Illinois artist Conrad Bakker, whose art has a habit of raising uncomfortable questions about price and value in the art world, popped round this afternoon on a visit to New York. Conrad makes all his own work – he doesn’t outsource anything or have assistants – and he’s pretty much in charge of selling it, too: while he does exhibit in galleries, he doesn’t have a gallery, and once a show is over he’s back on his own. If you buy one of Conrad’s works, then, there’s a good chance you’ll buy it directly from him, and you’ll know that it was very much he who made it.
The contrast with the world’s biggest A-list art stars could barely be greater. And if you think of the artists who are famous for having assistants make their art for them, starting with Andy Warhol and moving on through the likes of Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, there’s no indication that taking away the artist’s touch has any kind of negative effect on the value of the art. If anything, the opposite seems to be true.
Part of the reason is that these artists have turned themselves into businesses. Both artists and collectors have at this point embraced the idea that there’s nothing wrong with artists being motivated by money, and indeed they’ve created something of a virtuous cycle: an artist creates the kind of art that rich collectors want, which fuels demand for that artist, which drives up his prices, which makes him even more desirable, and so on. Eventually, collectors, especially hedge-fund managers, start buying an artist like they might a momentum stock: they place faith in the management of the company to continue to maximize shareholder value. And in doing so, of course, they only drive prices higher.
While gallerists have always had commercial ambitions, now artists too are unabashed about it: Hirst has a full-time business manager, Frank Dunphy, while Murakami is in many ways more businessman than artist. Here’s Mia Fineman:
"Business art is the step that comes after art," Warhol wrote in 1975. "I started as a commercial artist and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art." Warhol never truly fulfilled this ambition during his lifetime. Most of his business ventures lost money, and the widespread licensing of his images came only after his death. Now, with Murakami, the age of business art has arrived. Leaving behind the old-fashioned idea of art as an autonomous form of individual expression, Murakami has fashioned himself as a brand, a trademark, and a corporate identity.
The result of this is that the most expensive contemporary artists are the most branded and immediately visible contemporary artists. You know a Hirst when you see one, or a Murakami, or a Serra, or a Koons. The normal mode of looking at art is reversed: you don’t think "I like that, I wonder who the artist is" but rather "Oh, there’s a Koons, I wonder if I’ll like it".
One can’t help but suspect that these brands might suffer enormously when the art market crashes, just because their values are supported more by branding than by aesthetic fundamentals. A lot has been written about the Jeff Koons – Old Master arbitrage, a trade which has been embraced most visibly by Koons himself, buying up spectacular old paintings for a fraction of what his fresh-out-of-the-factory sculptures sell for. The problem of course is that in order to sell Koons works, it helps very much to be Koons. The rest of us can just watch from the sidelines as the momentum traders continue to get richer. Which is generally what momentum traders do, until they don’t.