Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Art Minus Otherness = The Market

There's an interesting article in the Village Voice that questions the art market, and of course it makes me think of discussions I've consistently had with a close friend about the future of fiction. But before I get into that, look at these excerpts from the Voice article:

Is the art market making us stupid? Or are we making it stupid? Consider the lame-brained claim made by Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer, who recently effused 'The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart." This is exactly wrong. The market isn't "smart"; it's like a camera—so dumb it'll believe anything you put in front of it. Essentially, the art market is a self-replicating organism that, when it tracks one artist's work selling well, craves more work by the same artist. Although everyone says the market is "about quality," the market merely assigns values, fetishizes desire, charts hits, and creates ambience. These days the market is also too good to be true.

This sounds familiar to my ear. Case in point: as a friend of mine has often said, MBA-types have, over the past decade or more, taken over publishing houses and turned them into corporate machines. Now instead of many writers getting published with a decent advance, fewer writers are getting published with million-dollar advances. And in order to legitimize their often seemingly arbitrary choices on who to publish, publishing companies market the hell out of these few writers and essentially tell us what/who we need to read (so much for going into a privately owned bookstore and discovering something on one's own). Jonathan Safran Foer is a prime example of what "the market" can do, or not do, for a writer's career. His first book Everything is Illuminated came in five different color combinations and was marketed as one of newest and most innovative things to hit the world of fiction since . . . I don't know. The problem, though, is that what Foer did in that book was nothing that already established post-Holocaust or Second Generation writers (David Grossman, for example) hadn't been doing for at least the past decade. Sadly, it seems that even literary academics were bamboozled into thinking that Foer was the next big thing for post-Holocaust writing, or even that he was in fact the first post-Holocaust writer.

Here's the Village Voice again:

Yet we can't ignore the market or just lay back and drink the Kool-Aid. Maybe we should be asking questions such as: Are we sometimes liking things because we know the market likes them or are we really liking them? Do people really believe the kitschy pictures of naked girls with pussy cats by German painter Martin Eder are any good or are buyers simply jumping on the bandwagon because his prices have reached $500,000? When we learn that a newish painting by the second-rate latter-day Neo-Expressionist Marlene Dumas sold for over three million dollars, does it alter how we think of her work? Does it alter the ways magazine editors or curators think about it?

This gave me a great big laugh. And I'm left to wonder: how much Kool-Aid are we academics and so-called literary people drinking along with the average American consumer of books?


Anonymous said...

I found Everything Is Illuminated to be unpleasant and virtually impossible to get through.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see this post...

I've been feeling something similar about the local bands that play around here. Sometimes I find myself thinking, "Are we just tolerating this stuff, or do we really appreciate it?" And, reading this post, I started to wonder if anything is not Kool-Aid? And, if so, how we determine that? It seems that we would need to do that before asking if we are buying into the market pushing Kool-Aid.

Monica said...


You may have a good point here. My fear is that it may be virtually impossible to differentiate between what we really like or appreciate because it has some kind of merit (or maybe no "merit" -- maybe we just like it because we like it) and what we enjoy simply because everyone else in our "world of mattering" is enjoying it or finding it useful in some way. Lately I've tried to make this distinction in my own life by really thinking about whether I enjoy something -- a band, for instance, or a piece of artwork -- or whether I simply appreciate it.