The art world (and media) has been obsessed with discussing the moves and mores of collectors throughout 2014 and early 2015: the tastes and the morals of flippers. Perhaps it’s just a storm in a teacup—as Olav Velthius argued well in December’s Texte zur Kunst. The main problem with flippers is their “blatant visibility,” he noted, and the exploitation of viral value—“the value of widespread popularity, instant recognition.” Yet gallerists and more “moral” collectors have speculated on the secondary market for years. The wider idea of collecting for investment was well established in the 1960s. In 1969 even Fortune magazine and The New Yorker were publishing articles recommending art investment. As artist and writer Walter Robinson put it in an April essay: “The notion that there is a genuine, pure, sincere, and deep art that can be set in opposition to a compromised, mercenary dishonest, and shallow one is romantic piffle.”
Yet is there any way to resist the onslaught of capitalist consumption that is sweeping contemporary art into the hands of speculators and oligarchs who can throw millions at a painting? While numerous artists in the past few years have been chasing the abstract dollar, a large number are creating work that could not be consumed so easily. Jacob Kassay may have been usurped by the abstraction trend—yet look at his current work. He hasn’t made a silver painting in years. Instead, he has shown abstract linen cut-offs, often with words written along their sides. He seems to be consciously trying to avoid the works that speculative collectors want. The results have more in common with the conversation around minimalism and text than process painting.
The current rise of performance and film as a focus in art institutions and project spaces is very much a response to an unhealthy focus elsewhere on the market. Oscar Murillo has been focusing on other aspects of his practise—installation works with elements of video and performance. Although they are collectible, these works are a lot more difficult to install, hang, and engage with than a painting alone. Rumour has it, meanwhile, that another highly speculated young artist has quit making art—aware that his name had become a joke for meaningless flippery. What better way to laugh at the flippers than by removing yourself from the art world entirely?
Vanessa Carlos of Carlos/Ishikawa, who represents Oscar Murillo and Korakrit Arunanondchai, is one of many emergent gallerists who have seen the sharks circling. “My main issue with speculation is that it creates an oppressive (and dull) environment for all of us, one that loses sight of ideas, discourse and culture—the very reason most of us get involved with art in the first place,” she says. “It can be destructive for any artist, but especially younger ones who don’t have certain support structures in place—it just becomes predatory, irresponsible and unfair.” Carlos is aware that gallerists trying to protect their artists have a limited pull. “You just have to try and be sensible. Resale agreements are so easily broken, I don’t see them as stopping anyone. Vetting is so subjective anyway,” she notes.
Another option to resist is to make your work egalitarian. Tauba Auerbach’s incredible publishing imprint Diagonal Press is a perfect example of an artist using their success to further their practise and focus on the act of creating. Established in 2013, her recently launched website firmly notes: “Publications in open editions. Nothing signed or numbered.” No speculators here, thank you.
Interestingly, a number of collaborative projects are also emerging that are trying to establish new forms of engagement and profit from artwork. There are numerous project spaces rethinking the process of ownership and art participation such as Finland’s Robin Hood Co-op, which is part art project, part hedge fund; Leeds Art Gallery’s Picture Lending Library where you subscribe to borrow work annually; or Helen Kaplinsky and Maurice Carlin’s #temporarycustodians based out of Salford, near Manchester in the UK—a co-working “archipelago” looking at ideas of blurred authorship, peer-to-peer art and “holding without owning” artworks. DIS is another perfect example—reconceiving the idea of the artist as something closer to a brand and curatorial project rather than the somewhat dated concept of the lone (largely male) artist hero that speculation seems to focus on.
Artists and smart collectors can always ignore the whole thing. Art is very much like fashion and constantly in flux. There are plenty of artists making figurative paintings, sculpture, ceramics, wall pieces, internet-based work, drawings, videos, and photographs. Not all of these are as easy to fit above a sofa as a canvas, but they aren’t going anywhere; their time will come again.