The Art Market and Its Discontents

I’d wager that a considerable number of the general population would describe most modern art as esoteric, derivative, annoying, purposeless or all of the above. Without trying to engage with any of those accusations, though, one can argue fairly easily that modern art creates a fairly safe investment option for the super-wealthy. In addition to the exciting social aspect of globe-trotting through various annual art festivals, artwork is easy to store, can be bought with relative anonymity and exists in a nebulous world of valuation that lets tax accounting compete with the merchandise for creativity.

The rise of “freeports” is illustrative of this phenomenon. These large storage spaces connected to airports exist ostensibly for inventory in transit but instead house priceless treasures with limited taxes. Freeports are by definition opaque and secretive, but The Economist estimates their contents could be valued at “hundreds of billions of dollars, and rising.” All of that capital is accumulating from a simple system: validation by experts, distribution by gallerists and auction houses and demand from wealthy buyers. According to premiere gallerist David Zwirner, “[n]obody’s selling expensive stuff like we do with the frequency we do[.]” In this bleak, economic portrait of the art world, the role of forgers becomes more complex. They don’t just humiliate aesthetes, but disrupt a market and wreak havoc on value. Yet they aren’t the ultimate undoing of the art market. Rather, they are an inevitable outgrowth of the commercialization of art. Forgers might be bandits, but the real threat to the art market is the vandal. So, in the present atmosphere of mild to severe antipathy towards the super-rich, is either heroic?

Spectators might assume that wealthy art-buyers are being duped by hacks and the institutions that prop them up, but they can sneer from the sidelines all they want. Nothing scathes the art-buyer as long as their property maintains its value. Despite “resistance to the market” being a “rhetorical staple of avant-garde art for half a century,” as Ben Lerner put it in his recent piece in Harper’s, the possibility of discussing art without commercialization is well-nigh impossible. It might be cynical to view the art market as an institution that bolsters value in convenient investment vehicles for the super-wealthy, but even if this is an exaggeration, it’s not too hard to argue it, and it’s much harder to find an activity in the art world that doesn’t play into it.

That being said, the use of art to elevate a wealthy patron is pretty much as old as civilization. It would be beyond naive to charge that the wealthy have suddenly ruined art when so many of those canonical works we study earnestly today are the product of the same transmogrification of capital into cultural power. However, the present-day development of the wealthy acquiring art does have a modern twist: there is an ambivalence as to the existence of the art piece after its purchase. Recall the rising use of “freeports.” If the super-wealthy can (and do) whisk their purchases directly via private jet and lock it up in storage for years on end, then the function of the art piece is reduced to the rush of its purchase and the monetary value embedded in its ownership. Art’s role as expression, communication or even simply provocation are all extraneous and have been duly excised.

This is all a pretty sweet deal but for the inevitable product of the art market and the bête noire of the collector: art forgery. However, given the context here of art functioning as an investment tool for the super-wealthy, does that make art forgers folk heroes? Would-be Robin Hoods? Or is passing off some hack’s geometric row of multicolored dots as a genuine Hirst a morally offensive act of fraud?

There is no need to question that art forgery can be the undoing of business and a great financial strain on the art world. Knoedler & Company was one of the oldest commercial art galleries in the United States when it folded in 2011 after selling $80 million worth of forgeries, including ersatz Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko. A term that these sorts of events usually incite is not just fraud but humiliation. It springs up everywhere. This particular fiasco was termed “an expensive and embarrassing ride” by one collector. In an earlier era, the renowned forger, Elmyr de Hory, gleefully paraded around a party reading an article calling the validation of his fakes “a profound embarrassment” to the entire art world. It is not just the loss of money that stings, but the suggestion that the entire institution is a charade.

Said humiliation is explored at length in Orson Welles’s 1973 video-essay “F for Fake,” but Welles’s film focuses on presenting the forger as the natural enemy to the expert. In his narrative, the forger starts out as an ‘Earnest Young Artist’ who becomes a ‘Starving Artist’ before pawning off a couple fakes for some desperately needed cash. Seeing how easy it is to distribute false treasures into the art world gives them a perversely pleasurable sense of revenge for having had their own “genuine” work rejected. But does the humiliation being meted out to the experts extend to the buyer? Why should it? If this process is reduced to a purely financial model, then the buyer is victimized by the institutionalized rejection of fakes, not by the forgers themselves. The collector can only be injured by the revelation that the purchase of a Rothko screen was recently painted by a Chinese immigrant in Queens. Without that nasty bit of information, they’d have all the glory of owning the product of a legendary artist and a nice spot to park $10 million.

But to return to the question of whether the art forgers are some convoluted iteration of Robin Hood, one has to only ask who is fooling whom and who wins. Art forgers apparently don’t make all that much. The culprit behind the Knoedler & Company meltdown only got a couple thousand dollars per piece while, again, the whole loot went for slightly over $80 million. Unlike Welles’s romantic conception of the art forger, here the painter was exploited by dealers and gallerists. Forgery seems, if anything, to be one more corruption of a corrupt system.

So although forgery can be construed on one level as an attack on the use of art as an investment practice, and this might please bystanders who feel especially hostile to the super-wealthy, not much else is accomplished. The follow-through of your typical Robin Hood or Pretty Boy Floyd was that they gave back to the little people after taking down the powerful and wealthy. Although forgeries can cause a financial mess, the uncertainty of veracity in art just ends up strengthening its institutionalized appreciation. Sussing out forgeries creates a whole new roster of experts required to test the veracity of an art piece. Back in Welles’s time, the expert would examine brush-strokes to identify (or more likely, fail to identify) a real Modigliani. Today, we have experts analyzing the molecular structure of pigmentation and taking x-ray images of canvases. If anything, forgery gives new strength to expertise, reinforcing the supremacy of the expert arbiter of artwork and perpetuating all the effects that logically follow.

Ben Lerner, whose piece was alluded to earlier, presents the only compelling possibility for a role in the art world that doesn’t ultimately function as another cog in the financial machine. Lerner notes that even art that presents itself as “attacks on profit” becomes a source of profit precisely because they lend the dealers and collectors “an aura of purity and authenticity.” The one form of destruction that cannot be monetized is vandalism. Or perhaps, as Lerner suggests, art vandalism is called vandalism (and not “yellowism” or a “urinal happening”) for the sole reason that it cannot be monetized.

Lerner presents the vandal as a figure that in some way echoes Welles’s portrait of the forger. Both are, at bottom, excessively affected and obsessed with art. After all, when you think about it, even the deranged vandal who simply slashes at a canvas (without the pretense of being part of an avant-garde art movement) is engaging passionately with the art object. However, where the archetypical forger turns bitter and snipes away at the art world, the vandal attacks it in the deepest way possible. As Lerner puts it, “he dramatically acts on what we [the artist, art love and art institution] say but do not mean,” thus revealing the dishonesty of those who profess to engage with art or hate its commercialization but do not act. While Lerner examines the porous barrier between artist and vandal in aesthetic terms, here we are only concerned with economics. And in that respect, the disparity could not be clearer. One creates capital; the other destroys it. Yet that means that the only answer to get out of the commodification trap is to effectively destroy art. So which do you prefer: art from which the only value consistently mined is its economic worth, or burning the whole thing down?