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Letter From Paris: Occupy This


December 5, 2011   ·   13 Comments

Grapes of Wrath? Andy's "Grapes" pulled in $104,500 at Phillips de Pury New York October editions sale.

Pssst…Can we talk about money?  I keep on getting press releases from Phillips de Pury about all the wonderful things they’ve sold, the auction records they’ve broken – Richard Prince’s “Cowboys and Girlfriends” portfolio fetching $146,500; Andy Warhol’s “Grapes” topping $104,500 – and the next pot of gold waiting in the auction markets in New York and London.  And if it’s not from an auction house, the emails chime in from the art fairs in Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Geneva or galleries in India, Hong Kong or some new white cube that just opened here in Paris.

Shepard Fairey's Occupy Wall Street design supports the 99 Percent, although we're pretty sure he's a 1 percenter.

Meanwhile Europe is flailing and talk of a euro collapse is now a bit of a broken record.  The financial markets are whipsawed daily while the art market, on the eve of Art Basel Miami , steps around the see-saw and the swings and heads for the candy store where everything is shiny and new and all dressed up for the big lick.

But there’s a disconnect going on – and there has been for quite a while.  Anyone who seriously makes art has always felt the tug of war between what goes on in the studio and what goes on in the galleries. Work with paint, canvas, paper, wood, or video, and what you take in annually from these aesthetic investigations compared to what the blue chip artists pull in is undoubtedly a pittance.  Yet the art world ticks on. Yes, we understand it’s all supply and demand, but there’s also hype and myth and probably price rigging.  Recently a New York art dealer came to Paris and told me that he’s really only interested in working with artists whose works sell for at least $5000.

Clearly no parent in his or her right mind would encourage his or her art school child to attempt to earn a living as an actual artist. Better to become a baseball player; at least the odds seem better. (For the record there are fewer than 750 professional Major League baseball players and practically every boy and many girls entertain the fantasy of playing shortstop for the Yankees, or even the Phillies).  Most artists are in the 99.9 percent category.

So along comes the OWS, the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon,  the swelling ranks of the 99%, the disgruntled, often out-of-work folks gathering in New York’s Zuccotti Park and other public areas around the country and the world.  What are they doing?  Mostly grumbling about how the rich people are rich – and have great tax advantages! – and gosh darn it, they’re not and they don’t.  If they were rich, would they have spent nearly two months in the Park?

Clearly the wealthiest slaves of capitalism – the investment bankers, hedge fund traders, the quants – have done pretty well since the financial tsunami hit the shores of New York and London and the rest of the capitalized world – wiping out trillions in wealth, killing home values, and putting friends and family out of work.

The OWS crowd though recently turned its ire to another ivory tower of privilege and wealth – The Art World – surrounding the entrance of MoMA a month ago and whining about ticket prices ($25) and the elitism of high-priced objects in the Museum’s collection.  So, a quick vote, please check: Stupid [  ] Dumb [  ]. They could get an annual membership for $75 and come and go as they like. And support the museum in more fruitful ways than stopping traffic on W 53rd Street.

The OWS Art World splinter group is pissed off because…well, why?  They don’t like supporting an institution that is world class and not on the government teat? Or because these protesters (artists) are not in MoMA themselves?

An acute artist-observer of the 99 per-centers takes umbrage with me over my vitriol: “I think it’s appropriate to criticize art institutions because they mainly support the 1% of artists and art collector class,” he writes.  “And the commodification of that top 1% of art products to a hyped-up and overvalued object status is akin to what we have in the rest of society, particularly in the investment community.  I believe the only way to prevent the masses from revolting and killing the rich is to have a buffer class, a middle class. So, you spread the wealth around; in my opinion, this is the role of government.  Where is the 1% going to get their income from in the future if they’ve already taken it all  from the 99%?”

Well, okay, then. Why not Occupy Julian Schnabel? Or better, Occupy Jeff Koons!  Or heck, why not occupy The FIAC, the art fair in Paris?  It would have been easier to occupy this year as the fair was reunited under a single, glorious roof: The oxidized copper struts and gleaming glass of The Grand Palais. However, 33 euros a pop (FIAC’s ticket price) to have the opportunity to pay $3 million+ for a collection of Damien Hirst’s fish might irritate the Occupy folks.  In any case, you can download free Occupy posters made, one would believe, by the Occupy Artists, like the always controversial Shepard Fairey.

I have to admit I didn’t go to the FIAC this year, but I did stroll through the Tuilleries where several large-scale sculptures were on display during one of the most beautiful autumn days in Paris in my memory.  Here’s a report about the FIAC in The New York Times :  Sales were exceptionally strong despite the global economy swirling around in the “toilette.” Key quote: “Maybe we’re in a bubble.” – Nathalie Vallois, Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois Gallery, Paris.

So last week, as I am ambling along rue Saint-André-des-Arts, between St Michel and Odéon in Paris, I pull into a retail store called Carré d’artistes, one door down from a Starbucks.  Their slogan (above the door) is for the 99 percenters: “L’art pour tous en grand format.”  (Art for everyone in large sizes). There were four artists on view – one who sticks things on canvases, another who schmeers paint, another who does a Latin number in a surreal portrait style and the last who knocks out cityscapes that capture, in thick globs of paint, the movement of yellow taxis and wet pavement.  It was all horrible, but hey it came in five sizes, and three prices, right up to 3000 euros.  I asked one of the half dozen sales girls if on this day, a Sunday, anything sold.  “Oh yes, we sold five works today.”  I couldn’t imagine anyone buying anything there, but that’s a pretty good day, I imagine, in any art gallery.

FYI, here’s the “concept” announced on their site:  Our ambitions  Liberate Art ! Carré d’artistes® is the crazy gamble of art lovers whose ambition is to revolutionize a market previously inaccessible and compartmentalized, and to become a major actor in that market. 
The self-service exhibition spaces of Carré d’artistes® do away with any distance, or any intermediary, between the spectator and the artwork. By presenting all the artists on an equal footing, Carré d’artistes® shakes up the traditional rules. It is an alternative that democratizes contemporary art, and a generous undertaking that is respectful of the artists.

Grapes of Wrath? Andy's "Grapes" pulled in $104,500 at Phillips de Pury's New York October editions sale.

Maybe we’re not in a bubble. Recently I had a phone conversation with the folks at London-based The Fine Art Fund, an investment group that uses art as an asset class for profit.  Its CEO, Phillip Hoffman, who famously doesn’t collect art himself says : “The world’s rich are putting their money into art.”  He said it here.

Launched in 2004, The Fine Art Fund is one of several new investment instruments that seeks to take a hard asset like art (it could be real estate or gold or teak wood futures for all that matters) and hold it for a time period until there’s interest enough to sell it for a profit.  The track record is actually pretty good according to Ruth Knowles, the Director of Global Marketing & Business Development at The Fine Art Fund.  While the private equity group remains tight lipped regarding most everything  – until, of course, you invest the minimum $250,000 –  the group reported more than 25 percent returns on one of their investment venues and better than that on others. And at the end of the 10-year run investors earned before management fees about six percent or better on their investment, and notably for The Western Art Fund the annualized return of 33% on works sold.

While The Fine Art Fund incubates the value of works, investors can “borrow” the paintings to hang on their walls. You just have to pay for the privilege. For the Fine Art Fund II, the minimum investment is $250,000; for the Chinese Fine Art Fund, the minimum investment is $100,000. As a shareholder, can publicize your savvy with an original Matisse in your study.

“We don’t speak about the names of the artists we have in our portfolio,” explains Morgan Long, Director of Art Investment at The Fine Art Fund.  She explained however that the composition of the portfolio is “35% Old Masters, 15% Impressionist, 15% Modernist and the balance in Contemporary. Old Masters are very much in demand and they are not correlated to the rise and fall of the stock market… Contemporary art, though, is highly risky asset.”

So who’s hot?  Who should the Occupy Art World folks be fuming at?  Morgan Long wouldn’t exactly say which artists the fund is buying but in mentioning Damien Hirst, and his 1990s stuffed and sliced horses, sharks and sheep, you’ve got a long term holding. She indicated that these works are “unique, iconic works,” adding: “I don’t think anyone disagrees that he’s the most important artist of his generation.  Tate Museum will do a major retrospective during the London Olympics and that will bump up his…I would put my money into these unique 1990 works…they are consistently high.”

What to do?  Don’t look at your 401k account and let go the creeping feeling we’re all going down the proverbial krapper.  As much as artists want to maintain some aesthetic integrity – and their dealers some kind of cash flow – it’s pretty clear that only the bluest of the blue chippers can maintain and increase their values as well as the distance (in dollars) between themselves and the rest of the pack.  So while few artists like talking about money, dinero, dinars and dollars are what make the world go round.  However seeing your own art star rise and zeroes added to your prices is another kettle of fish; complaining about your occupying art world career won’t get the pot to boil. Better to haul down those Old Master paintings your grandmother bought 70 years ago and call up Christie’s to come take a look. Then take your profits and get yourself a MoMA membership.  For most artists (and dealers), now is a great time to be poor.  Isn’t it?  Real artistic creation has nothing to do with creature comforts.  Think Van Gogh, think early Pollock, think early de Kooning, think early Me.

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13 Responses to “Letter From Paris: Occupy This”

  1. Great article, Mr. Rose.
    I think the US has less of an artistic ‘buffer class’ than there is here in Paris. The Occupiers that are pissed at MoMA probably don’t have a Carre-type place trying to snag 3,000 a pop for their stuff. I’ve had a few Americans ask me recently whether or not there’s an ‘Occupy Paris’ and I didn’t know what to tell them. I couldn’t think of anything that would make a Parisian artist angry enough to go sleep in the park if he didn’t have to. But if I were in America right now, I think I’d be protesting almost everywhere. (Although I’d probably start some shit at the Whitney before I went after MoMA. Those people should be ashamed of what they offer for 18 dollars). What I didn’t see mentioned is that the Met (one of the best museums in the whole US) operates on a suggested donation basis and features many of the same artists that one can find at MoMA. Maybe the Occupiers could head over there to stay warm, and learn some stuff in the process.

  2. hasn’t the insider/outsider thing always been a part of the art market dynamic? – at least since the Vatican & the House of Borghese went head to head? Maybe it’s exacerbated today because no one really knows what exactly art is any more…which kind of adds insult to injury.

  3. max mulhern says:

    A concise wrap up of the economic dynamic that artists must work within.

    To do art today and hope to live off of it and/or to create one’s self a name one has to go rogue like a trader.
    Art demands a heavy upfront investment. After the initial investment in one’s 20’s the artist is faced with financial losses year in and year out. These losses are hidden by the spiritually uplifting event of mastering a medium and honing an artistic voice, by a real job earning hard cash, as well as by youth and hope. If you are lucky you get a grant, sell a few works in a show and get a write up in a newspaper. Those are slender stalks of nutrient that artists can live off of for years.
    To continue believing in your art star over the decades is the equivalent of a trader doubling up. You raise the stakes. You put more cash in if you can, you work harder. You get older and therefore less and less reconvertible into a productive worker in another profession. At this you are putting your life on the line. You become an expert creator of your product. You may have tried to give it all up but there you are , still at it. You have reached a point of non return.
    You have always done anything you can to keep going and then, one day, you are 60 and guess what? You did art for your whole working life! I hope you had fun. You did what you wanted but you probably lost the bet. There may be creditors at the door. So what? Let them reposess you.
    Ask the NEA to buy your collected works.

    Perhaps you had kids? A wife? Give them some art BUT don’t leave it for them to dispose of when you are gone. Otherwise they’ll have to do the dirty work.

    Money likes art and art likes money. Who’s fault is that?

  4. Thanks Matthew. You’ve tied in a neat bow the consternation in the minds of most U.S. artists these days. Art is a peculiar industry indeed. Europe teeters at the edge of the abyss. Yet sales were through the roof at the Miami fairs last week. I guess surrealism is the new realism!

  5. Ben Weaver says:

    “Think Van Gogh, think early Pollock, think early de Kooning, think early Me.”

    This suggests that being poor is the romantic ideal. If it was good enough for these artists than why should living artists complain? A happy medium between the two should be where we start. Most artists aren’t looking for one large sale. Ask the artists you know which they prefer– one large painting sold for a large amount or– multiple paintings sold for a reasonable amount over the course of a year. I believe artists want sales and would rather sell for less than collect their own work.

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and this kind of coverage suggests that this is the case. The high art market, or the romantic poor artist. How many “art supporters” don’t have any art in their homes? If we only view art in museums, and galleries aren’t we only art viewers and not supporters of the arts?

  6. Perhaps part of the issue is the dramatically increasing cost of arts education – which obtaining seems to be a paramount prerequisite for most to be eligible for teaching positions, representation or general “legitimacy”. In many cases young artists have already taken out a “mortgage” to compete credentially with their peers for jobs and opportunities that do not recover their investment.

    “Average tuition cost for a 4-year B.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, including living expenses: $162,480.
    Number of years it would take to repay a school loan in this amount, including interest, with monthly installments of $350: 44″
    (Helguera’s Index – Art on Paper / July 2007)

    If you were 65 by the time you paid off your B.F.A. I imagine you would take a few less risks with your work, slowly start to perhaps compromise your interests for a few sales. Now with a family to feed and substantial debt still, less and less time is devoted to the studio and exploration – your work gets “safer” because you have much more at stake each month – and with this contraction of individual, self-motivated growth, the promise of the artist withers and no longer has the creative energy or financial means to stay as “current” as they intended – and thus they find themselves falling farther away from the interests of the purchasing market that could have supported them.

    The market is immediate – hence the rise of the fairs as the prominent place for the bulk of global sales. The long-term energy and growth of the artist seems to be increasingly devalued in this current scenario. It seems to me that the root of this is the high educational “start-up” cost for artists.

  7. LT Snow says:

    It’s all exacerbated by the fact that there are so many more rich people today than ever before… this whole system is one of the things that M. Duchamp was pointing out to everyone who had their “finger in the art pie”!

  8. Nice piece Matthew Rose! Interesting to get the Paris Perspective. Yes, necessity is the “mother of invention” so it will be interesting to see what kind of work comes from these desperate times, and who it weeds out in the process. I for one, am finding myself re-pledging my allegiance to “The Art Life” every day. I have to, afterall, with as much blood sweat and tears it takes just to pay my studio rent. I console myself with your words… the way you described how a foreigner can better speak French… “All The World is a Stage, and language is a theater of performance.” I hope that’s true to for the art world too, and that everyone is just elaborating the inflated sales and that it’s all smoke and mirrors. Maybe I just gotta FAKE IT TO MAKE IT!

  9. Speaking of high cost of education for artists… this is why we started Fluxus Institute. It is a responce to the insane investment, like you say, of 150+K for an arts education. Are you kidding me? I have heard that the stats are that within a very few years of graduation 95+% of Fine Arts grads will not be working in the field. Why would anyone spend all the profits they will ever hope to make in art on an education before they even have a clue if they will be able to make a sustainable living in their chosen field? Of course, people like me or Matthew are really not any good for anything else so there you have it, we do what we can. A Teacher I had when I was young told us: “If there is anything else in life you can be happy doing for a living you should leave now and go do that.” He was not wrong. I’ve been lucky, I actually more or less make a living as an artist. My basic saying is” You have to be smart enough to become masterful at being an artist and nieve enough to think something will ever come of it.” The art life does require a different set of skills than other sorts of businesses and a very different way of looking at things. But to get into that 1% you either have to have already been born into it or you have to have an overriding mentality that is different from rest of the artists: Most just want to make a living but being at the top requires making a killing.

  10. Immo Jalass says:

    Dear Matthew,
    your article impresses me, but my own work fascinates me every day. Thank you

  11. Hi Matthew, I think your piece started out great regarding the inference of over-valued works and art world practices, because it reminds us of the unjustified art inflations that were concurrent with the Wall Street banks and US government failures a few years ago. I also agree that your comment on Shepard Fairey as a 1%’er seems appropro too. There’s no debating that Fairey has legitimate talent. That’s why it’s so confusing as to why he keeps making knock-offs when he doesn’t have to (i.e. the AP photograph court case, and now one of his OWS posters is nothing more than the mask in the movie ‘V for Vendetta’). He even admits on his website that he currently has still not worked out legal issues around that specific poster.

    But where I think your piece fragments itself to devolve from your worthy lead-is in the frivolous assessment of OWS targets and behavior. As a New Yorker, and one that lived at Ground Zero & witnessed 911 in person, I can assure your readers that anything to do with MOMA is misleading. In America, OWS Everywhere is largely composed of, and intitially fueled by, College Students who have either graduated and can’t find a job-or are still in college and unable to cope with shameful tuition increases by the Fed, states & academic institutions to balance their budgets on the backs of students. And we’re not talking about ‘Art’ students either. There was no press or even OWS blogging about anything aimed at MOMA of any discernible significance. No one even has to buy a stinkin’ annual MOMA pass anyway because you can go for free every Friday evening.

    And even if they did have an issue with MOMA (as a delegate for the art-world elite(?)..So What !?! To infer even minor criticism of this movement is the same tactic taken by the press here like CNN (in the beginning) & haters from the Republican global elite that by not having a list of demands somehow nullified their relevance. But no-one anywhere put forth such commentary about the Arab Spring. In America, the only divergence of targets by Occupy Everywhere is their recent re-direction of resources and outrage against banks who are foreclosing on peoples homes & evicting them-and in so doing are showing up on-site at those homes in solidarity with the families being evicted. I think your heart is in the right place so you should be careful not to inadvertently ridicule such a movement. To frame them in context to art merely trivializes an important socio-political phenomena of our time.

    So yes, not only does the OWS have more important things to do-but Charles Saatchi himself has already provided us in recent days with an appropriately vetted condemnation of the art worlds 1%. As such I commend you on how your article began because it’s inference mirrors what Saatchi said. And that is important because the art world reached it’s bloated zenith at the same time as the Wall street debacle..and not surprisingly both monied circles have reverted to their same former pinnacles of unchecked over-valuation. My favorite art critic, Jerry Saltz, himself just wrote that despite the fact that New York city is the greatest art machine in the world–85% of it is bad art. But at least American’s can hold the government accountable to it’s collusion with Wall Street and be forced, by either persuasion or insurrection, to protect the public from such corrupt & contemptible practices in the mortgage & investment markets. Not only is there no-one standing at the gates of the barbarians in the art-world..there aren’t even any gates.

  12. I posted this in response to a discussion
    ulrich de balbian • Dan, I discovered this (focus on my painting above all, and stay out of the art industry – that like the entertainment world hypes and gives publicity to outrageous behaviur and individuals like Madonna, Lady Gaga or the young female student who strew her dirty underwear on the gallery floor as installation – since then all she does and fabricates are evaluated as millions) when studying Art. So I qualified in a few other subjects (sciences, philosophy) to become and academic, publish books on them – and being able to support myself, while painting. Soon I worked only part-time to spend more time on painting – and 26 years ago at 40 I retired from other work to paint 24/7 (and that is almost literally 24/7). I refused to be part of the art industry and am not going to prostitute myself or my work, and be reduced to their evaluation in monetary terms.
    I paint , non-stop, the center of my life, and everything else must fit around that – and if curators, gallerists, collectors, etc must still learn to appreciate my art – that’s their problem not mine. You can see all about the art market (how it shifted, since 3 years ago, to China and Asia, with 400 from the top 500 selling artists from China) at – and if you so wish search there for my name and see my work and the price (out of my control) they are nowadays prostituted for.
    Ulrich (de Balbian)

  13. matthew rose says:

    Extremely rich, erudite, informative and useful comments from all corners of the art world – many thanks for commenting.

    Clearly the clever artist has unique survival skills and perhaps the DNA for thinking in color, even if at times that color is that of money. So we are now in this wondrously ambiguously situated cul de sac Are artists’ strategies – school, performance, destruction, “nothing” and even flooding the world (all the Gagosian galleries) with your greatest “spot” paintings (Hirst) – part of the art?

    I tend to agree with the writers above that 1. The price of an art education does not yield equivalent and ancillary benefits to society (as does, say, the price of plumbing school), but who am I to judge? but disagree, that 2. conceptual art killed the concept of value. Rather, conceptual works put value into the heart of the art world’s strange economical Rubik’s cube. And guess what? there’s no solution, just process – market process with all the collusion, price rigging, overpaid promotion and back pages of art magazines around. Toss in every social network art site and here we are on the Internet where we experience the world. And find myself concerned that disgruntled art students/art professionals/artists use the OWS for their own lack of initiative. Of course everyone retains the right to assemble, but the idea that the OWS mantle be applied to any area of the economy or society where folks are pissed off is not compelling, at least not compelling to me. As others pointed out, anyone who really wants to see art, can and usually for little or next to nothing. And sometimes you even get a free drink.

    Success is clearly where most artists (and everyone else involved in the art world food chain) are driving. But bear in mind that most artists are unsuccessful. Most wallow. Most art ends up in a yard sell. (Strategy Lesson # 237: Sell your art in a yard sale! Thank you, Jerry Saltz.) What that means in terms of value (the wide world of value) is truly up for grabs. On the net it could be “likes,” in your pocket it could be “money,” in your head it could be “secret” or “private” or “unknown.”

    In a discussion of the verbs “having and benefiting” Steven Pinker (The Stuff of Thought : Language as a Window into Human Nature) reminds us that the sages have reminded us “that money can’t buy happiness, that only a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, that that it isn’t true that he who does with the most toys wins.” But then again, who was really talking about happiness?

    P.S. You can bitch at me here, too:

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