How to put a price on art at a time of perpetual crisis?

“It shows the limited quality of the press,” Jeff Koons said in a TED-style interview. The art of tomorrow conference in Athens in June, lamenting how journalists he believes are obsessed with writing about the price of his art, rather than the art itself. “What’s easier for them is to talk about money, and things like that. I think writers are not safe talking about art,” added Koons, who has an estimated wealth of $400 million, according to the Celebrity Net Worth website.

The interview took place days before Koons’ big blingy steel sculpture Balloon Monkey (Magenta), from 2006 to 2013, sold at auction in London at Christie’s for £10.1 million ($12.4 million). The price was less than half of the $25.9 million for another version of the sculpture, Monkey Balloon (Orange), auctioned in 2014. At the time, at the market’s last peak, Koons was the world’s 10th-highest-grossing artist at auction. At the time of this writing, he was the 65th, according to Artprice.

For the previous two decades Koons, like Damien Hirst, had been one of the world’s most successful producers of what might be called “market” art. These very expensive and conceptually simple works, released in an instantly recognizable series of unique variations, were specially designed for gallery exhibitions and fairs frequented by the international super-rich. Given these advanced levels of commodification and financialization, the most interesting thing to write about the art of the market, like NFTs – which are its logical digital extension – is, ultimately, price.

Instagrammable art

And it continues. A small oil on paper from 2018 Study by Flora Yukhnovich, currently one of the most coveted key names in the art market, sold at Phillips in June for £52,920 ($62,499), ten times the estimate.

Yukhnovich is part of an ever-growing cohort of young artists whose rococo-style paintings look great on Instagram and on the white walls of galleries and luxury homes. These artists all have a particular aesthetic, which is repeated over and over again for the queues of buyers (and pinball machines) at the dealerships that represent them.

“Artists are classified as trading cards. People buy a lot of work hoping to get something crazy up for auction,” says artist Greg Ito, based in Los Angeles, where more and more dealers are putting on more and more exhibitions. of young instagrammable art. “It seems like there are just more speculative collectors following trends and more galleries supporting those trends for commercial gain,” Ito adds.

Sooner or later these artists might fall out of use, but like the tires on a Formula 1 car circling a Grand Prix track, they can be quickly replaced. And just like F1, the art market is an eco-friendly circus that shrewdly moves to where the money is. Miami hosted its first Grand Prix this year, Seoul its first Frieze art fair.

At the same time, vast swaths of our warming planet have been hit by the worst droughts in living memory, the war in Ukraine threatens to go nuclear, food prices are soaring, oil companies reaping record profits, income inequalities are widening. The checklist of major problems plaguing humanity goes on and on.

The institutional art world does its best to present art that struggles with this. The 15th edition of Documenta in Kassel controversially delegated its curation to an Indonesian collective, giving a rare leading role to artists from the Global South and their concerns. Meanwhile, Sun & SeaLithuanian eco-opera winner of the 2019 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion, is touring the Global North, melodizing the futility of flying 6,000 miles to play Frisbee on a beach, and the Back to Earth program in Serpentine gallery course asked more than 60 creatives to tackle the climate emergency.

But why haven’t these new imperatives gained traction in the marketplace? After all, not so long ago, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired record auction prices for previously undervalued talent such as Kerry James Marshall, Barkley Hendricks, Charles White and Amy Sherald.

“Catastrophic headlines have a chilling effect on people,” says Los Angeles-based arts adviser John Wolf, referring to the overwhelming, apocalyptic tone of much of the media’s environmental coverage.

Wolf is doing its part to change the mindset of the art market by hosting a pop-up group exhibition of 18 paintings and ceramics inspired by the climate emergency in Yucca Valley, California, where global warming threatens the famous Joshua tree from extinction. Helter Swelterwhich runs until September 30, includes Eric Yahnker’s oil painting from 2022, Toast, depicting two hands clinking champagne glasses in an ever-rising ocean, priced at $8,000. the 2018 gouache by Julie Curtiss, The nestshowing a fish caught high and dry in an expanse of tightly braided hair, the New York artist’s trademark, is valued at $44,000.

Confront and overthrow

Trying to sell eco-friendly paints is one thing. Finding a market for conceptually ambitious art that actually confronts and subverts the economic forces that have plunged 21st century humanity into this mess is quite another.

Renzo Martens, for example, is a Dutch artist who collaborated with the Art League of Congolese Plantation Workers to create sculptures of chocolate figures that seriously spoil the postcolonial mindsets of the West. Excitedly revised when they were exhibited at New York’s SculptureCenter in 2017, these unsettling, inedible, infusible creations sell for up to $20,000 each to raise money for communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo impoverished by the closure of Unilever’s palm oil business. They have made a profit of $150,000 so far, according to Martens.

“It’s remarkable that a top-notch gallery hasn’t picked them up yet, because that would generate a most significant change in the art market,” says Martens. So far this has not happened and none of the sculptures have appeared at auction.

The struggle of the Congolese collective to have an impact on the market characterizes the challenges facing politically engaged “activist” art.

“If activist art is monetized, it fails,” says New York-based artist and writer Gregory Sholette, whose latest book, The art of activism and the activism of artis published by Lund Humphries this month.

“How do I stop this? Either artists leave the art world altogether, or they try to oppose it and then risk becoming entangled in it,” adds Sholette.

Banksy is arguably the most famous artist-activist in the world. He is also the eighth best-selling artist in the auction market, according to Artprice. In 2018, one of his canvases was destined to self-destruct at a Sotheby’s sale, satirizing and undoing market excesses. But the shredding mechanism stopped halfway and the damaged canvas sold for £1.04 million ($1.4 million). Three years later, remarketed by Sotheby’s as a masterpiece of performance art, the semi-ragged painting was returned for £18.6 million ($25.4 million).

“Capitalist thoughts and concepts have reached their peak,” says Ai Weiwei, one of the few other politically engaged artists whose output has been enthusiastically received by the market, with all its entanglements. Our current education and value systems “do not encourage introspection and critical thinking,” he adds.

Ai believes that “the feeling of powerlessness and decadence in art is not going to dissolve anytime soon” and that “the lack of politically engaged artwork will continue for the foreseeable future”.

This will certainly be the case if this field and its media continue to evaluate art primarily by price.

Jeff might be right.

Christopher S. Washington