Painting Money: The Ugly Business of Contemporary Art

Six years ago the Brooklyn Museum showcased “Sen­sation,” an exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection of British shock-art. African artist Chris Ofili’s dung-encrusted collage of the Virgin Mary was deemed blasphe­mous, and religious groups picketed the museum. Sides were drawn along predictable lines as the skirmish spilled into the streets and the press. Artists, religious spokesmen, civil libertarians, journalists, museum directors, and First Amendment defenders jockeyed for position. Before long, Ofili, previously unknown and with no particular sales re­cord, went straight up the price charts at the Saatchi Gal­lery and at auction.

In the end, protest proved an unwitting accessory to the exhibition’s deliberate incitement to publicity, the lever that raises the market value of artists on display. Publicity is crucial to an art bubble that subsists on reportage and to collectors, individual and institutional, who would write art history ahead of time. The media-driven success of “Sensa­tion” ensured more of the same.

With the recent foofaraw over The Da Vinci Code, it is déjà vu all over again. This time, Christian umbrage is fanned by the craven responses of the press in the face of Islamic intimidation over Danish cartoons. But Islam has raised the bar high for groups protesting perceived insult. Anyone reluctant to murder artists, novelists, and film­makers needs to rethink useful distinctions between righ­teous protest and effectual counterweights.

Public demonstration against offensive art feels good. Someone has to do it, right? No, not when it facilitates re­alities that undermine Judeo-Christian culture and cultiva­tion itself. Effective resistance requires recognition of the larger enemy and its range. A wide swath of hostile terri­tory is what Jacques Barzun identified as “art-and-culture,” or simply prestige and money. Without understanding the workings of the secularist enterprise culture that dominates the museum world, no antidote to malodorous contempo­rary art can be constructed. New York’s Whitney Biennial, recently ended, is a blue-chip example of that culture.

Every two years the Whitney Museum of American Art stages a huge, lengthy exhibition that bills itself as “a sig­nature survey of contemporary American art.” A more ac­curate tag would identify the Biennial as the see-through section of a multi-national vending machine. It showcases work that a relatively small, self-circulating pool of managers, guarantors, and beneficiaries of the global art market has agreed to encourage and support.

This year’s episode was the 73rd in the museum’s his­tory of annuals and Biennials since it opened in 1931. Ger­trude Vanderbilt Whitney initiated the Biennial as an unjuried survey to introduce contemporary American art to an audience that still looked to European models. Some of the most important figures in 20th-century American art had their first exhibition opportunities at the Whitney, includ­ing Milton Avery, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keefe.

Whitney’s founding intentions were preserved while the museum remained a family affair. But by the time the Whitney revised its mission statement in 1993, family trustees had dwindled and the much-expanded board was dominated by investment bankers, corporate executives, real-estate developers, media executives, or their wives. Meantime, contemporary art had evolved into an interna­tional commodity, like currency or copper. Gradual shifts in the museum’s governing sensibilities reflected the changes.

Orchestrated publicity ensures the Biennial’s reception as an art event. But in fact, the exhibition cannot be com­prehended unless it is first seen as an investment tool, one that—couched in the rhetoric of connoisseurship—skewers public understanding of what constitutes contemporary art.

By definition, contemporary art is simply what one’s con­temporaries produce. But that is not what the phrase signi­fies: Contemporary art is a marketing category. Its products are recognized by the degree to which they conform to an anti- aesthetic, rooted in Dada and cemented in popular imagi­nation by advertising mogul and collector—dealer Charles Saatchi as “The Art of Our Time.”

Saatchi pioneered the positioning of contemporary art as a brand, or a collection of brands that—like cosmetics or designer labels—could be built on promotion. The Whit­ney board draws men—and their wives—who understand markets. (Trustee Veronique Pittman is the wife of Robert, former CEO of Time Warner, the world’s largest media con­glomerate.) They know how to create, sustain, and develop trademarks and have the means and incentive to do so on a global scale.

By now, the Biennial is largely an advance agent for deal­ers and collectors. It displays goods for a new breed of collec­tor who views art as an asset class—savvier and more fun than bonds or real-estate investment trusts. What the work on the wall—or floor or ceiling—looks like does not matter; neither meaning, beauty, nor lasting substance bears on the event.

At bottom, art that carries the label contemporary exists as a tax-advantaged trading opportunity (with museums the frequent recipients of donated purchases). Anti-art finds its purpose in the art of the deal. William Cash, writing in London’s Observer last December, was blunt: “Since the con­temporary art market, like the hedge fund market, is un­regulated, it has become something of a racket, an insider trader’s dream.”

Some of the most notable insiders are actually Whitney trustees. Chairman of the board Leonard Lauder, resident of New York and Lachen, Switzerland, appears annually on ArtNews’s list of the world’s top ten collectors of contempo­rary art. (Brother Ron, of New York and Baar, Switzerland, heads the Museum of Modern Art.) Peter Norton, board vice president, lists among the world’s top 200 collectors with one of the largest contemporary collections in the nation. On any day, items from his inventory are circulating to insti­tutions around the world, increasing in worth at each stop.

Trustee Gilbert Maurer, previously on the board of Norton’s West Palm Beach museum, is a director of the Wil­liam Randolph Hearst Foundation, which contributes to the Norton Museum and the Whitney. Joel Ehrenkranz, a lawyer for Estee Lauder Companies, Inc., and vice chair­man of the Whitney board, ranks among the crowning 200 collectors. He underwrote the title and position of one of this year’s curators.

A second vice chairman, Melva Bucksbaum, is married to trustee Raymond Learsy, an international commodities trader also among the 200. In 2000, Bucksbaum “and her family” initiated the $100,000 Bucksbaum Award, granted to an artist from the Biennial. Does the award, and its ac­companying solo show at the Whitney, go to anyone in husband Raymond’s collection or that of any other board member? Are trustee collectors advised in advance of the Bucksbaum laureate’s identity? No one asks; no one tells.

Donald Hess, whose wife, Susan, is on the board, and trustee Emily Fisher Landau are also members of the 200 club. An heiress with more art than she can house, Landau established her own non-profit, Saatchi-style kunsthalle for her collection. Open to the public, it reinforces the market value of her holdings while it passes as a beneficent act with the IRS. Trustee Steven Mnuchin, an investment banker and former partner at Goldman Sachs, is the son of Rob­ert Mnuchin, formerly head trader at Goldman Sachs and a partner as well. Dad Bob founded C & M Arts and became a prominent player in contemporary art. He is currently on the board of the Art Dealers Association of America, whose appraisal service is highly influential in establishing and maintaining prices. (Note: Mnuchin was president of ADAA at the time this article was written. His tenure ended just before press time.)

On it goes. It is difficult to determine the full extent of trustee investment in contemporary art. Secrecy is crucial in the auction houses, and few galleries reveal who buys what. Nor is there any way to know who might be invest­ed in fine art funds that include contemporary art in their portfolios. The most museum-users can do is take the word of Flora Biddle, granddaughter of Gertrude Whitney and a (now honorary) trustee. She told the New York Times in 1998: “It’s almost impossible to be a trustee and not have conflicts of interest. The board is full of collectors who are buying contemporary art.”

Trustee collectors have substantial advantages over non-trustee collectors. A self-shielding franchise, they talk to one another and can cultivate curators sympathetic to the artists in their collections. (Nothing keeps auction pric­es up like a public-spirited round of museum exhibitions for Artist X.) Trustees know ahead of time which artists will have their work exhibited or acquired by which museum. Chin-Tao Wu explains in Privatizing Culture, “If the trustee- collectors purchase for themselves the works by the same artists, the value or prestige of their collection will be auto­matically enhanced after the museum exhibition, whether or not any works from their collections are exhibited.”

Quick peeks at this year’s Biennial leaked three months ahead, just in time for art buyers to gamble at Art Basel Miami on the identity of Biennial choices. ArtForum maga­zine sponsored a panel at the New School to introduce this year’s presiding experts: Chrissie Isles, the Whitney’s Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator; and Philippe Vergne, deputy director of the Walker Art Center. Tip-sheets were broad­cast a month ahead to generate the excitement appropriate to a hot IPO. Hype came to full boil in a press preview days before the official opening, with critics flying in from every quarter. Lastly, there was the weighty catalog, parceled out according to the urgency of writers’ deadlines.

This year’s exhibition titled itself “Day for Night,” after Francois Truffaut’s 1973 bouquet to the movie industry. The event, like its namesake, was a valentine to the romance of itself—to its own obsessions, improvisational glooms, and, of course, politics. Truffaut’s film had used a special filter that permitted night scenes to be shot artificially in day­time. This was our cue to expect portentous doses of artifi­cially induced obscurity, dark hints of something rotten in the heartland.

What might that be? Isles seized the movie’s French title, La Nuit Americaine, to indict “the artifice of American culture.” We are caught, she intoned, in “a pre-enlighten­ment moment” preoccupied with “the irrational, the re­ligious, the dark, the erotic and the violent.” To ordinary ears, that sounds like an inarguable reference to Islamic terrorism, the ecstatic anti-Semitism of Hamas, carnage in Darfur, Iran’s lethal ambitions, and other mortal matters. But anyone familiar with art-world vernacular recognizes her wording—minus the erotic, a Biennial staple—as code for the Bush administration.

Few would disagree with Vergne’s assertion that we are experiencing “a shift in the accepted values that have formed the basis of 20th-century Western culture.” But he is pleased to greet these widening fault lines with aesthetic nullities that offer themselves as “strategies of cultural resis­tance.” Among art minds, desolation is a boast and badge of one’s disengagement from the ruin. More on this later.

For the first time, this year’s Biennial went global, di luting the Whitney’s founding mission and sweeping aside questions of public trust. Both curators—Isles, who is British, and the French-born Vergne—have worked in the United States for eight years. But their hearts are in those interna­tional marketing road shows so beloved by art bureaucrats around the globe. They shopped the usual capitals for Eu­ropean artists who live and work abroad, ex-pat Americans who reside in Europe and a few who just keep moving.

The New York Times this past November offered an apo­logia for the museum’s open-borders approach: “But as times and tastes change and art world boundaries dissolve, the 2006 Biennial’s two foreign-born curators have ventured across the Atlantic.” Such phrasing encouraged the pretense that the Biennial is a catwalk for the Zeitgeist, guided by conscientious forecasters as disinterested as the National Weather Service. Isles presented curatorial choice as an act of God—What can you do when the levees break?—rath­er than a decision made in concert with museum trustees. (Calvin Tomkins noted recently in the New Yorker that the Whitney board has been interfering with curatorial matters for 40 years.)

What did museum-goers actually see in the Biennial?

Emphasis was on installation art and its flickering cous­in, video. Mistaking new media for new sensibilities, the exhibition subordinated traditional genres (painting and sculpture) to redundant avant-gardisms. The Biennial, like institutions of contemporary art worldwide, stresses mat­ters other than merit. Thus, a Saatchi product and a past trustee of the Tate—to take just one example—displace liv­ing American artists producing luminous work that serves no agendas or orbits of influence.

Overall, there was less to look at than met the eye. Little was really intended to be seen. Much contemporary art is what the curators term “nonmaterially based works,” items that exist primarily to be assented to as signatures of an artistic identity. The entire miscellany was a boneyard of exorbitant individualism and bien pensant strutting.

Individual artworks mattered less than their artists’ shared taste for small treasons. Counterfeit subversions, bush-league rebellions, and plain junk jostled for attention alongside real destruction. The wrecking ball swung into view in the site-specific installation by a Zurich-born artist. Jagged holes, each about 15 feet in diameter, were cut out of two adjoining walls. One amputated slice from a wall stood to the side and supported crudely lettered panels with drip­ping inanities (“NO SEX, NO WAR, NO ME.”) by a different artist. But which one? Three contenders appeared nearby but when “HOLY S**T,” scrawled by the same hand, appeared in the museum staircase, authorship was up for grabs.

An artist/aphorist from Cologne dotted a magpie col­lection of black-painted scraps with rallying cries like: “F**k fake lifer In curatorial parlance, this represents “a relentless interrogation of the conditions in which art is produced and viewed.” Crude slogans abounded, failing even as agitprop. But frivolous curators, giddy with the joy of transgression, were deaf to the shortfall.

Wall labels carried everything but the sell-by date. Dis­continuity between the art on view and accompanying cura­torial coda highlights the peculiar strain of anti-intellectual­ism that infects art discourse. Pseudo-profundity bloats dic­tion, damaging rationality in proportion to its cleverness. At its simplest, it is marketing argot gone highbrow. More covertly, it signals a demagogic impulse that waffles the tes­timony of our own eyes and enhances ideological effects. Bravura displays of mock-scholarly static are what the cura­tors, writing in the catalog under the joint pseudonym Toni Burlap, call “epistemological activism.”

Demolitions of civility were everywhere. Jay Heikes’s compliment to the curator who selected him is instructive: “Philippe is incredible, way more down and dirty than your average museum curator.” Just so. Heikes’s entry was an in­coherent accumulation of black-and-white photocopies of himself and a parrot, all tacked to the wall and scribbled over. The raised middle finger of a disembodied hand punc­tuated the assortment. (One of Heikes’s entries is owned by Vergne’s employer, the Walker Art Center.) Ever since Jackson Pollock urinated in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace, artists have understood how to butter their bread.

Crisis of identity, a subtext of this year’s Biennial, turned out to be a crisis of candor. Museum director Adam Wein­berg expressed gratitude to Altria for 40 years of support;but Altria has hardly been around that long. Philip Mor­ris is the Biennial’s long-time sponsor. Under pressure from litigants, it changed its name and corporate logo for public relations purposes. So we have the comedy of both sponsor and curators using assumed names.

The catalog’s Kulturkampf rhetoric delivered a cargo of complaints, from global warming, AIDS, institutionalized racism, the brutality of old sanctions against Saddam, and lead paint poisoning children to the injustice of nameless evictions. In a Marxoid parody of false consciousness, it ab­hors “exploitation,” “isolation,” and that old bugbear, “alien­ation.” Ills pile up to include (absurd in this context) global- ism, the falsity of the art market, and “the corporatization of culture.” Every hazard of living is cited except—can you guess?—high-risk sex and smoking.

The Biennial intended a referendum on Bush; but the ground of authentic politics—discursive polemic—is not art’s metier. The anchoring lineaments of serious engage­ment (compilations of fact, political ideas, etc.) are ex­changed for the easy pantomimes of rage and disdain, whatever anarchic gesture sidesteps the obligations of clear thought.

Those who would bury us have already knocked at the door. But the Biennial heeded only Abu Ghraib. No image of the World Trade Towers dissolving intrudes upon righteous hatred for American “military malfeasance.” At the Biennial, no enemy existed except George Bush, the American mili­tary, and Christianity. The curators, a.k.a. Toni Burlap, quote approvingly from artists who instruct us that we inhabit “an architecture of repression embodied by religion, politics and morality.” The only culprit religion specified was “political Christianism.” Prudential silence prevailed on Islam.

The Mass was gleefully mocked in Robert Pruitt’s tacky altar Do This in Remembrance of Me. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ reappeared within a larger installation. J. P. Munro’s Vision of St. Eustace was a kitschy send-up of the crucifix. No artists risked analogous treatment for the Koran. A Hustler-style slide show of a naked woman was flanked by flashing im­ages of transvestites in various stages of costume or gender reassignment. A painting titled Orgy offered a badly drawn daisy-chain of rutting figures. A video artist filmed her own orgasm. Resurrected from the 1980s, one of Robert Mapple­thorpe’s sadomasochistic photographs hung near a Mike Kelley poster that called for prostitutes to be supplied “to every man, woman and child.” (Ask which trustees are in­vested in Mapplethorpe and Kelley.)

The brass ring for toxicity went to Down by Law , a rogue’s gallery that commemorated “outlaws in the eyes of Ameri­ka.” But perhaps not in the eyes of the installers, who are superior to “America’s obsession with order and its fascina­tion with disobedience.” Head shots of Mohammed Atta ap­peared among portraits of Patty Hearst, John Dillinger, Sad- dam Hussein, and some others, described as “dark heroes of the American dream.” Mass slaughter, torture, kidnapping, and anarchic killings were subsumed under the heading dis­obedience, a word we apply to throwing erasers in class. In this context, a pipe bomb was just another spit ball.

It was sometimes hard to distinguish one artist from the next. Art that carries the contemporary brand is the rootless by-product of artists without culture, characteristic of no­where and of no one. Inhabiting an ethical wasteland, it is as faceless as the Grand Inquisitor, demonic in its anonymity. Artists empty of culture cannot defend a culture or contrib­ute to one. They can only create products that rail against the obligations and limits culture implies.

The meaning of Jacques Maritain’s phrase, “a freedom consonant with the vocation of our nature,” is a concept lost on those who measure liberty solely by the requirements of their own will. Anarchic art mirrors the unbridled hubris of trustee/collectors for whom art provides one more market to dominate. The Biennial’s slant, tilted promiscuously to­ward art that “pushes the envelope,” reflects the sympathies of the trustees. It certainly enjoys their indulgence.

What are they thinking? Does their wealth absolve them from all rationality except market calculus? A pas­sel of artists impaired by excessive self-regard is inconse­quential. But the derangement of centimillionaire culture- shapers, who use the arts as their playground, is unnerving. And what else was the radical cynicism on view but a form of derangement?

In sum, the Biennial—proxy for the contemporary art es­tablishment—is less about art than about the uses to which art is put—and by whom. Ultimately, it’s about the trustees, their own exalted individualism, ambitions, and moral imagi­nations. Obvious in the exhibition’s parade of nihilisms is the culture-killing fact that assaulting sensibilities—and the values from which they derive—is the object of the game.

In a critical time and with the stakes so high, we need to take care that, in the Lupercalia of contemporary cul­ture, we do not die of dancing. Moves to penalize art that offends us are steps in a fatal choreodrama. Calls for sanc­tions, anathemas, and demonstrations like those enacted outside the Brooklyn Museum six years ago mimic the self- indulgence on show in the 2006 Biennial. More dangerous­ly, they rebound. By seeking redress for offenses to our feel­ings, we muzzle our own ability to confront specific social perils when confrontation offends other sensibilities.

Satisfaction gained from grandstanding against insult becomes a Pyrrhic victory when offenders profit from our action and decivilizing impulses are reinforced. Gratifica­tion turns to ash when opposing lobbies—Islamic, among them—cultivate outrage to censor us in turn.

Offensive artworks are diversionary targets. There are more significant ones: a treacherous culture of grievance, the fallacy that art’s purpose is to criticize life, and subsi­dies to the culture industry that offend against the public interest on fiscal, not religious, grounds. Serpent cunning plus a few good tax lawyers and policy experts with steady aim serve better than displays of indignation that ricochet. More can be gained by turning guns against the practices of contemporary art institutions, subsisting symbiotically with the art market, that subvert the intentions of laws governing donations, tax exemptions, and not-for-profit status.

The unsmiling face of Mohammed Atta, dotted around the walls of the Whitney Biennial, gazed at us like a malevo­lent icon. In just this way do our enemies watch the dance and wait.

  • Maureen Mullarkey

    Maureen Mullarkey is a painter and art critic for the New York Sun.

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