For people who had made mountains of money on intangible deals, the contemporary art world made sense. They were well prepared to accept that gigantic sums should shift around invisible qualities. And they were keen to shift more money. It was as if the very arbitrariness of which art became expensive, and therefore desirable, was their consolation. Their sort of art could not console, of course, but its awesome "value" could. The contemporary art world reflected the financial world perfectly, and the reflection was a flattering soother. Buying into Hirst, Warhol or any of the others, allows you to say: "Yes, I am proud of what I do for money, I make no apologies." It also says: "The market ethic I stand for is so powerful (so right?) that even art complies with it. Even what they grandly call ‘the aesthetic' will recognise the sovereignty of markets. The proof is on my wall." Art will celebrate the marketeer's way of life. It can be shiny, but crude; brash, but bland. And art can be commodified, and stocked.
The people acquiesced — it all seemed glamorous. But after the 2008 crash things have gradually changed. Contemporary art had dazzled as a market phenomenon, but we have become more sceptical about markets. We no longer believe that high prices indicate high value and, on the whole, high prices have lost our trust. For now, at least, we have once more learnt to scorn mammon; and mammon's minions have been the most visible players in the art world. Perhaps an art that excused sin so mercenarily was not so good after all.
The glamour is gone; we recoil at the lustre of those glass towers whose triumph now seems tragic. Kunzru refers to Hirst as "house artist to the 1 per cent". Perl wonders why, all of a sudden, even New York's most sycophantic critics were not amused by the Cattelan show: "Maybe they're tired of partying in a funhouse where they will never be more than dinner guests. As for the people who buy and sell Maurizio Cattelan, my guess is they don't give a damn what critics — or for that matter museumgoers — say." Clearly, it is now us against them; the contemporary art world has become toxic and so the critics are keeping away.
Recently I heard an art world appointee challenged about the validity of his work. The challenge was clichéd: "It is the emperor's new clothes!" Back came the ready-made reply: "The emperor is not naked, if we can see his clothes." I think this is not just a pitiable misunderstanding of the tale. Surely the appointee meant to imply:"This is our parade, not yours. You may cheer, but you cannot interject. The emperor is dressed as we deem fit, until, and only until, our committee should decide otherwise." So the art world, too, is squaring up. It will not go down without a fight. The procession may continue, but the party is over. The pointlessly rich can no longer excuse their pointlessness by sponsoring the most extravagantly pointless art — they only draw attention to it. Once, art laundered the reputations of art buyers whose financial power then inflated the importance and the price of art; now, the reputations of the same buyers are again soiled — by their very financial power — and it is their soiled reputations that are threatening to spoil their own investments; contemporary art risks being ruined by money. What an ironic twist — it is now the financial world, sins and all, that reflects badly on art. Contemporary art has finally become uncool. Because of money. Money has become uncool. The aesthetic of superficiality, of shallow shiny rich, is dead and rotting. (Can you imagine a television network commissioning Sex and the City today?) Now art seems ugly because it is expensive; before, it seemed beautiful, or at least fascinating, because expensive. Vulgarity is vulgar again! So much so that even Charles Saatchi uses the word.
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