The Price Is RightJohn Haber
in New York City
The Price of Everything and Beneath the Underdog
In reviewing "Not for Sale" at P.S. 1 this spring, the critic for New York magazine had a modest request: how about a show that really takes on the art market? Ask what the market's "feeding frenzy" does to art—and to artists. How does it alter the display of art? How does it put artists on display themselves as the latest thing?
The Whitney is glad to oblige. (See, the market does respond to consumer choice.) Its Independent Study Program enables four budding curators to mount "The Price of Everything," at CUNY Graduate Center. Meanwhile, another group show, "Beneath the Underdog," proves that an assault on art and capitalism can survive quite well, thank you, in Madison Avenue's most exclusive galleries. Does this mean that art is doomed? Or has it already settled into a comfortable afterlife?
That critic, Jerry Saltz, has often asked tough questions, about Chelsea's "superparadigm" and pressures on artists to make it big, fast. Aleksandra Mir and Paul McCarthy have even retooled galleries as assembly lines for retail products. Now a small exhibition comes up with some disconcerting answers. Where Saltz sees an urgent problem and hope for change, "The Price of Everything: Perspectives on the Art Market" tells a different story. Artists, it seems, have weighed patronage and art institutions for quite some time—and hardly made a dent in them.
Perhaps the struggle began from the moment artists became status symbols, when Leonardo chose early retirement in France. Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso surely had it in mind when they painted the nude as a hooker, with the viewer a less than dignified customer. With Postmodernism, it became a thesis topic, and CUNY includes work from the 1970s through today. Back when, Hans Haacke with or without Rudy Giuliani as Nazi, Louise Lawler, and Robert Morris thought they had the problem nailed. As things turn out, it had hardly begun.
Roughly speaking, they and younger artists have chosen three strategies. Call them the idealists, the realists, and the cynics. The idealists simply drop the price. Danica Phelps offers to share work with other artists, along with clippings of the reviews that caught her eye, while the Fine Art Adoption Network seeks to give art a proper home. Class "Not for Sale" at P.S. 1 among the idealists. It asked a number of established artists which work they retained for themselves rather than cash in.
The realists never let one forget the price. Karl Haendel pegs the price of his full-scale image of a Cadillac to the car's book value, and Haacke alters a Marcel Duchamp sign to insert the words "art and money." Lawler photographs museum galleries for modern and contemporary art, Morris invests money borrowed against the Whitney's holdings and keeps the (meager) profit, and Marianne Heier writes a fat check herself. Fareed Armaly and Christian Philipp Müller pipe in the sound of an art opening, while Fia Backström reduces Artforum to its advertisements.
Finally, the cynics retain a sense of humor. Elmgreen and Dragset create the ultimate knock-off, a sealed Prada store near Donald Judd's massive holdings in Texas. Incidentally, for once they do not paint their work bright green. Conrad Bakker promises bargain-basement prices outside the gallery, where B. Altman once had its department store windows. I tried to convince myself that the art inside was going, going, gone.
Of course, the show's title comes from Oscar Wilde's less alluring definition of a cynic, "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." To rub it in, CUNY's introductory wall label quotes a boast that Saltz singled out, too: Sotheby's head of contemporary art describes the market as "so smart" that price defines value. The curators accidentally stenciled the quote twice in the same wall text, a testimony to their anger. The Freudian slip stood uncorrected the day after the opening.
Breaking the spell?
In the end, the cynics have a huge advantage: they can infuse art with irony, irony with humor, and humor with self-recognition. They also come closest to using art itself as their weapon. Even Haacke lets loose only when he attends to the power of an art object. His broken snow shovel alludes to Duchamp's In Advance of a Broken Arm. One can feel it snap in one's hands, as Duchamp's never could, and one can ask why its value has not broken in half, too—and why Haacke has not broken its spell.
A younger artist does best of all. As usual, Christian Jankowski puts the business of art into unlikely mouths. In his 2002 video, a management consultant puts the same questions to Jankowski's dealer, Michele Maccarone, and to the shopkeeper who shared her former Chinatown quarters. Then the young woman and the elderly Jew read each other's replies. She comes off at once self-deprecating, vulnerable, and fiercely ambitious, while he relishes every minute of the game.
Still, the inclusion of art from two generations already signals a problem. The older artists could not have anticipated the bubble, and their bitter irony could not deflate it. The younger artists merely ride its currents. One sees the problem in every one of the three strategies.
The idealists reform no one's desires but their own, just as at P.S. 1, where the futility of turning to major artists for hope angered Saltz. Like the idealists here, too, the first digital artists saw their medium as a blow against old distribution channels. Now video offers a quick entrance to the system—or even a fashion statement. The realists hector and lecture, but Lawler's photo adds gloss to artists who already mock fine art. The cynics, naturally enough, make the slickest salespeople of all.
In part, the fault lies with CUNY's selection. This art never does analyze how the market changes things. Haendel's car can equate art with a commodity, but he cannot oblige art to depreciate like one. For that matter, he cannot guarantee that his drawing will fetch his prices. Either way, he cannot pin down what makes the art market like any other market, what makes it different, and who pays for the difference. Only Jankowski troubles to ask what makes a gallery a destination and what makes art move—and even he leaves out two key players, the customer and the artist.
In part, too, the fault lies beyond the reach of anyone, whether artist, dealer, or, yes, even critic. A concern for what the curators call art's "microeconomies" sounds very Postmodern. Yet art's dreams of shaking the world or rising above it sound as Romantic as ever. Global markets merely make the dream more improbable. Does that mean artists should stop dreaming and the public should stop paying dreaming along with them? Not necessarily, and a show given over to the cynics makes a good test case.
"Beneath the Underdog" makes art sound hopeless. Artists hardly rate as come-from-behind heroes any more. One could just as well call the show, too, "Above the Top Dog." It unfolds at Gagosian on Madison Avenue, in the very building that housed Sotheby's. The curators, Nate Lowman and Adam McEwen, embrace their location, "in relationship to the towering vertical landscape of late capitalism." That may not make bring art closer, however, to shaking the earth.
The show fills six rooms, down a dim office corridor that I never knew existed. One can feel capitalism closing in already. A show this large reaches to find any coherent theme whatsoever. It has room for a mirror by Roy Lichtenstein, a creamy painting by Lee Lozano, and a sedate early modern portrait by Gwen Johns. However, its heart belongs to the cynics. At its best, "Beneath the Underdog" shows how the ironists of 1990s stay relevant now.
Naturally, they include Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Sue Williams. Williams adjusts a silkscreen Madonna and Child so that Jesus holds his penis like the traditional scepter, while Mary plays with his balls. It could adapt Leo Steinberg's ingenious take on the sexuality of god and man in Renaissance art, it could offer a feminist improvement, or it could just take painting down a peg. Regardless, the entire show protests against fine art. Prince indeed calls his scrawl Protest Painting. A review can do little more than catalog some of the protests.
Some opt for verbal protests. Jessica Diamond's graffiti from the Reagan era boom reads Buy a Condo or Die, Joe Bradley and Dan Colen call their bland painting Shithead, and Matias Faldbakken displays ceramic baseballs on pedestals labeled Sometimes You Just Have to Play Hardball. Some have a problem with the art object, as with Kaz Oshiro's reshaping of canvas into an automobile bumper, with pretend decal to match. Some have a problem with how art gets made. McEwen himself incorporates chewing gum into his generic painting, while Devon Costello pairs a history painting with an abstract one, which may just happen to be his studio table. Some have a problem with those who buy art, such as Clair Fontaine, who squashes a quarter and calls it In God They Trust.
In this context, Barry Le Va's 1968 pile of broken glass shatters art itself, while the battered Sheetrock by Monica Bonvicini shatters the gallery. They also create horizontal alternatives to that "vertical landscape." Bonvicini makes the floor much softer and more comforting, too, and a mock Minimalist Ottoman by Peter Fischli and David Weiss promises a rest as well. Michael Joaquin Gray testifies to gravity in another way. He suspends Rodin's Balzac from the ceiling. The upside-down orange phallus does not leave sculpture much gravity of its own.
With her cutting remake of a Willem de Kooning Woman, Cecily Brown has room for beauty in protest, and so does Tauba Auerbach, who types all the letters or punctuation marks into one tiny black spot. Mostly, however, "Beneath the Underdog" and "The Price of Everything" leave me wondering whether art can still protest anything—or, for that matter, whether it can ever quit protesting. Maybe that dilemma really will drive art after the triumph of the market, because everyone is a cynic now, and everyone had better accept it. Everyone talks about the market without doing anything about it. And, as with the weather, if only they could. For now, I am with Michele Maccarone, hoping that in five years I shall be so successful that I can put on weight.
"The Price of Everything: Perspectives on the Art Market" ran thanks to the Independent Study Program of The Whitney Museum of American Art at CUNY Graduate Center through June 24, 2007. "Beneath the Underdog" ran at Gagosian uptown through June 16.