Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Joker

I passed Bloomingdale’s the other night…the Third Avenue windows are featuring Andy Warhol, in some tribute or nostalgic fashionista sort of cheap reference. My favorite Andyquote on a placard in one display was ‘Art is what you can get away with”. Of course as anyone who actually studied art or tried to make some kind of cultural sense out of what now wears the art label, this is so ironically far from Truth, as Warhol well knew, and yet so aphoristically appropriate. Warhol, the cultural oracle, strikes again.

Of course Fashion has always been about what one can get away with. The Emperor’s New Clothes, etc. New York City is the capital centre. I live in a building of all-Emperors, now… wearing their bank-accounts, mentally naked as a jaybird. Of course, they point at me. I am badly dressed, vote like an old liberal, don’t tip the staff because they make more than I do, are maybe socio-economically in a higher strata, it seems pretentious and absurd-- besides, the staff is better clothed than I am. In fact I single-handedly lower the average income of my fellow tenants by double percentage points.

But I do know something about art. If I had an art portfolio I’d run it like a value manager. Value managers aren’t quite keeping up with the astounding geometric increases in money-stash of the hedge-fund rockstars. But also they know something about history.
The high-beta purchases of this market are certainly risky and for the short-term, but as for me, no dividend could be high enough to convince me to put a Jeff Koons anywhere near any collection I’d describe with a capital ‘A’.

Recently a reviewer observed that the Guggenheim museum, especially decked as currently with the output of Richard Prince, rather resembles a toilet. At the auction previews this week, it was not just a question of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but an entire Bryant-Park-worthy fashion show for such merchandise. And ‘merchandise’ is the word for the relentless, aggressive marketing of the auction houses whose stock and executive bonuses will rise or fall according to the success of their campaign. They have done well, these art puppet-masters who have enticed the nouveau-riche Americans to participate in yet another version of competitive greed—this one perhaps the most risky, the least understood… because they are not owning shares of a corporation or building a personal mansion, but will purchase essentially a few dollars’ worth of linen and paint, or a concept…scrap metal… reproductions, in Warhol’s case…autographed reproductions, with often-faked or posthumously sanctioned ‘autographs’….photographs, in other cases—not even prints, as in the old days, but C-prints—computer-generated digital images for which they pay six, seven and eight figures.

And is there a Dow Jones, a Nasdaq for these things? There is not. There are no experts, no service except the auction houses whose participation in the whole hocus-pocus is financially motivated-- the very auction houses, in fact, whose directors have been subpoenaed and convicted for illegal practices. The convictions were minimal when compared to the larger picture of obscene price-fixing and absence of control in this unbridled industry. Amateurs are walking the streets hawking images of twenty million dollar paintings which investors are falling over themselves to snatch up before the next wave of price-increases. Authentification committees have been created to preside over the procedures, many of whose Board members stand to profit from the very market they presume to protect.

And the auctions—the evening sales—these are the benchmarks—the source of the waves, the parade and interactive performance of the Emperors-- the blackjack tables reserved for million-dollar bets only.

I’d like to ask one of the ‘winners’—the one who forks over his millions and takes home a cartoon porcelain pig, or a gigantic purple reflective heart—the largest bauble they will ever see, something which could cost thousands of rupees if it were ordered at an Indian bazaar…and hangs it, with the distorted image of his home, his family, his own self---reflected in its cheap sheen…what kind of trophy is this? What kind of joke has been played?

You have to give Richard Prince credit for at least having the double-edged integrity to make his paintings as earnest as possible…hey, this is a joke that you are buying…a joke. A cheap comic-book nurse reproduction on a canvas, a tasteless one-liner that will hang in the new version of the drawing room. So who has ‘won’ here?

As my old mother used to say when she passed tastelessly-dressed or badly-mannered people on the street: “Do people no longer have mirrors?”

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