What the Art World’s Past Tells Us about Its Future beyond COVID-19
Artist Keith Haring paints a mural on a wall at Clarkson St. and Seventh Ave. in Manhattan on August 20, 1987. Photo by Mark Hinjosa/Newsday RM via Getty Images
Leading up to the most recent art market bubble in 2015, I railed about the meek, sheeplike willingness of artists and the art world to be co-opted into bona fide, 100 percent genuine, pre-sliced, easy-to-handle, low-calorie art such as the stunts by Jay-Z at Pace Gallery, Tilda Swinton at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramović at MOCA Los Angeles, Shia LaBeouf at Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, Miley Cyrus at Art Basel in Miami Beach, James Franco at Pace, and the rest of that ilk. Participating in the art world recently was viewed as a merit badge of cultivation, of status, and also of participation in a world that could afford the expensive.
One only had to open a lifestyle or fashion magazine to find articles on Art Basel in Miami Beach, the attendant parties and dinners, and what the artists and attendees such as Lady Gaga and Alex Rodriguez were wearing. But these sort of performances and actions are purely theatrical events, despite their poor attempts at window dressing themselves as intellectually serious. This had all become an extension of our experience economy—an ad hoc mixture of Hollywood and Wall Street.
Gallerists were also responsible for constructing and participating in circuits of commerce such as art fairs; they transitioned into the merchants and marketers of art they claimed they did not want to become. The bulk of gallerists’ time became taken up with creating and protecting their brands, and then inserting those brands into all possible markets—whether it be China, India, Dubai, or Russia. And one of the most expedient ways to do that was through the worldwide network of art fairs.
Perhaps Robert Hughes articulated this problem most succinctly in late 1989, when he wrote: “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” (The following year was the year of the great art market crash, which led to a deep, 15-year depression; it wasn’t until 2005 that prices of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary artworks returned to pre-1990 levels.) Collecting art was recently viewed as a merit badge of cultivation, status, and participation in a world that can afford the expensive. But if we divorce art entirely from why it was created in the first place, then—as occurred with Jay-Z, James Franco, and other aforementioned examples—art and money exchange roles: Money becomes “divine” by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.
I hope the attitude I outline here is not a flagrant case of elitism on my part, and that you don’t believe curiosity—that special inquiring quality of the intelligence—should be considered elitist. These days, the search for meaning through beauty, and vice versa, is even more important as each day mediocrity and art-mongering increasingly uglify our lives. The day when the search for John Keats’s ideal of truth and beauty becomes irrelevant, we can all shut up and shuffle back to our respective caves.
Back in the 1980s, when I came of intellectual age, the concept of margin versus center, and the alternative models it subtended, held more sway than they do today, where a lateral (digital) paradigm of culture suggests instead an endless scroll of parallel access. Still, as the art world continues to adjust to this lateral shift, particularly in the era of #MeToo, COVID-19, and U.S. president Donald Trump’s constant erosion of faith in our democratic potential, it seems worthwhile to foreground elements that offer a way out of the cynical distancing epitomized by Swinton, LaBeouf, and others, as well as legitimate concerns about what will most certainly be a very prolonged and painful economic reversal.
It would do us all well to recall that in the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s, arts and culture in New York City were at their most creative—specifically because rents were depressed, gallery space was plentiful, and curators and fledgling artists were able to engage each other in the same spaces without the need for tremendous amounts of money (or any money at all). These conditions led to what economists call “low barriers to entry,” which meant that the only requirement to participate in the cultural economy was to be extremely creative. Because there are no cost-prohibitive factors in a heavily depressed economy, huge influxes of talented artists flooded New York at that time, increasing the chances that creative and interesting work would occur. This most vividly occurred during the East Village art scene of the late 1970s and early ’80s.
The oil shocks of the 1970s, the ensuing deindustrialization, and New York’s economic recession left the city in deep social and economic decline, with massive unemployment, a severe fiscal crisis, and badly depressed real estate. The same period was marked by tremendous social unrest. America as a whole was significantly dissonant in its identity and social values, and New York more acutely than anywhere else. Sound familiar? Ironically, these same factors also created an environment that allowed artists to cluster in the same neighborhoods, paying rents so cheap that instead of working a second job, they were able to focus completely on their work. The horrid downturn that affected the economy as a whole was significantly positive for creativity in the long term.
Art is the imagination of life, so intensely felt that it has entered into and become an integral part of us. But we can lose sight of this crucial force if we only think of art in terms of raucous careers, the careenings of success, drugs of every imaginable type, turning on and turning off, marking time and making money, loud and hollow laughter. The world about us would be bleak except for the world within us, and all art bears witness to this fact. In this world of apathy and vanity, when we actually encounter great art, we experience something that staggers and deeply affects us. All art should aspire to this: to lead us to a fresh conception of the world.
The role of the artist, in short, is to help us live our lives. The artist does this by creating a world to which we can turn, again and again, so that we eventually are unable to conceive of our lives without that artist’s imagination and feeling. Art is the crucial interface between the imagination and reality, the thing that makes life deeper and broader than it might be without such insight. We have to believe in that kind of creativity. I know I do. There must be something in me, and hopefully in you, that makes us want to continue, and to create art is to believe in continuing. To share one’s critical feelings about the past, to try to describe and assess the present—all that implies a firm belief in a future.
A version of this op-ed first appeared as a comment on Facebook, in which the author addressed issues raised by art critic Jerry Saltz in his article “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One.”