. Big art, big artists, big dealers and big money play their roles in a hypnotic and well-rehearsed production, and toothy smiles abound. Yet this intoxicating spectacle is just the most public manifestation of a problem in the art world that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade: more and more, the cart is pulling the horse.

The horse in question is, of course, aesthetic production and the individuals and institutions that assiduously guard its sanctity. The cart is, at least on the surface, money – and lots of it. Or is it? After all, money does not have motivation or intent, people do. I would argue that the cart is actually the insidious forces that have, over several decades, narrowed the gap between art and financial instruments, and in doing so have forced art to submit to criteria once reserved for commodities. Money is simply the scapegoat for a problem that is pervasive and systemic.

There was a time when art critics, art historians and curators held substantial sway as to what constituted significant contemporary art. They rode the horse, and collectors and art dealers happily went along for the ride. These days, curators are too often hamstrung by the demands of museum directors who are focused on attendance figures, and board members, who can have very real interests in seeing that certain exhibitions take place. Critics have suffered an even worse fate. Those that are left have been neutered, and can seem more like public relations specialists than critical thinkers. Even the most influential, such as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz – both tremendous art critics – can barely move the consensus needle these days. The last time I saw that magic Greenbergian trick successfully performed is when Saltz’s 2002 review of a show by Dana Schutz, it can be said, genuinely influenced an artist’s rapid ascendency. That was twelve years ago.

“Consensus” may be the most important word in the art world today. Because of the patent impossibility of objectivity in the judgment of art, the notion of consensus has slipped into the vacuum. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but apparently the art world does even more. So much so, in fact, that the word “consensus” has come to be all but synonymous with another art-world favorite, “quality.” Their combined weight, piled on layers of subjectivity, has, over time, exerted enough pressure to create a very strange substance: virtual objectivity. You can’t see the stuff, but like theoretical dark matter, all evidence suggests that it is there, and that it accounts for a lot of the contemporary art world’s mass. It is the substance that turns young artists into overnight superstars, dealers into mega-dealers, and collectors into tastemakers. It keeps the cart in front of the horse and it drives the art market. Unfortunately, it is highly unstable.

The art world and the art market are not the same thing, even though the general-interest press now, tellingly, uses the terms interchangeably. The latter should be subject to the former, but somewhere along the way there was a coup. When the public now thinks about the art world – if they think about the art world at all – the first thing that will likely come to mind is the unfathomable sums of money spent for a painting at the latest auction. I don’t think there is any way to overstate the exclusion that this narrative creates. It moves art closer to commodity status in the collective consciousness, and in doing so, effectively tells the 99% that there is no point in thinking about the art world, or art itself for that matter. The message is clear: If art equals money, and you are not wealthy, then art is not for you.

None of this is to say that the art market is a bad thing. The dealers, collectors, auction houses and other players in the market all perform functions that are necessary if artists are to have a fair shot at making a living from their work. But the way the market is now structured is problematic. The top end is not the problem. The fact that the super-wealthy spend fortunes on works by artists such as Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol is not particularly disturbing, as those artists are firmly ensconced in the art-historical canon. When it comes to artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, well, all I can say is, Good luck with that. The trouble really starts with the prices being paid for works by mid-career artists such as Christopher Wool and Richard Prince, and, of greater concern and with more frequency, for the work of emerging artists.

I am all about artists making money, but when a small group of mostly young white male artists such as Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo start to sell work for six-digit amounts, it should raise a lot of red flags. (And I am in no way making critical judgments about these artists and their work – Joe Bradley, for one, may very well turn out to be a generational talent.) The age of the “ism” is over and in its place we have the age of instant “consensus” and the other big art world C word, “context.” Right now the “consensus” is that serious art involves raw canvas, a smattering of paint, possibly a visible stretcher bar, and a “who the fuck cares if it looks done” attitude – some of this work is quite good, by the way. The “context” that this work is presented in is the hippest galleries and art fairs in the world. And collectors who do more listening than looking are lapping it up in large amounts and at absurd prices.

Expressed in the parlance of finance, all of these artists are trading at multiples that, if applied to a publicly traded company such as Google, would make the price of that stock more than $10,000 a share. When someone purchases a Lucien Smith painting for $150,000, they are effectively saying that they feel this asset has such potential for future growth that it warrants such a present price. (For finance geeks, it is a bet that this asset will generate enough future cash flows at a given discount rate to make the asset’s net present value a positive number.) All of this sounds very sophisticated, but at the end of the day, and in common English, the only justification for paying such money for emerging artists is speculative. And we all know what happens to a market when too many speculators get involved.

Careless dealers are partly to blame. Auction houses, which can quickly establish a secondary market for an emerging artist, are more to blame. If there is one certainty demonstrated by modern economic history, it is that all things are cyclical. In the end, the music will stop, and when it does, chairs will be scarce. The results will be a decrease in art fairs, gallery closings, and, unfortunately, a lot of artists with ruined careers and no place to exhibit their work. Some, like that wise sage Paul Clemenza, would say:

These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one. You know, you gotta stop them at the beginning. Like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich, they should never let him get away with that, they was just asking for trouble.

Maybe they do. But certainly the severity of such a crisis could be reduced if the art world’s internal structure were in better shape.

I think that art constitutes the single most important output of a given culture at any point in time and, therefore, that collecting art is a deadly serious enterprise. These days, collecting has become a form of entertainment and a competitive blood sport, where the quest for access has replaced the desire for aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment. And so, naturally, the things that are the hardest to access have become the most valued (there is the old horse being pulled along again). In my life as a dealer, I am lucky to have worked with a number of collectors who are passionate about art and who dedicate a large quotient of their typically busy lives to it. Then, there is the new breed that all dealers are now more than familiar with. If you are at an art fair, they are easy to identify, because they spend more time examining resumes than looking at art. They also tend to herd together and gravitate toward the same things, which has resulted in a shocking number of private collections that are virtually interchangeable. Let me put it simply: Going to an art fair or gallery and spending a lot of money on the latest “hot” artist is not collecting, it is trophy hunting. When the art world slows down, these individuals will be the first to jump ship, as their motivations for interacting with art in the first place will have evaporated with the value of their art portfolios.

So, how do we fix the mess? Needless to say, this is a complex question. The best I can do is offer counsel directed to some of the art world’s key stakeholders:

To artists I say: Keep making art and make it because you have a deep NEED to, not because you WANT to. Follow your own unique visions and not current consensus. You are the bedrock.

To auction houses I say: Cut the bullshit. You are not art dealers, and all the glossy sale catalogues and preview exhibitions in the world will never change that. Refuse to auction works by artists who have emerged from the studio less than three years ago. The few shekels that this reckless practice puts toward your bottom line are far outweighed by the instability you create in the art market.

To art magazines I say: No one cares about another analysis of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, except for the two dozen people on the planet who actively trade in their work. Expand your editorial coverage beyond the same forty-or-so preapproved “art stars.” Allow exhibition reviewers to take stances that might be in conflict with the interests of your advertising department. And editors, encourage your writers to communicate in a language that can be understood by more than the few who are fluent in artspeak. My favorite section of Artforum has always been the ads, and my guess is that I am not alone.

To museums I say: Expand your boards to include a wider demographic. Wealth and the ability to fundraise should not be the primary determinant of board eligibility. I understand that a stable financial house is essential to museums, but when stability necessitates an oligarchy you have a big problem, and should begin to question the viability of the institution.

To art collectors I say: Think for yourselves. Art collecting is a personal journey, not a social exercise. There is no such thing as a bad acquisition, if the motives and desires that lead to it are genuine. Support your local art communities, as there is likely a lot going on that is worthy of your support.

To art dealers – including myself – I say: Work with artists you believe in, and do the shows you want to do. Refuse to do business with anyone whose motives are even remotely speculative. Spend as much time educating as you do trying to sell. Always remember that it is artists first, everyone else second. Because the silver paintings are selling well, don’t ask your artist to make more.

And to the art world I say. . . . You had me at hello.

Steve Zevitas is a Boston based gallerist and publisher of New American Painting. This article is posted on his website and appeared in the Huffington Post.

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