Numbers tell the story. In 1976, Michael Milken was estimated to have earned $5 million at Drexel Burnham Lambert. By December of 2007, hundreds of times as many people were bringing home staggering multiples of that amount every year. This radical redistribution of wealth created the illusion of “high art prices.” In fact, art prices have fallen as a percentage of the buyer’s disposable income, so art is statistically less important to the people who buy it. The question of how good the art is and how long it will last is of much less consequence.
So think of the art world as a beach and money as the surf. Waves roll in but they always suck back out, leaving a few masterpieces, taking some beach with them. When a really gnarly monster rolls in, the best we can hope is that it will leave some beach behind and a few treasures in the sand, along with the wreckage and the bodies—because the wave will suck away. And when it does, as it is doing right now, the whales will either hold or dump. If they hold, art will remain a stable-valued, low-liquid commodity. If the whales dump at cut-rate prices, the art world will undergo its first catastrophic value re-adjustment in 40 years. It won’t be pretty, but it will be exciting to watch.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Art, money, and big waves
Dave Hickey in Vanity Fair: