Is there a heaven… is there a hell? Paul Tibbet, pilot of the plane that dropped the Hiroshima atomic bomb, died today at the age of 92. Does he now know the answer to the ultimate question regarding afterlife? Does it really matter? I really like the following article, because it drops the pretensions of afterlife and capitalistic intentions and asks the very basic question – in the single opportunity at the life that you've been offered, do you want to be an artist or citizen? - DN
“If you want to be an icon of virtue, this is the moment because you’ll stand out”
Dave Hickey 29.10.07 Issue 185
The question of how to sell without selling out is especially relevant in the contemporary art world and there are few people better qualified to grapple with this thorny topic than Dave Hickey.Not only is he Professor of English at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Hickey is also one of America’s best known art and cultural critics, admired for his aversion to academicism and his robust analysis of the effects on art of the rough and tumble of the free market.Last month he delivered a keynote speech at Frieze: “Schoolyard art: playing fair without the referee.” Here we present an edited transcript.
The title of this talk comes from a legend about the great basketball player Julius Irving, Dr J, who was famous even in his schoolyard days; he wanted to be a professional player so much that he always played by the rules even on the school yard. He would call fouls on himself. Any of you who have been around the art world for the last few years will realise the aptness of this comparison because whatever rules there may have been, no longer apply.
There are people out there who like art more than money. The only bad thing is that there are a lot of artists who like money more than art. This is a problem but consider the benefits. There has never been a better chance to draw attention to oneself by behaving honourably and honestly and meticulously. If you want to be an icon of virtue, this is the moment because you’ll stand out.If you behave well, if you behave correctly, if you make art that will still matter in 200 years, all you can lose is money.
Did anyone get into the art world to make money? I got into it for sex and drugs but not for money. Why is everyone worrying about money? What are you going to do if you get a lot of money? Are you going to buy a boat? Are you going to buy an apartment in Paris? Jesus, stop it! Unless you have an incredible drug habit, I don’t really see any reason to have money at all.I really don’t care about money, as my wife will tell you. I do care about being right.
My rule is Leo Castelli’s rule and a lot of what I’m telling you today comes from Leo.Leo said: “You can’t be right all the time but you can never be wrong.” If you go by that rule, you’re going to be ok.Leo’s idea of being wrong was to sell something for too much money.
The example he gave was a painter named Jennifer Bartlett, who was represented by Paula Cooper Gallery. Jennifer had a little bubble moment, she began selling her pictures in the high six figures—they really deserved to be sold in the low twos. So I asked Leo what was wrong with that and he said: “It hurts Carl Andre’s prices.” Which is to say, the prices of everybody’s work are compromised by selling art for too much money. For a dealer, this is virtually impossible to avoid these days.
My friend Bob Shapazian, who was director of the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, quit. And why did he quit? He said: “I’m not an art dealer anymore. I sit around, a crate comes in, I see who the crate’s from, I go to the waiting list, I make up this outrageous fucking number and send it out. That’s not being an art dealer. I am creating value but it is not real value.”What we have here is a strange moment which is the return of primary practice.In the 80s and 90s, you had one of the biggest hypocritical moments in the history of art. You would walk into a gallery and in the front room would be the work of somebody called something like Hernando which was completely composed of confetti and dog turds. There would be a serious essay about confetti and dog turds—their interchangeability, their social relevance, the way they relate to late capitalism. And then, if you could get into the back room with your shoes clean, you would buy the Donald Judd that was back there.
We went through two decades of what was mostly a secondary market in which the front room was just a place to put up installation art with popcorn machines, that nobody had even the faintest interest in selling, as a loss leader to lure people into the back room to buy the Donald Judd and the Claes Oldenburg.
With the collapse of this moment, a lot of things happened. The public funding disappeared. With public funding gone, the power of the museum receded. Kunsthalles closed like little violets across the country. At the same time we have seen the development of a business world which benefits from a condition of borderline hyperliquidity.
I was talking to the president of the Venetian Resort hotel and casino in Las Vegas. He said: “You wouldn’t believe it. We are bringing money home by the bucketful, we bring bucket after bucket of money. We are running out of buckets.” When you run out of buckets, when you run out of places to put your money, that’s hyperliquidity. And I needn’t tell you that hyperliquidity is good for the art world because if you really want to piss away some money, the art world is the place to do it. There is so much money out there at the moment it just makes you cry. And it’s harder and harder to get hold of it unless you’re selling art.
So we have a bubble. Art bubbles are great. Art bubbles suck money into the art world. Who gets hurt in an art bubble? Greedy artists; stupid collectors. Who else? Nobody with their wits about them gets hurt in an art bubble.Also institutions today have the power of sucking all the money available in the community into the museum.
I said to a friend of mine who runs a museum on the West Coast: “You’ve had 17 installation art shows, are you ever going to show any objects again?” He said: “If I show objects the people on my board just buy them, and then they don’t give me the money.”
What has changed is the whole format of the art world as it existed before 1970: you had artists who worked in their studios; they took their work to galleries; the art galleries sold this work to members of the community. When a community had purchased a critical mass of this work it was presumed that it had some aspect of public virtue and you had to show it in a museum. So what we’re dealing with for most of the 20th century is the transformation of objects of private delectation into icons of public significance.
This is what happened when I was growing up in Fort Worth. There was a moment, and I’m ashamed to admit it, in which every mid-century modern dining room in Fort Worth had a Maurice Lewis on the wall. So, quite naturally, the museum had a Maurice Lewis show because it presumed you could look at a Maurice Lewis and figure out something about Fort Worth—which you could but you didn’t want to know it. And the presumption is: We don’t have style development anymore because history is over.
I date the end of history to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. When they shot JFK everybody said “Oh God, it’s so terrible it’s the end of the world.” When they shot Bobby, everybody said: “Oh no, not again.” And the end of history is pretty much marked by: “Oh no, not again.” The problem is that even though history may be over—time keeps on going.
I am bored with giant cibachrome photographs of three Germans standing behind a mailbox. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means I’m fucking bored with it.This is the crisis that happened, with the death of installation art, with the enormous escalation of available capital, with the collapse of institutional authority; all this created the world that we live in today and the art fair is the embodiment of it.
Another appropriate analogy: a couple of years ago I was at one of those hotel art fairs, where you walk down the hall and every door is open and there are little sculptures sitting on the bedspreads and light works stuck up on the walls. I was walking through one of these, and I was thinking it was kind of strange, it was like Amsterdam without the prostitutes. You’re walking down the hall and looking into all of these rooms with all of these things. Then I went home that night and turned on the television. This was two days after Americans had entered Baghdad and overthrown Saddam Hussein. There’s a guy with a camera, walking down the hall of the Baghdad Hilton and every door is open. In here you can buy Xerox machines, in here you can buy ancient Sumerian artefacts, in here you can buy everybody’s medical records in Iraq. Every room was full of stolen shit.
And the analogy between that little moment in the hotel and the little moment in Baghdad put a special spin on the art fair phenomenon for me, the idea of absolute, raw, rapacious capitalism.I have no problem with it, I love it when people buy art. When I walk through Frieze looking at everything, I’m saying to myself, “Does this meet my standards?” My standards for any gathering of art are: is 99% of this bullshit? Yes. But, is 1% of it interesting? Yes.That’s about your percentages for anything in the world. Eventually some dealer will think, “I’ve got this great idea. I’m only going to show art I like.” Everybody else will go, “Oh, no, don’t do that. You’re fucking kidding.