There were humorous accounts of auction houses' shady work, and avid study of the manoeuvrings of Larry Gagosian, the art world's number one gallerist/fixer. David Segal wrote in the New York Times: "If you want to spend $30 million on a de Kooning, you can check what's in the catalogues of the coming Sotheby's and Christie's sales. But if you don't find what you want, you'll probably call Mr Gagosian." Board members of New York's New Museum were accused of using the galleries to aggrandise their personal collections, thus boosting values. Kunzru described the "corruption of art museums by investors", suggesting that the Tate Gallery, too, was compromised; it has shown works from the UBS investment bank's collection in return for lucrative sponsorship.
Dubious relationships between public galleries, private dealers and investors are not so new. A storm blew up in 2005 when the Tate bought for £600,000 a work by Chris Ofili, who sat on its board of trustees. After the press revealed the transaction, the Tate was censured by the Charity Commission. But, back then, such stories were usually only interesting to the "reactionary" press — the Telegraph, and specialist art publications like The Jackdaw. I suppose they were interested in the story primarily because they disapproved of sanctioning that sort of art — the dodgy transaction just made it juicier; corrupt business fomented by corrupt taste. The "progressive" press had the opposite agenda: they would try to ignore the corrupt business, as long as it sanctioned corrupt — i.e. anti-bourgeois — taste. The Left, through its own vanity, always too easily fell for the art world's oldest trick. Already in 1975 Tom Wolfe wrote: "Avant-garde art . . . takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money, puts Levi's, turtlenecks, muttonchops, and other mantles and laurels of bohemian grace upon it." Not even Wolfe could foresee the artist's metamorphosis from bohemian to businessman, completing in 2008 when Hirst sold his own works at auction. Only after that auction could the Left take a stand against the art world. So now it is criticised from both flanks. The politics of taste are over; at this moment what matters — for the art journalist as much as for Hirst — is money.
Hirst's auction took £70.5 million on the day that Lehman Brothers went bust. A lot has been made of this coincidence — certainly it emphasised the irrationality and the untouchability of the art world. But we can make even more of it. Perhaps the banking collapse, as much as Hirst's unabashed commercialism, has brought the art world to its current disrepute. When towers of twisted glass seemed to shine money down on our cities, people were prepared to celebrate the absurdities of contemporary art. Its prices were glorious assertions of self-confidence; real value, even in an area as intangible as art, could just be created out of money, if the sum was high enough. Culture was to be the venerable crown for flaunting global finance. There was compensation here. I suspect some officials, especially in government, felt uneasy with the dogma that all this abstractly accumulated wealth was good for all, and so they guiltily willed from it this cultural deposit — they were desperate for substance, for their consciences' sake. Contemporary art would prove that all the money was for the good. Contemporary art was useful. Some of the modern super-rich learnt to launder their reputations as well as their money, with art. Money can be safer in some artists' names than in banks, but anything sold as art is more than an investment — it confers upon the buyer a sense of sophistication, even beneficence. The money laundering, whether for conscience or security or prestige, was easily disregarded, because it was more important that our riches were not just glorified, but at the same time dignified. Contemporary art was loved, I think sincerely, as a concealer of sins.
There is nothing new in using art to pay a spiritual debt. But we do it differently, now that we have developed a strange idea that art should be a reflection of our society. We decided that art is not to "soften and humanise the mind", as Sir Joshua Reynolds said — such lofty sentiments are now dizzying. Art is not the wise balm of beauty to our rough and rushing lives, it is just the odd fact excerpted from life; it should be as rough and rushed — and as blandly real — as the rest. But, strangely, despite the currency of nihilistic arguments, our minds have not so hardened that we can fully prise Art away from Virtue. Precisely the people who would laugh at the old ideas of Reynolds, and call him pompous, prudish, even sick, inherit from him their extraordinary esteem for art, whatever art may be. But they even exaggerate and pervert his esteem. Art is no longer for the good; art is, essentially, good. Therefore, since art reflects us, we must also be good. Perhaps that is why so many otherwise reasonable people have let their sanity slide and applauded contemporary art; and that is why they let art be the vehicle for money and reputation laundering. Wherever there is art, there must be good. The more there is, the better we are. And, with our drunken faith in markets, believing that value is price, the more expensive art is, the better it is, so the better we are. So they thought.
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