A R Trn* * * *rnVVHk«Si^i^_dh4l^’^’^dPVL«rf4M’^rnDollars andrnAestheticsrnbv Timothy TaubesrnSubstance in the art world is all arnmatter of illusion and facade. In thernmaxim of La Rochefoucauld, “To establishrnoneself in the wodd one does all onerncan to seem established there already.”rnThis illusion goes far beyond spendingrnmoney on fancy advertising and lavishrnexhibitions to creating the appearancernof popularity and worth. It entails thernmanufacturing of artificially high pricesrnfor artists’ work on the open market.rnThis is achieved through an unspokenrncollusion between art dealers and auctioneers,rnwhich involves briberv andrnprice-fixing. Bribes are hidden behindrnthe guise of commissions, and prices arernfixed on the auction floor by several randomlyrnplaced “ringers” who bid worksrnup to a predetermined level. Once thisrnis accomplished dealers have a publicrnrecord with which they can assure buyersrnof the safety and investment potentialrnof their artists.rnInvestment potential and fashionrngather together in an unholy communion.rnThe investment potential of arnwork of art, in conjunction with the impetusrnit receives from invested interests,rndetermines the rate of appreciation ofrnthat work of art. This is when fashionrnand market considerations come to dictaterntaste. An illustration, with the benefitrnof hindsight, will clarify this point.rnThe year is 1950, and you have fivernhundred dollars to spend on a work ofrnart. You could take a walk along 10thrnStreet in New York City, wander throughrnthe studios of an emerging group of abstractrnpainters, and take home a largernoil painting. You could also walk into arngallery on Madison Avenue that specializesrnin painters of the 19th centuryrnand take home a fine specimen by anrnAmerican Impressionist. Or you couldrncross Madison Avenue to an antiquernshop and buy an exquisite example ofrnRoman Republican sculpture.rnThe year is now 1990, and you wish tornsell the artwork that has been in yourrnpossession for 40 years. You take it tornone of the auction houses to have it appraised.rnIf the downtown studio you visitedrnwas de Kooning’s or Rothko’s, yournare told that the painting is worth aboutrnone million dollars. If the American Impressionistrnyou bought was a wellrespectedrnname, like Frederick Friesekernor Robert Reid, it could be worth onernhundred thousand dollars. And if yournbought an exceptionally fine antiquityrnwhose provenance can be specificallyrndetermined, it might be worth ten thousandrndollars. What accounts for thesernsignificant differences in appreciationrnand worth?rnIn 1950, the Abstract Expressionistsrnwere still the rebel outsiders. (It was onlyrnduring the decade of the 1950’s thatrnthey came into prominence.) The pricernof their work was at ground level, andrnthey therefore offered the greatest potentialrnfor appreciation. The aestheticrnjustifications for the skyrocketing pricesrnof these paintings would entail lengthyrndiscourse on philosophy, psychology, sociology,rnhistory, even anthropology andrnother subjects. But at bottom is the existentialrnnotion that the creative act isrnvalue-generating, which is a prematurernqualification of subjectivity. Philosophicalrnjustifications notwithstanding, thernwork of the Abstract Expressionistsrnwould never ha’e appreciated the way itrndid if the investment potential were notrnthere and if these painters had not comernunder the wing of a very influentialrngroup of people, with a lot of money,rnwho by virtue of their wealth were ablernto manipulate the art market, media,rnand promotional apparatus and whornwere vain enough to believe that thevrnwere the architects of culture.rnThe case of the American Impressionistsrnis different. Many of thesernpainters were successful during their lifetime,rnparticularly between the years ofrn1890 and 1910. Most of them made thernobligatory trip to Paris to see the workrnof the innovators of their style and whenrnthey returned to America were generallyrnlooked upon as provincial counterpartsrnto the Europeans, During the first halfrnof the 20th century, while the works andrnreputations of the European Impressionistsrnand Postimpressionists were ascending,rnthe works of the American Impressionistsrnwere gathering in attics.rnHowever, after World War II, New YorkrnCity became the capital of the art wodd.rnThere was a new emphasis on Americarnand things American, and the AmericanrnImpressionists were rediscovered. Manyrnof them were recognized for havingrnbrought a fresh and novel approach tornImpressionism. A few have even rivaledrnthe Europeans in market value. But thernachievements or failures of Impressionismrnnotwithstanding, the prices of thesernpaintings would never have escalatedrnhad their investment potential not beenrnrecognized by dealers and collectors andrnhad they not been available in abundancernfor speculation.rnThe I990’s have been labeled therntechnotronic age of information. Everythingrnis at our command, at therntouch of our fingertips. We want ourrninformation fast, and we want to comprehendrnit quickly. The result is a congenitalrnlaziness and impatience withrnthings that take time, research, and education.rnWe are becoming a computer-rnliterate society, but we are losingrnmany of our other abilities in the bargain.rnOne of these is the ability to makernintelligent judgments about art.rnIt takes no patience to understandrndollar value. It is simple, calculable, andrneven provides a numerical scale. Truernaesthetic value takes a great deal of patiencernto understand. It is unfortunate,rnbut not surprising, that dollar value hasrncome to replace aesthetic value and thatrnbehind the high price paid for a work ofrnart is the veiled implication of a correspondinglyrnhigh aesthetic value.rnThe art market is now experiencingrna terrible slump after the gangbusterrndecade of the 1980’s. This is only partlyrndue to the state of the economy. It isrntrue that in a sour economy luxury itemsrnare the first to be cut from discretionaryrnspending, but the root of the problemrnlies elsewhere.rnDealers are responsible for pumpingrnthe art market up beyond the level thatrnthe real situation indicates. Auctionrnhouses are particulady guilty of this. Asrnlong as paintings continued to sell theyrnMARCH 1993/45rnrnrn