ORLANDO WHITFIELD ON HOW NO ONE UNDERSTANDS THE ART WORLD.
I came of age as an art dealer in the boom years for art fairs. The contemporary art world had always been international, a realm of indistinguishable, tax-haven accents and non-commercial flights, but the advent of art fairs in the early 2000s turned the market’s stately merry-go-round into an unstable whirligig, spinning ever faster.
When I started going to art fairs around 2008, I had no notion of how vital they would become to the contemporary art market and in turn to my own life. Within a few years, I began to delineate my mental calendar according to Frieze New York (May) and Frieze London (October). I travelled to countries and cities I would never otherwise have visited and when I arrived, I was always convinced that the whole of my flight must also be in town for the same reason as me. This was almost certainly never true, though a dealer friend recently told me of the collective groan that sounded when a delay was announced on an early morning flight BA from London to Switzerland on the first day of Art Basel: they would all miss the opening of the fair.
Despite readily available evidence to the contrary, I passed many years labouring under the misapprehension that normal people – civilians – had a basic level of interest in and knowledge of the art world. I thought people cared when a new world record was set (yet again) for the highest price achieved at auction by a living artist; that people understood the difference between the primary and secondary markets; and that people know Banksy was no more of an artist than Donald Trump is a politician. I assumed not only that art mattered to people, but that the goings on of the industry – there, I said it – that surrounds art making and art selling and art appreciating was of interest to the wider public as well. I was wrong.
I worked in and around London’s contemporary art world for over a decade and learned two things: first, very few people ever go art galleries, and those who do are generally the same array of die-hards hoovering up the free beer at openings. Second, people’s understanding of what galleries do is often inaccurate. The most frequent question I was asked was: “Ah, you have a gallery. Is it mostly your own art that you show there?” I was always puzzled by these conversations, but it wasn’t until I stopped working in the art world and spent the ensuing three years writing a book about it that I asked myself why.
Television is partly to blame. In show after show, contemporary art has become a lazily inserted on-screen signifier for extreme wealth. TV writers have needed something to separate the mere haves from the have-yachts. Onscreen, art collecting is used to signify urbanity and worldly sophistication. Mainly, however, it is synonymous with money.
The contemporary art world may seem as if it’s about money and glamour and art but really it’s about access, the kind that mere money can’t buy. It’s an arena of engorged snobbery and outsized egos. This much is understood by Jesse Armstrong in Succession (2018), when a coked-up Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) attempts to invest in an art fund called Dust run by two vertiginously hip young women. Like almost everyone who’s ever bought, framed and hung a print in their home, Kendall assumes that the art market is a wickedly easy arena in which to turn a buck: “Basically, you buy a painting from some art student in a basement, jack up the price, sell it to some Morgan Stanley sex pest, and you, me, and the student all get rich. Right? … I’m the asshole who can be your Warhol.”
The women of Dust, of course, see straight through his dish-plate pupils and deep into his corporate lack-of-a-soul. They reject his overtures, explain they are “interested in increasing the reach of young artists… and the democratisation of art.” Even princeling Kendall, with all his daddy’s billions, is rejected by the gravitational snobbery of the art world. Real wealth, after all, isn’t quantified in actual money; it’s the ability to refuse more money.
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In the Before Times – before ‘contemporary art’ became a distinct category not just in marketing terms but also as a new asset class promising fast returns – the fashion world was where the rich and frivolous did their partying. From the YBAs onwards, however, the social side of the art world has ensured a constant supply of fresh capital into the market. It became the reason to take your boat to Hydra in the summer or Miami in December; the reason you ski in St Moritz and visit London in October. But you won’t keep getting invited unless you keep buying and a collector is only as good as their last acquisition. And you’ll only keep buying if you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.
I’m aware that I sound cynical – and with good reason, I am – but let me explain. Art matters, of course it does, but all art can’t matter in the way that the art world insists upon as its raison d’être. Especially for those selling it – but also, obviously, for those buying it – the market necessitates a willing suspension of common sense. For years, Rob Pruitt’s glittery panda paintings were hot property and people climbed over each other to buy Dan Colen’s bubble gum paintings (literally gum stuck onto blank canvases) for high-six-figures. This tulipomaniacal behaviour was not rational; it wasn’t even funny.
The art world isn’t meant to make sense. It’s not even meant to be fun. And sometimes it’s there to be endured. Take, for example, the moment of hysterical terror when a schoolboy catches a funny friend’s eye during a minute’s silence. Now crossbreed that with the sensation of catching your parents having sex in the kitchen and you will still not come close to the feeling of being in the audience for a bad work of performance art. This is, I am envious to say, something that few civilians have experienced, but in Paolo Sorrentino’s film La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), we see a parody of this which comes brilliantly close to accuracy.
We are in a garden, un giardino. Nearby, a woman in a negligee and wearing a cast on her leg writhes about on a chaise longue as she sings along to tepid house music. Before long, the camera cuts to a young girl, a child of about ten. Around her and around a wide rectangular expanse of white canvas are assembled an array of Roman aristocracy and haute-coutured art lovers. The girl picks up cans of paint, one after another, and in a flailing fit of tantrum, hurls it onto the canvas until she and it are an indiscernible swampy mess. Po-faced, the aristos and Serious Art People stand around, gazing earnestly at what they are sure must be a meaningful moment as the pre-pubescent child rages indiscriminately in the paint. This is art as self-improvement, like a green juice or a deep-tissue massage; it’s not fun, but you’re sure it’s doing you good, improving you somehow. Because frankly, why else would you sit through it?
This sending up of performance art may seem the stuff of fantasy, as it does in The Square (2017) when a hulking, shirtless man imitates an ape in the midst of a museum’s gala dinner, but it hits far closer to home than many viewers would imagine. (To name names here would be cruel, but I assure you I have ground my teeth to a paste standing – for some reason you always have to stand – in the audience of such performances.) And here we come to the crux of the matter: because the art world is so insular, so you-can’t-sit-here cool, the attempts by filmmakers and showrunners and script writers to depict the art world by means of imitation almost always fall flat. Knowingly or not, the only way that the contemporary art world can be depicted with any degree of accuracy is by means of parody.
The scene that made me realise this for the first time came from an unlikely source: Beverly Hills Cop. In the 1993 film, Los Angeles Police Department detective Axel Foley (played with sumptuous comedic ease by Eddie Murphy in his pre-fat-suit heyday) visits an art gallery in order to see Jenny Summers, an old flame. Foley briefly examines the gallery installation – a nightmarish array of Koons-manqué mannequins, severed heads on rotating plates and, in the background, a rip-off of a Nam June Paik video tower – and soon starts to chortle softly to himself. He is approached by Serge (Bronson Pinchot), a diminutive art dealer with an indistinct European accent who seems to be simultaneously summoned and affronted by Foley’s laughter.
“How you are doing today?” he asks with coquettish aplomb.
“Hi,” Foley replies, clearly still reeling from his encounter with the installation.
“I’m fine, my name is Serge and how can I help you?”
When Foley tells Serge who he’s there to see, the dealer looks him quickly up and down, saying mock-apologetically, “She’s very busy today. … And what it’s pertaining?”
After a gallery assistant is called for and curtly dispatched to look for Foley’s ex, Serge goes in for the kill: “I see you look at this piece,” he says leadingly.
“Yeah, I was wondering,” Foley asks, “how much something like this went for.”
“130,000 dollars,” comes the reply.
“Get the fuck out of here!”
“Noooo I cannot,” Serge wails, “I cannot. It’s serious because it’s very important piece.”
“Have you ever sold one of these?”
“I sold it yesterday to a collector,” Serge snaps back seriously before Foley is rescued by the appearance of the woman he’d come to see.
This may seem like the purest comedy, a farce concocted by someone with only the most risible notion of art galleries, but Serge’s softly dealt solecisms and his conviction of the installation’s importance strike a truer chord than almost any other depiction of the art world I have ever encountered. It perfectly captures the art world’s unencumbered vanity and its self-regard. I assume that the accuracy was unintended, but it might just be the best cinematic mistake ever made.
Geoff Dyer really gets to the root of the matter in his novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Vintage, 2009). I read it around the time I had just started working in the art world. I knew it was meant to be funny (and it is), but I was struck too by how Dyer perfectly skewered the art world’s particular, peculiar absurdity. Journalist Jeff Altman is sent to Venice to write about the Venice Biennale but he does very little art-ing and instead gets smashed on free Bellinis, eats as many free arancini as he can and has a lot of sex with Laura, an art dealer from Los Angeles. On a vaporetto on his way to the Guggenheim Collection, he has a chance encounter: As Jeff makes his way to the front of the boat, he passes Richard Wentworth, wearing a Panama hat and a striped blue shirt, looking like he is starring in a TV adaptation of a novel about an artist who was also one of the Cambridge spies.
“Thought for the week,” Wentworth says as Jeff squeezes by. “Art world, music business. What does that tell us?”
To my mind, it tells us just about all we need to know.
Orlando Whitfield is a failed art dealer. He has written for the Sunday Times, the Paris Review and the White Review. His art world memoir, All That Glitters: A Story of Friendship, Fraud and Fine Art, will be published by Profile Books in May 2024.