Part of the reason I started this blog was to address the profound unintended consequences of regulation in art. By preventing the export of so-called cultural patrimony, states force feed culture on their people. Yes, by some measures, it is preservation and by still others it qualifies as a rallying point in terms of identity. There can be little doubt that in this world of fragmented ethical systems, fostered by the constant barrage of media and ubiquity of choice — in everything! — that there may be reason to enforce regulations on those grounds. But the reason could never be so large so as to prevent the market from working because as in most things the market allocates resources most efficiently, that is, according to what truly matters most.
A painting that sundry museum officials deem a national treasure may be quite worthless to the vast majority of people. This does not mean they are poorly educated, as officials might say, although this could be true. It does mean, however, that the question is one of taste. Regulations borne of mere taste are probably not the best way to govern. The case is clear cut in regulations but may be less so when powerful private dealers in art try to accomplish the same ends. Take, for example, Larry Salander. A humanizing piece of this now-notorious character recently appeared in New York magazine. I highly encourage people to read this because it gives another side to the very twisted story of a man whose pride in his wax wings led to a predictable end. Here is an excerpt:
“Our society now values a Warhol for three times as much money as a great Rembrandt,” he thunders, referring to the latest auction reports. “That tells me that we’re fucked. It’s as if people would rather fuck than make love.” […] Over the last few years, he had been trying to apply his passion and alchemy to correcting what he saw to be a dangerous inversion of the art market. To Salander, many contemporary art collectors are philistines. But if he could use his gallery to create a new market for old-master and Renaissance art, perhaps he could shift the paradigms of the international art trade.
By all accounts, the man understands the art market quite well. Perhaps he just lacks an understanding of economics, and even this may still be coupled with some style of entrepreneurial bravado that he could single-handedly change the world with his product, like an Edison or Bell. There is far more wealth bound up in art, now very much an international market (attending an auction in Citra, Florida, I saw an important buyer from NY and listened as high bids by global citizens came in by phone), than can be redirected by a man such as Larry Salander swimming upcurrent. If he wants to, it is his business, no doubt, but I find it interesting that he should try. Yet another compelling facet to his story, and this much we can surely believe from the New York article because it was plain before he fell into this controversy.
As a house for serious nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, the gallery had settled into a proven, commercially successful formula. But over the last decade, as the art market underwent a seismic shift, Salander noticed a particular gulf opening up between the markets for postwar and contemporary art, and most art created before Impressionism. New art suddenly started going for far more than older, established masterpieces. Many of the newly rich collectors preferred to spend their hedge-fund wealth on more recent, name-brand artists. A Jasper Johns was soon worth twice as much as the Metropolitan’s Duccio, the Madonna and Child purchased by the museum for as much as $45 million in 2004. An oversize sculpture of costume jewelry by the art star Jeff Koons was valued higher than a Tintoretto, an El Greco, or a clutch of Courbets. To Salander, this development was a moral travesty. It was also a business opportunity. As he obsessed over these market dynamics, Salander eventually came to believe that the very survival of great art was at stake.
Be wary of those who decry market shifts as moral travesties. This is usually the first cannon shot before regulation comes in. Do note the slap against hedge-fund wealth — it’s not coincidence. Soon, they will feel the pain by politicians quick to make it look like they are saving people from the evils of the market. In any case, Salander by this account sets out to regulate the market as best he can as a private citizen. This is his certain right, but it is just as surely a folly, just as it is for those who wish to hold on to Koons and Johns objects as end-owners. They are not good long-term investments, but it is possible to genuinely appreciate the art. Sometimes things may be puzzled over for thousands of years. Surely the masters of the Renaissance would have had little use for cave paintings, after all, though I know I commit a grave sin by comparing Caravaggio to the Cro-Magnon.
Andrew Sullivan is of like mind in some respects, although I wonder where he is going in others. Check out his comments:
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those who bemoan contemporary art and seek a return to the old-masters. Appreciating formalism is one thing; crusading against contemporary art in order to correct an alleged cultural imbalance is something else entirely.
Fair enough. But where does he get the following?
When you buy a piece of art from a living artist you are funding her next project; you are allowing her to continue with her work. What does it matter to Rembrandt how much his painting sells for?
Judging by the government support of the arts and the heavily subsidized government educations offered in all 50 states, I cannot help but think that Mr. Sullivan has sadly overestimated the important of supporting current artists. Their prevalence is, in and of itself, a deadweight loss to efficiency on the market, albeit a minor one it would seem. We would not wish Salander much success in his endeavor, but at least he may expend his wealth on that as satisfying his own utility; and for the most part he earned his right to do so. [/End rant… I have a 10 part series coming out RE: intellectual property distortions soon though… stay tuned…]
[h/t Art Law Blog]