Peter Plagens: Art and the Recession

Imagine a Wynton Marsalis quartet playing in Wembley, or the Stade de France, or Giants Stadium in New Jersey—with a lot of Gothic dry-ice effects, fireworks, industrial-scale amps, 40-foot speakers and in front of 50,000 screaming people holding up cell phones and cigarette lighters. The art form—jazz, in this case—would seem out of place, overwhelmed and maybe even damaged in such a loud, bloated and garish environment. That's what's happened to contemporary art. What used to be the equivalent of a trumpeter, pianist, bassist and drummer playing in a cozy club before an audience who really dug what they were hearing has become a grotesque imitation of heavy metal for the masses.

Although the phenomenon peaked in the current century, its roots go back to the heyday of Andy Warhol and pop art, when artists didn't have to be glowering romantics or suffering loners anymore in order to be avant garde. Glib hipness would do the trick. A generation later, when Julian Schnabel and David Salle were making painting profitable on a grand scale, and Damien Hirst was an art student dreaming of pickled sharks, being a contemporary artist was no more unorthodox a career choice than, say, screenwriting. It didn't hurt that an army of academics wrote professorial advertising copy, in the form of catalog essays and art-magazine reviews. The theorists said, in impressively convoluted terms, that these commercial works of art were as risky and subversive as anything van Gogh, Picasso or Duchamp had ever made.

It worked. Gallery districts flourished, collectors were lionized like Medici princes, art magazines got as thick and slick as Vogue and museums attracted customers by the horde. The Tate Modern in London entertained 5.2 million visitors in 2007. The problem is the hollowness at the core of that statistic. Serious contemporary art's authentic audience doesn't number in the millions-per-year-per-museum. The huge crowds are coming not to hear Wynton Marsalis, so to speak; they're coming for the spooky stage smoke, the fireworks and the thrill of being part of the throng. A long time ago, museum research surveillance revealed that the average time a viewer spent looking at a given work of art was 2.3 seconds. That's a geologic age compared with the blink-and-a-nod anything gets now.

Commercial galleries selling this breed of contemporary art—assemblage sculpture, conceptual art documents, mystifying installations and the rest—have ballooned to the size of blimp hangars. Big biennial exhibitions now take place not only in Venice, Paris, Berlin and at the Whitney Museum in New York, but also in Macau, Sydney and Kwangju, South Korea. Each one of them makes the mounting of a new production of "Aida" look like a church picnic. "Art fairs," those one-stop-shopping carnivals where the suavest of dealers make like used-car salesmen and the wealthiest of collectors plunge in like mallgoers at a holiday sale, have multiplied like crazy. Art Basel Miami (a Swiss franchise doing business in America's glitziest city) became such a jet-set draw that edgier, satellite fairs set up shop around it in cargo containers. Meanwhile, glamorous and flashy new museums of contemporary art, designed by the world's most glamorous, flashy architects, sprouted up all over the place, starting with the one in a heretofore obscure town in Spain called Bilbao. Collectors even got in on the museum act. Charles Saatchi in London, and Donald and Mera Rubell in Miami, opened their own museums to display burgeoning collections of contemporary art that had gotten too big for anything but, well, a museum.

None of this would have been possible without the fevered market. Right up until last September, even the greenest postgraduate painter showing for the first time in a barely reputable gallery was asking—and getting—$10,000 to $20,000 per picture. The number of still-living (not to mention merely middle-aged) contemporary artists commanding a cool million dollars for a single work at auction is edging toward 100. Anecdotes about art-world excess are legion. A collector at an art fair was shown a previously undiscovered canvas by a midlevel abstractionist from the 1960s and told that the price was under $100,000. "Well, I suppose I could enjoy that," she said to the dealer, "if I were poor." Contemporary art had gotten so expensive that even Hirst—the British bad boy who brought in more than $180 million last year by auctioning his new work directly through Sotheby's, and who managed to sell a diamond-covered human skull for another $100 million—said last November that, in his opinion, contemporary art cost too much. Though that hasn't stopped him from cashing his checks.

Not that there weren't wonderful works of art made during—and made possible by—the boom years. Without big money up front, we wouldn't have had Richard Serra's awesome "Torqued Ellipses," the beautiful Elizabeth Murray retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art or Christo's spectacularly friendly "Gates" in Central Park. That's just in New York; other art capitals had their Oscar winners, too. That's all over now. The financial straw that stirs the contemporary-art cocktail has been withdrawn. Sales at Sotheby's and Christie's contemporary auctions in New York tallied $316 million and $325 million, respectively, in 2007. In 2008, the hauls shrank to $125 million and $114 million, with one of three works in each auction failing to sell at all. Although Art Basel Miami's sales dipped only a little in 2008, some dealers say that collecting money from the buyers has been nearly impossible. Galleries themselves are dropping like a plate falling off an old Schnabel. One megadealer sent an e-mail to his staff saying that the gallery could no longer afford the luxury of "underperforming employees" and suggested that they start putting in 18-hour days, "like I do." Something called the Western Art Market Confidence Indicator proffered by a research company called ArtTactic Ltd. has dropped from 56 to 10 since May. We don't have any idea what this means either, except it's obviously bad.

The most conspicuous let-this-be-a-lesson example is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The museum has been offering "world class" (a term art-world boosters love) exhibitions since it opened in two downtown buildings. One, designed by Arata Isozaki, opened at the beginning of the boom in 1985; the other, several blocks away, is a gigantic Gehry-renovated former police-car garage. Trouble is, under the recently resigned director, Jeremy Strick, it spent down its endowment's principal until it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. MOCA had to be rescued by $30 million from L.A.'s generous billionaire Eli Broad. In return, the museum promised to match Broad's money with its own donations, and to gather more shows more cheaply from its own collection. This will mean fewer imported extravaganzas of "breaking news" kinds of art, and more exhibitions of works that the museum, upon reflection, has actually deemed good enough to own.

It's tempting to think that this overdue economic shakeout is going to return the contemporary-art world to sanity. "It may reiterate that the market is not the ultimate arbiter of what art is important," says West Palm Beach, Fla., gallery owner Tim Eaton. But things may have to get worse on their way to getting better. Contemporary museums are reporting abrupt 30 and 40 percent declines in donations, with much of the drop-off coming from their wealthiest patrons. "The bad news is that while the operation will be a success, we're going to lose some very fine patients," says Jack Rutberg, L.A.'s longtime dealer of solid modernist painting. He means that some good artists, and some good galleries, will go out of business.

Although Eaton thinks that "a real ethical realignment in the art world, much less our general society, is too much to even dream about," some silver linings are appearing in the clouds. "The quality of the art could possibly improve under hard conditions," says Carroll Janis, a private dealer of blue-chip moderns. In other words, mediocre, over-hyped museum exhibitions will get a little rarer. Less imitative, overpriced work will bathe in the quartz lighting of galleries. Art-world denizens may even get a little nicer. "This fall at the Frieze Art Fair in London, gallerists were actually interested in discussions about the works they showed," says German critic Ute Thon. "In former years they'd just ignore you if you didn't wave your checkbook." Montreal conceptual artist Jocelyn Fiset hopes that "the current crisis will allow artists who do less material and more ephemeral, less manufactured and more nomadic kinds of art to emerge from the shadows." That's a pretty idealistic hope, but idealism—rather than greed and ostentatiousness—has always been the force behind the creation of the best art. In the aftermath of the contemporary art world's radical deprivation, there's a good chance it'll rise again.