1980s >> 1985 >> no-969-may-1985

Art racket

In 1974 the Tate Gallery exhibited some works by the Italian experimental artist, Piero Manzoni (1933-63). They included sealed tins of the artist’s excrement and balloons containing his breath. In December 1970, an American artist, Tom Wesselmann, in an exhibition at the now extinct Mayfair Gallery. London, showed a work entitled Bedroom Titbox. This remarkable assemblage took the form of a still-life comprising an assortment of artificial objects decorously arranged in a glazed box. through a hole in the roof of which protruded—or rather, was suspended—an ample live breast. The remainder of the presumably impecunious young lady whose task it was to reveal this highly personal portion of her anatomy lay otherwise concealed across the top of the contraption. This she was apparently obliged to do from ten o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the afternoon on Saturdays, presumably with breaks. (Had a little wasp, out of understandable curiosity, crept into our box. doubtless an animated scene would have ensued. In the current climate of crazy opportunism in the art world this could profitably have been passed off as a particularly fine example of performance art, all the more effective for its spontaneous vitality.)


It is interesting to note that Manzoni’s aim, at least, was to satirise the art-market’s main preoccupation—to crank up and exploit the reputations of a handful of the more sensational avant-garde in the interests of their wealthy, if artistically cretinous patrons. In this context, it has been observed that the contents of Pablo Picasso’s waste-paper basket were worth a fortune to the speculative scavenger. This is almost certainly true: your average Bond Street gallery-owner would have had them mounted, framed and flogged off to the nearest Texan oil millionaire before you could say “Marcel Duchamp”. (Ironically enough, Manzoni’s own fortunes improved markedly as a result of his satirical tomfoolery—a fact which no doubt caused him much anguish.)


Where, then does all this leave serious art? It would be absurd to assert that, since works of art can be so profitable, they have necessarily to be intrinsically worthless. A glass of unpolluted water is of the essence despite our having to pay for it. And where art is not side-tracked, as it all too often is under capitalism, it can constitute, at its most expert and sensitive, a repository of aesthetic truths which owe nothing to the conditional requirements of the sale-room. Take, for example, the French painter. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). If. today, you should happen to stumble across a few square inches of canvas and succeed in verifying that the brush-strokes on it are from the hand of this artist, then your financial worries are over. Cézanne, however, was a genius who, if we except a small group of his more discerning peers, went unrecognised in his own lifetime. However, he could afford to ignore the art-market: his father, a wealthy banker of Aix-en-Provence, had bequeathed him a lifetime’s competence. Cézanne was thus able to paint as he wished without regard to prevailing fashion or wheeler-dealing. He was. if we are to believe what evidence is available to us, a misanthropic and impatient man. His work, not always easy to understand, is expressive of certain qualities which are better seen than discussed—tonality: colour and form; contour; composition; paint-handling; space, both on the surface and behind it; even a prophetic recognition of certain optical phenomena: all these qualities come together in Cézanne’s canvases to form an uncanny unity which nevertheless is entirely and essentially material. The capitalists neither understood the work nor could they sell it. Cézanne, derided and ostracised, became “a prophet . . . not without honour, save in his own country . . .”. Despite this ostracism. however, since his death his slightest works have become blue-chip items whose current wildly inflated values would have given the irascible old man a stroke.


So, on the one hand art-dealers are only too eager to parade their greedy philistinism by promoting “art” which they know to have been devised in order to lampoon the system, but which they also know will sell because of the signature (there are dupes aplenty with money to bum). On the other hand the hitherto unsaleable works of the serious, genuinely pioneering artist of independent means must eventually fall prey to one of those same dealers.


The artist must, then, unless lucky enough to be financially independent, be placed at the mercy of the capitalists, who of necessity are only interested in what yields a profit. Profits accrue from the fashionable (the denim jeans ramp—on the wane now, apparently—is a useful analogy here) so should you hope to “succeed” as a painter you had better be trendy. Once you’ve made it, however, you will find yourself the recipient of VIP treatment at the hands of some West End gallery owner: you will join his stable and, as long as his customers go on buying your—or, rather, his—work, he will henceforth exercise a virtual monopoly on everything you produce. What, you may ask, has all this to do with art? Why, it might just as well be a couple of cans of beer— which, as it happens, is exactly what Jasper Johns, the American painter, asserted it was with his Painted Bronze 1960, a cast of two beer cans, which was knocked down for ninety thousand dollars at Sotheby-Parke Burnet, New York, in October 1973.


The wayward idiocies of the hunt for the fashionable in art is obvious enough. What may not be quite so self-evident is the crooked nature of what passes for “honest dealing” in the sale-rooms and auction-marts, and in the studios of the forgers and fakers. The fact is that under capitalism objects of art have taken on many of the characteristics of real-estate, or gold. The finest and rarest art-works tend to retain, or even increase, their real cash value, and consequently are eagerly snapped up in the auction-rooms, to be offset against tax or as a hedge against inflation. In such a climate, and particularly in circumstances—technical and pictorial—in which forgery is relatively simple (the work of Vincent Van Gogh, for example) the temptation to cash in on the evidently insatiable demand is irresistible. What is interesting, however, is that the forgeries thus marketed are as often as not the most sorry apologies for the real thing, mere pastiches which, had dealer or purchaser taken the trouble to compare with the genuine article (in. say, the Tate Gallery, or the Courtauld Institute) would have been instantly recognisable for what they were. In fact, the late Tom Keating, mass producer of what he termed his “Sexton Blakes”, professed astonishment that his faking of the work of Samuel Palmer (180S-81) escaped detection for so long. Keating understood perfectly that, where the grasping activities of the fine-art market are concerned, money always takes priority over aesthetics: if fools are prepared to throw their money away on freshly minted Turners or sticky Constables, who are the fakers or the dealers to complain? (Keating himself, it has to be stated, insisted that he never passed anything off as other than from his own brush.)


Nothing has been written so far about the auction ring, in which a group of dealers agree among themselves to force down the bidding, thereby denying the owner the true market price of the property. The work is later put up at another auction and permitted to achieve its proper price. Later on, in some quiet bar-parlour comes the share-out. Even the auctioneer is sometimes party to this skulduggery.


Clearly, then, art racketeering is a fertile field of study, only the surface of which has been touched on here. Art has anyway become merely a form of share certification, its original, pre-capitalist, significances having vanished to be replaced by speculation and greed. Since the days of the Post-Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century art has ceased to be popularly understood and appreciated and has drifted into an almost irredeemable insularity. Indeed, we have seen that it can be outlandishly esoteric. Its more tangible and acceptable products end up in the entrance foyers and board-rooms of city banks and business houses, or on the walls of the jet-setters and wealthy socialites of Mayfair and Belgravia — where, that is, it isn’t stored speculatively in the vaults of the big dealers. So, what the public at large have come to perceive as an almost totally incomprehensible enigma is at the same time a source of increasingly rich pickings in the sale-rooms. But, who knows? One day perhaps. Carl Andre can have his pile of bricks in the Tate and the homeless can have their pile of bricks in the form of a house, and neither will cost, or command, a penny or a cent in a world in which capitalism—and consequently the criminal meanness and stupidity which stem from it—will have vanished for ever.


Richard Cooper