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Mar 11, 2009

The art bubble has burst. Artists are going to have to take a new look at their work, their role and their society. What will they see?

By David A. Ross

Chris Burden’s latest show should have opened by now. The sculptor famous for having himself shot as a form of Vietnam-era protest, Burden created his latest exhibit, One Ton One Kilo, to comment on the relative intrinsic values of water, oxygen and other commodities. One of them was gold, and for the show he had bought a hundred kilos of it in bars of bullion.
Unfortunately, his gallery purchased it for him through the now bankrupt and discredited Stanford Financial. Before Burden’s show could open, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission froze the gold on behalf of investors in Stanford’s alleged Ponzi scheme. 
The postponement of Burden’s show, one of the lesser casualties of the Stanford scandal, is a good metaphor for the end of the spree that has been the art market of the 21st century.
With the exception of highly hyped celebrity sales like the recent Yves St. Laurent auction at Christie’s in Paris, the art market seems nearly lifeless. As one prominent high-end secondary-market art dealer said last week, “anyone who tells you they are doing real business these days is simply lying.”
“A bubble within a bubble.” That’s how the eminent New York artist and essayist Martha Rosler describes an art world that had come to be the very model of wretched excess. In the world before the bust, new art school graduates were selling paintings for close to half a million dollars, and even younger student artists were getting one-person shows at prestigious New York, London and Berlin galleries before they even graduated.
In a perverse sort of way, it seemed the art world was indeed an enchanted place, where artists could get as rich as rock stars.  In just the past decade, the number of galleries in the Chelsea district of New York City more than doubled. Beijing’s art enclave, a neighborhood known as 798, had exactly no galleries in 2001. By last fall, there were more than 300.
Now half of those are either closed or "on hiatus.” Every day brings more news of gallery closings in New York, London, Berlin and Los Angeles.
Few artists embrace the popular myth that it is the bohemian creator starving in a cold-water flat who creates the best and purest work. But in interviews with some of America’s foremost artists (both veteran eminences and those up and coming), responses to the sudden collapse of the art market were distinctly mixed.
Photographer, filmmaker and critical theorist Allan Sekula was suspicious about the boom all along, particularly seen from his perspective as a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts. “I’ve seen it be destructive to students,” he says. “I’ve seen some students get picked up too early.” 
Burden remembers feeling almost insulted when a buyer saw a work of his on a spin through his gallery and snapped it up—for $100,000—on the spot. “So, I’m your little red sports car,” he says to the buyer.
Edgar Arceneaux, a mid-career Los Angeles-based artist-activist, believes the big art fairs, like New York’s recent Armory Show, had begun to encourage work that was made-to-measure. “You need to describe [the work] for someone who is only going to walk past it in a matter of seconds…‘a little bit of Gursky, a little bit of Burden’…so you wound up producing work specifically for the context of the fair. I saw that was happening to me.”
In that case, Arceneaux might be happy to know that one of the founders of the Armory Show, a dealer who no longer even participates in the fair as an exhibitor, told FLYP that “the era of the art fair is over.”
For senior artists like Alex Katz, the art bust is a non-event. “Basically I don’t give a damn,” he says. “I’m painting seven days a week. It’s back to how I was as a kid, very fugitive and all that.” Since Katz has already made a fortune, however, he doesn’t have to worry about paying the rent.  
But even young artists like Shana Lutker have mixed feelings about the change. She worries more for over-extended friends than for herself. “I’m operating on a level I can maintain,” she says, and she is hopeful for what the market change could mean for art—her own and in general.
“I think being 30 and being in an economic meltdown could be positive…because the pressure of the market, of the galleries, will lessen…and the collectors have become really important. If some of their importance is diminished, that’s not the worst thing.”
New York-based sculptor Tom Sachs agrees. “The worst thing that could happen is that you could get famous or recognized or rewarded for something that you don’t love to do, because then you kind of get stuck doing it. In a time where there’s no money, if you actually love what you do, you probably have more time doing it.”
Imagining how American artists will respond aesthetically to the current crisis is tempting but probably futile. Some artists may well redirect their work toward a deeper understanding of the social and economic landscape that connects all of us, while some will become further committed to the idea that art must remain fully apart from the travails of daily life. Art for art’s sake, as the saying goes.
Still, certain stubborn facts about art and artists will resist change, however dramatic.
One is that the best artists make art because it is what they do, what they must do, not because they are driven by market demands.
Another is that they will act, as they have always acted, as the first responders to cultural crisis. At every major historical economic turning point—from the early Modernist artists whose work emerged from the Paris communes of the 1880s to those whose work was central to the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Great Depression—artists have shown enormous creativity in response to adversity.
Finally, as art stands its ground in the face of all manner of insult, the art market will once more show itself to be a Darwinian beast. It will adapt and survive, and thereby will provide the sturdiest and best of artists a way to do what they need to do—survive to make art another day. 
“A lot of this is dependent on us as people,” says Tom Sachs, who advises his fellow artists “to stand up for what you believe is right, and the belief in yourself that you can do a great thing and they will come, because that is sort of what we do best.”


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i have been noticing an interesting trend. many artists are responding to the credit crises and housing bubble burst. There is an interesting flickr group documenting art about economy. http://www.flickr.com/groups/stimulus2008/ and this artist that has been stickering nyc with witty slogans http://www.flickr.com/photos/enjoybanking

iana moskowitz
Apr 21, 2009

In the world before the bust, new art school graduates sold paintings for close to half a million dollars. Now, things are different. Watch FLYP’s video from inside of the Armory Show featuring interviews with buyers and collectors.
“When I taught at UCLA, graduate students…were doing a lot better than we were:” Go inside artist Chris Burden’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
“I came from a fugitive generation. I didn’t give a damn what the government did:” Go inside artist Alex Katz’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
“For years, my studio was a notebook. That’s all I had. A notebook and a Swiss Army knife:” Go inside artist Tom Sachs’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
“What was clear to me was that if I didn’t [become an artist], I wasn’t able to do anything else:” Go inside artist Edgar Arceneaux’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
“The bubble was phantasmic…It’s hard to say what the system will tolerate, how it will amuse itself:” Go inside artist Allan Sekula’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
“The art world right now is in shock. People really couldn’t believe this was going to happen:” Go inside artist Shana Lutker’s studio to watch a video interview and see a slideshow of his work.
"Younger artists are caught up in a strange fantasy of what life as an artist is:" Go inside the studios of Martha Rosler, Kim Jones and Laurie Simmons to see slideshows of their work.
The Artists Speak: Watch FLYP Media’s video interview at the Armory Show with artists on the state of the art market.

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