The art market is more moral than the stock market
By Jerry Saltz. Published online: 18 February 2009
Introduction by Jason Edward Kaufman: With Wall Street in self-inflicted ruin it might seem ridiculous to argue that the art market is less ethical than the stock market. Yet that was the position taken last month by art dealers Richard Feigen, Michael Hue-Williams and collector Adam Lindemann in a debate sponsored by the Rosenkranz Foundation at Rockefeller University, New York. They faced artist Chuck Close, critic Jerry Saltz, and auctioneer Amy Cappellazzo, who defended the integrity of the salesroom and the art world in general. This pro-art market team was trounced. A before-and-after poll of the audience found that tales of chandelier bidding, bidding rings, the lack of regulation and so on resulted in 55% agreeing that the art market is less ethical than the stock market (only 33% opposed, 12% undecided). Amid the worst economic meltdown in half a century, caused by the unregulated greed of bankers and securities traders, the art market lost the debate. Here is one losing debater’s perspective on the defeat.
In the green room, minutes before going on stage to debate the proposition, a man who helped found the organisation behind the event, frame the debate and assemble the teams told me that he became involved with Intelligence Squared after working in “conservative think-tanks for years”. I said: “I’m just curious, did you vote for Bush twice?” He replied: “As a matter of fact, I did.” I then asked: “Does that mean you also voted for McCain?” He replied: “Yes.” Then I said: “Don’t you think that may mean you have no sense of judgement about these things?” He stared at me and led our team to the debating floor. As we entered the auditorium I noticed that I barely recognised anyone in the packed audience, and that the crowd looked fairly conservative. We were on stage by the time I put two and two together and understood why Karl Rove and Dick Cheney had participated in other debates sponsored by Intelligence Squared. By then, I knew our goose was cooked. I don’t blame losing the debate on the crowd being conservative. Rather, I blame myself and my team for having no idea how to debate, and for existing happily in what I consider a parallel art world.
Intelligence Squared framed the question (which seemed subtly slanted against my team’s position and laced with Schadenfreude), and assembled the teams. Our team—Chuck Close, Amy Cappellazzo, deputy chairman of Christie’s, and I—defended the position that the art world was not “less ethical” than the stock market. Their team was art dealer Richard Feigen, who the day before sold a Turner at auction for more than $12m, Michael Hue-Williams, owner and chief executive of London’s Albion gallery, and super-collector and nice guy, Adam Lindemann (who during the debate said: “I wish I was on your side”).
To me, their side was making a logical-sounding but smug, monstrously cynical argument. Their position essentially broke faith with art, believed in the hype of the past few years, was nihilistic and hollowed out. They said that even with all the abuses on Wall Street, the fall of Enron, insider trading, Bernie Madoff, the collapse of the stock market, widespread job losses, rampant suffering, and the world economy in a shambles, the art market was still less ethical than the stock market! Ironically, all those on the other team were likely involved in most of the unethical behaviour they railed against. To me, this seemed infinitely hypocritical and self-hating. But evidently not to the audience, who seemed to agree with every stone they lobbed at the art world, and sneered at every mention of bad behaviour by the art world.
Our argument was simple and straightforward, even if we utterly failed to make it properly. The art world, we said—like all worlds—has unethical practices.
“Chandelier bidding” happens and is disgusting; art dealers can be sharks; art fairs are like tent-city casinos; the market revved up the bullshit machine. Yet even considering all this, we said the art world is not more corrupt and less ethical than Wall Street. We acknowledged that the system may be damaged, but added that in our studios and in front of works of art when we experience moments of genuine stillness, intensity and meaningfulness, places on the edge of language, the market cannot strip away these things. In this imperfect realm, we sometimes experience the elemental otherness of art. That cannot happen in the stock market, ethics or not.
Mr Hue-Williams talked about how the art world has no regulations and that anyone can get into it. I said that other than basic guidelines already in place (especially in the auction sector), the art world is a “world” and not an industry. I’m lucky that “anyone can be in the art world”. I have no degrees and no qualifications, other than the fact that I want to do it. If there were guidelines about who could be in the art world, most of us wouldn’t be allowed to be here at all. Basically, they were arguing for a form of cultural-ethical cleansing. They claimed that with no regulations the only thing an art dealer needed was “to have two eyes”.
Once our side admitted to “chandelier bidding” and the rest, however, the day was lost. To the audience, the argument turned on the concept, “the art world is unethical”. To us, it turned only on the word “less”. Either way, these are semantic points that we clearly lost. As one blogger later noted: “I found that the ‘against the motion’ side made many errors of strategy and fact.”
Debate strategies and rules aside, I think it’s utterly ridiculous to claim that the art world is “less ethical than the stock market”. The stock market made more people richer, made more people lose money, and brought the US to its knees. By comparison, the art world is relatively benign, and the unethical parts are relatively limited. No one in the art world jumped out of a window because a painting’s price decreased. No one was put out of their home because of the art market. Even at its height, 1% of 1% of 1% of all artists made money. You can rail against the business practices of the art world, but even in flush times reputations are built on credibility, not on money or the market. The public is suspicious of the art world because the art market, and not art, is what they saw first when they saw art. Regardless, just because a dealer makes a lot of money doesn’t mean that they have the respect of the art world. Money doesn’t earn respect. Respect exists outside of the market. If you are in art for the money, you’re not really in art at all. As Brice Marden said: “It’s not the art that’s suffering; it’s the market that’s suffering. They don’t have anything to do with each other.”
An audience member identified himself as a lawyer and said he agreed with the other side because we can never be certain about the true value of art. I agree—the art world, especially now, is not about “certainty”. The art world is a space where uncertainty, doubt and paradox exist, and can transform the world. Art is not a decorative ornament on the edifice of philosophy, religion or economics. Art is not optional. Art is a universal force that helps make things happen, even if some of those things are tainted. The debate made me understand several things: cynicism about the art world runs deep; I have no clue how to debate; the art world exists in a realm that can be described by, but is nevertheless beyond, words. The following day, an old Beatles lyric drifted through my mind: “Although they thought I knew the answer; I knew but I could not say.”
The writer is the senior art critic at New York magazine
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