The art market is more moral than the stock marketJerry Saltz | 18.2.09 |
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.”
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