In his pithy book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe explained how the art world became preoccupied with “concept” at the expense of the object itself during the 1970s. Those were the days. For our current era of Hirst and Koons, price is everything. What exactly that means for art as something meaningful and enduring is definitely a question that is asked in director Barry Avrich & art insider-producer Jonas Prince’s Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
It is hard to imagine a Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassing a collection of pivotal contemporary artists before they became famous in the current collecting climate. Instead, the representative collector in Blurred Lines is Michael Ovitz, as in the founder of the CAA agency. It seems you must be not merely rich but considerably wealthy to collect any artist getting serious press consideration, because of the practices of galleries and auction houses.
Although Blurred Lines is not an expose per se, the auction houses in particular will have some PR work to do, thanks to the film’s explanation of “chandelier bidding.” Essentially, it is the questionable but apparently relatively commonplace practice of auctioneers taking ghost bids to elevate the going auction price closer to the reserve—and presumably to fool online and phone bidders.
Along the way, Blurred Lines gives us a jaded dealer’s perspective on the burgeoning business of art fares and the continuing importance of museums, even though they can rarely afford to acquire pieces from these speculation-driven star artists. Perhaps most troubling is the notion that many artists are producing work to meet their dealers’ demands rather than to fulfill an artistic vision.
Avrich’s approach is maybe too slick and breezy for its own good, but there is a lot of fascinating details in there. Sometimes, the film’s soundbites are even more significant because of who they are coming from than because of what is said. Seriously, can you get any more real-deal than Glenn Lowry of MoMA? However, Larry Gagosian, the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of gallerists is conspicuously absent, as per everyone’s expectations.
Several commentators in Blurred suggest galleries and dealers engage in business practices that would trigger anti-trust prosecutions in any other industry. However, since it is ostensibly only obscenely rich collectors who get taken for a ride, nobody seems to care. Yet, Avrich and Prince clearly suggest the artificial manipulations of the art market are not healthy for promising artists’ long-term development.