The Art Market: Historical Perspective
In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists.
News flash to Allison Schrager: art markets have been dominated by the super-rich throughout history. Today’s art market is far less highly concentrated than in past eras that are now considered golden ages of Western art. Billionaires today can bid up art prices at auction, but they can only envy the market power of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who summoned the father of the 15-year old Michelangelo, and according to Condivi, when Lodovico “arrived in the presence of the Magnificent and was asked whether he would be willing to let him have his son for his own, the father was unable to refuse,” so Michelangelo went to live in the house of Lorenzo, “every day showing the Magnificent some result of his efforts.” Similarly, even the ability to pay $100 million for a painting does not match the market power of Napoleon, who had the Mona Lisa hanging in his bedroom before transferring it to the Louvre.
Even in the modern era, art markets have hardly been welcoming to struggling artists. In 1874-86, Claude Monet and a group of friends had to organize their own independent exhibitions because Paris galleries would not exhibit their art without the blessing of the official Salon, appointed by the government’s Academy of Fine Arts. In New York in 1947 Clement Greenberg scolded American collectors and critics for their shameful failure to support Jackson Pollock and his peers, who “exist from hand to mouth” and whose “isolation is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning,” adding: “That anyone can produce art on a respectable level in this situation is highly improbable.” Yet from these dire circumstances came the triumphs of Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, two of the most glorious achievements of the modern era.
Modern economic growth has transformed art markets, as it has many others. Kings and Popes no longer monopolize the production of artistic geniuses. And art galleries have increased dramatically in number, as serious art collectors have proliferated – not only in the US and Europe, but in Asia. Today as in the past, art remains connected to the economic elite by what Clement Greenberg famously called an umbilical cord of gold. In 1939, Greenberg predicted that the future of art was imperiled by the shrinking of that elite. He was wrong. Eighty years later, Allison Schrager is making a similar prediction. There is little doubt that she is equally wrong. Art is a highly competitive activity, and young artists have always struggled. But Monet, Pollock, and their friends overcame these struggles, and there is no reason to believe that their heirs will not do the same.
Link: Allison Schrager, “Art Market Snubs the Merely Rich,” New York Times, May 17, 2019. [Note: This is the article online, now titled “Even the Rich Aren’t Rich Enough for Jeff Koons: As billionaires compete for art in an overheated market, the merely affluent are giving up.”]