By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN Published: December 16, 2010 <!– ADXINFO classification=”button_120x60″ campaign=”foxsearch2010_emailtools_1225563c_nyt5″–> BACK in October, when headlines in Britain were all gloom and doom about the pending cuts to public spending, a prominent New York art dealer manning a booth at the Frieze fair in London was grumbling about business. It seemed odd considering that before him stretched a sea of bodies: roaming mobs of ardent 20-somethings and middle-aged flâneurs (not a few of them trying to look 20-something). Dealers schmoozed with art consultants who were collecting info and photographs to send home to clients who might (possibly, perhaps, we’ll get back to you, love your stuff, ciao) be interested in buying something.
But not much actual business, so said the prominent New York dealer. Meanwhile Larry Gagosian’s people boasted that some collector shelled out $5.6 million for a Damien Hirst, a claim prompting much private skepticism among rival dealers. The spinmeisters of the art market, including fair promoters, are forever making assertions about their commercial conquests that have to be taken on blind faith. Notwithstanding the recession, art-worlders insist smart people still pay good money for great art. (Really? Smart? Hirst?) And then occasionally dealers or even artists themselves are discovered discreetly propping up prices at auction to maintain this rosy notion.
Who’s to know the truth? That skeptical New York dealer wasn’t the only dissenter. But then, there were all those gawkers, just looking around. The current art world, in the form of art fairs like Frieze, as well as the ubiquitous biennials and other festivals, is without debate succeeding at something now.
It’s succeeding at providing relatively cheap forms of mild distraction for ever-larger masses of fashion-conscious people whose budgets cover dinner at PizzaExpress, but not works of art.
Escapism, in other words.
It’s not a minor function of culture, in straitened times or flush ones. Britain ended up sparing the arts a cut as deep as others suffered; for the big national art institutions it will be about 15 percent over four years. Arts officials, like Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, made ritual lamentations afterward about the unfortunate “sea change” this would bring about, but the government had basically bought their argument beforehand — that unlike welfare or child care, culture generates revenue. It brings in tourist dollars. It is good public relations for the nation, critical to the future economy. Just how critical is fuzzy math? Museum directors and publicists, like art dealers, are also masters of creative accounting.
But whatever the true figures might be, the money argument clearly trumps squishy pleas for preserving civilization to save the soul of people when trying to bargain with besieged and parsimonious politicians. Especially in austere times, the winning argument is that, business-wise and propaganda-wise, the show must go on.
Is there a culture specific to this recession, as there was to the Depression, a culture in Europe and the United States, at least? Something memorable and distinct that will define the age? Not to belittle the present malaise, but can any recession inspire such a thing in the first place?
Depressions, sure. Wars, definitely. But recession? Granted, the current slowdown and high unemployment figures are grave for many art institutions, especially small ones, without private resources; and it’s bad for who knows how many aspiring Jonathan Franzens and Sasha Waltzes and Tacita Deans who decide to steer clear of careers in the arts because they’ve got to make money, now, and jobs are scarce.
While Wall Streeters still rake in the dough, only a tiny bit of their booty will be passed on to the arts in the form of collecting and charity. So a recession is basically as lousy for many artists as it is for the rest of us.
The recessionary 1970s, for a long time derided culturally, in retrospect produced darkling riches across the board: in film, theater, music, television, fashion, dance, literature and art. But then, besides the oil crisis and runaway inflation, there was Vietnam, Watergate, the cold war and a slew of other soul-shaking events to add to that period’s climate of disillusion and unrest, which, in turn, inspired artful responses.
About the present it’s just too early to say. And maybe the question’s wrong to begin with. Let history sort out what defines this era.
What can be said already is that some things never change. During the 1930s and ’40s Americans forgot their cares for a few hours watching William Powell down martinis as “The Thin Man,” Cary Grant court Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story,” Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan swing from tree branches and Esther Williams paddle around the Aquacade. People lost themselves for an afternoon or evening at Palisades Amusement Park or Coney Island. They laughed at Fibber McGee and Jack Benny and tracked the Lone Ranger on the radio. A beleaguered audience indulged in fantasies of vicarious wealth and in preposterous extravaganzas.
That’s pretty much the cultural menu now, no? Movies and “Mad Men” aside, the art world, having become almost entirely extension of the fashion and entertainment industries, offers its own version of bygone Hollywood’s outlandish riches and loopy entertainment. Instead of Esther Williams, it’s Jeff Koons. Instead of Tarzan, there’s Olafur Eliasson. At the same time a universe of computer games, smartphone gadgets and reality television shows have come to replace the Aquacade and the amusement park.
As I said, escapism.
If this were all that art produced, the era’s legacy would look dire. But it would also be grim to contemplate the arts being serious and important all the time. We need both Pierre Boulez and Tokio Hotel, Richard Serra and also Turkish soap operas. Some modern Waugh or Daumier or Tati may even now be capitalizing on the delicious way Britons and French played to type in responding to the financial crisis this fall: the Britons initially stiffening their upper lips at word that half a million jobs would be lost and $130 billion in public spending cut; the French taking to the barricades, blocking airports and refineries, shutting down gas stations and schools, just to defy President Nicolas Sarkozy’s initiative that the retirement age rise to 62 from 60.
As Anne Applebaum put it on Slate: “And thus did everyone, amazingly, conform to national stereotypes. In an age of supposed globalization when we are all allegedly becoming more alike — listening to the same American music, buying the same Chinese products — it is astonishing how absolutely British the British remain, and how thoroughly French are the French.”
Right. And that’s the grander truth about culture now: that it has only become more atomized, and impossible to generalize about, because of the very global forces we’re told homogenize us today. We react against those forces to assert our own identities. And culture is how, consciously or otherwise, we express those identities.
Recession, double-dip inflation, whatever, that’s the essence of art now, and perhaps forever.
There’s no escaping it.