Substance in the art world is all a matter of illusion and facade. In the maxim of La Rochefoucauld, “To establish oneself in the world one does all one can to seem established there already.” This illusion goes far beyond spending money on fancy advertising and lavish exhibitions to creating the appearance of popularity and worth. It entails the manufacturing of artificially high prices for artists’ work on the open market. This is achieved through an unspoken collusion between art dealers and auctioneers, which involves bribery and price-fixing. Bribes are hidden behind the guise of commissions, and prices are fixed on the auction floor by several randomly placed “ringers” who bid works up to a predetermined level. Once this is accomplished dealers have a public record with which they can assure buyers of the safety and investment potential of their artists.

Investment potential and fashion gather together in an unholy communion. The investment potential of a work of art, in conjunction with the impetus it receives from invested interests, determines the rate of appreciation of that work of art. This is when fashion and market considerations come to dictate taste. An illustration, with the benefit of hindsight, will clarify this point.

The year is 1950, and you have five hundred dollars to spend on a work of art. You could take a walk along 10th Street in New York City, wander through the studios of an emerging group of abstract painters, and take home a large oil painting. You could also walk into a gallery on Madison Avenue that specializes in painters of the 19th century and take home a fine specimen by an American Impressionist. Or you could cross Madison Avenue to an antique shop and buy an exquisite example of Roman Republican sculpture.

The year is now 1990, and you wish to sell the artwork that has been in your possession for 40 years. You take it to one of the auction houses to have it appraised. If the downtown studio you visited was de Kooning’s or Rothko’s, you are told that the painting is worth about one million dollars. If the American Impressionist you bought was a wellrespected name, like Frederick Frieseke or Robert Reid, it could be worth one hundred thousand dollars. And if you bought an exceptionally fine antiquity whose provenance can be specifically determined, it might be worth ten thousand dollars. What accounts for these significant differences in appreciation and worth?

In 1950, the Abstract Expressionists were still the rebel outsiders. (It was only during the decade of the 1950’s that they came into prominence.) The price of their work was at ground level, and they therefore offered the greatest potential for appreciation. The aesthetic justifications for the skyrocketing prices of these paintings would entail lengthy discourse on philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, even anthropology and other subjects. But at bottom is the existential notion that the creative act is value-generating, which is a premature qualification of subjectivity. Philosophical justifications notwithstanding, the work of the Abstract Expressionists would never have appreciated the way it did if the investment potential were not there and if these painters had not come under the wing of a very influential group of people, with a lot of money, who by virtue of their wealth were able to manipulate the art market, media, and promotional apparatus and who were vain enough to believe that they were the architects of culture.

The case of the American Impressionists is different. Many of these painters were successful during their lifetime, particularly between the years of 1890 and 1910. Most of them made the obligatory trip to Paris to see the work of the innovators of their style and when they returned to America were generally looked upon as provincial counterparts to the Europeans, During the first half of the 20th century, while the works and reputations of the European Impressionists and Postimpressionists were ascending, the works of the American Impressionists were gathering in attics. However, after World War II, New York City became the capital of the art world. There was a new emphasis on America and things American, and the American Impressionists were rediscovered. Many of them were recognized for having brought a fresh and novel approach to Impressionism. A few have even rivaled the Europeans in market value. But the achievements or failures of Impressionism notwithstanding, the prices of these paintings would never have escalated had their investment potential not been recognized by dealers and collectors and had they not been available in abundance for speculation.

The 1990’s have been labeled the technotronic age of information. Everything is at our command, at the touch of our fingertips. We want our information fast, and we want to comprehend it quickly. The result is a congenital laziness and impatience with things that take time, research, and education. We are becoming a computer- literate society, but we are losing many of our other abilities in the bargain. One of these is the ability to make intelligent judgments about art.

It takes no patience to understand dollar value. It is simple, calculable, and even provides a numerical scale. True aesthetic value takes a great deal of patience to understand. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that dollar value has come to replace aesthetic value and that behind the high price paid for a work of art is the veiled implication of a correspondingly high aesthetic value.

The art market is now experiencing a terrible slump after the gangbuster decade of the 1980’s. This is only partly due to the state of the economy. It is true that in a sour economy luxury items are the first to be cut from discretionary spending, but the root of the problem lies elsewhere.

Dealers are responsible for pumping the art market up beyond the level that the real situation indicates. Auction houses are particularly guilty of this. As long as paintings continued to sell they saw no reason to stop the escalation. They steadily raised estimates on paintings, placed high reserves on paintings below which they were not allowed to sell, and started the bidding at high levels. They created an inflated atmosphere in which auctions would contain dozens of paintings estimated at over a million dollars. There simply was not enough money to buy them all. Paintings were priced out of the market, and many went unsold. People who had paid good money just a few years ago could no longer liquidate their “investment.” This sent shock waves through the art market, which shook confidence in buying art in general.

The critics are also culpable for their part in creating a helter-skelter “anything goes” aesthetic environment. There is no longer any unified body of aesthetic knowledge to which values can be assigned. Everything and anything cannot qualify as a work of art lest art lose all sense of definition. Critics are busy cultivating their own aesthetic orchards, and no one dares trespass to pluck his neighbor’s fruit. This fragmentation of aesthetics leaves no foundation on which to justify the dollar values of the art market, allowing dealers the opportunity to promote anything without discretion. The highly esoteric and obscure nature of contemporary art criticism offers the enticement of entry into a private and privileged club; this is manna for dealer and snob alike. The magazines that disseminate art criticism today are the dealers’ trade journals, which depend on advertising dollars, and their purpose is to promote sales. The critics welcome this scenario, indeed look favorably upon works of art attaining astronomical prices.

Ultimately, it is the artists themselves who must assume responsibility for the present state of affairs. They have abnegated their role as propagators of the aesthetic message. The decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s were the age of the critic. The 1970’s and 1980’s were the era of the dealer. During these years the “aesthetic ball” was taken away from the artist. Without any sound criteria for value judgment, artists allowed their aesthetic choices to be made for them and were finally left with no choice of their own. Artists today are working naked in a barren wilderness. They have no means of providing for themselves, and their surroundings offer them neither direction nor comfort. This is the symptom of spiritual separation. Artists are groping, hoping to become the next important discovery. Works of art designed to shock the sensibilities are fed into a system that has become anesthetized like an addict in need of a more powerful fix. And like the addict, who at the center of his discontent fails to recognize his own problem, so must the art world reach rock bottom before it can come to its own rescue.