Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Object of Beauty

Let's imagine, for a second, that you're an artist. You have decided to crawl out of the comparative paradise of your studio, where your only concern is to make your work, and enter the fallen world - the art world. There is only one fundamental reason you could have for doing this: to succeed.

What do you mean by success? Consider a few of the possibilities:
  • having a large number of people you do not know see your work
  • providing insight or pleasure to your viewers
  • producing work immediately recognized by many strangers as yours
  • changing the way art is made
  • maximizing sales frequency
  • maximizing sale price
  • placing your work somewhere that it won't wind up in an attic or a junk shop
  • getting on the cover of magazines that specialize in art
  • getting on the cover of magazines that do not specialize in art
The art world is a complex phenomenon, and some of these metrics of success conflict with others. And the list, obviously, is incomplete.

The art world can be attacked in many ways. However, it is a system, so for my part, I think of a successful attack as consisting in large part of the same tactic you would use to decode any system: information analysis.

My own analysis is painfully incomplete, but as I see it, the art world (at least in America) consists of several nodes of influence: artists, dealers, collectors, critics, the press, academe, and curators and their hosts - the museums and fairs. Translating this data set from a list to a network produces this outcome:

Where possible, I have grouped as neighbors those nodes which seem most reciprocal in activity. For instance, dealers go beside collectors because each feeds directly on the other through the reciprocal art/money transaction. However, all the nodes are connected and apply force to one another.

Let's go back to you, our hypothetical artist entering the art world. The network of entities seems to you incomprehensible, intimidating, and partly occluded. Understanding the artwork is manifestly a part, not the whole, of understanding the system, consisting as the system does in so many competing interests that only indirectly relate to the content of art.

A good thing to keep in mind, then, is that because this network consists of human beings, it is permeable. Moreover, its permeability is enhanced by the same problem that afflicts keeping a secret in any large group: the large number of individuals tends to include some who are leaky. So this network is not a circular fort. It is a very porous cell.

Here's a very brief summary of what I know about how to penetrate this permeable network:

1. Identify a node to which you have access - any access. If you have no access to any node, concentrate on improving your work until you do.

2. Get to know all of the individuals in this node that you can immediately reach. Learn their interests and biases, and clarify whether you have any complementary interests and biases.

3. If so, develop both your ability to communicate the complementary nature of your interests, and your ability to create and maintain a relationship.

4. Once the relationship is established, figure out the connections between your node and the broader network.

5. Move from one individual to the next, gradually weaving yourself into the wider entity.

That is really all there is to it. As far as I can tell, all progress in the art world, from the most lightning-flash overnight sensation to the slowest career process, from the most Borgia-like machination to the most intuitive flower-child meandering, includes some form of this sequence, executed in different ways, with different players, at different rates.

But keep in mind another consequence of the fact that this porous network consists of human beings - everything you do, you do to a human being. Therefore, you are constrained by morality. And even if you are personally amoral, the gallery assistant you screw today will one day be a museum director with the opportunity to screw you back. So keep the screwings to a minimum.

Now let me add a sixth procedure to my list:

6. Continue to collect information. Even if it has no apparent use, collect it. The entire system is your target, not any one part of it. Know as much of it as you can.

Which brings me to a very interesting book I read recently, on the general principle that I wanted to know more. The book, you may have guessed, is called An Object of Beauty, and Steve Martin wrote it.

Yes, that Steve Martin.

The book is about the art world, and technically, it's a novel. Happily, Mr. Martin isn't going to trouble himself too much with the whole "novel" part, using it to sex up a philosophical essay in the manner made famous by Voltaire and Robert M. Persig. There's a main character, named Lacey Yeager, who is a hot chick:

artist's rendering of Lacey Yeager

The decidedly mixed reviews of the book have frequently taken issue with her alleged lack of interiority, her only explicit narrative characteristics being raving ambition and hot foolings around. These reviewers are missing two things about Yeager: that she's a philosophical cypher, and that the actual narration of the book is essentially the content of her mind, which does nothing for nearly two decades but contemplate art and the art world. The whole book is interiority.

Mr. Martin tackles the art world itself from a similar angle to the one I am espousing here: information analysis. His approach is more sociological than mine. Specifically, he pursues the method of the longitudinal study. A latitudinal study compares a broad array of sociological objects over a short period of time. It's a panoramic snapshot. A longitudinal study selects a smaller number of objects from the available array and follows them over a long period. Their changes reflect and illustrate the subtle workings of the sociological system itself.

An Object of Beauty focuses on three elements in the art world: art, dealers, and collectors. Artists and critics make peripheral appearances, curators and academics hardly any at all. The time period is about 1993-2009.

We started this discussion by talking about leaving the studio, where one makes art, and entering the art world. For a lover of art, a parallel passage is possible. Yeager's passage - occurring not when she enters the art world but when she realizes where she is - gives the book its title:

If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable. A deserted painting scared buyers. Why did no one want it? In the trade, it was known as being "burned." Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory. When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.

To me, there is something drily heartbreaking about this passage, in part because I have experienced it myself. Remember, I'm bent, if not hell-bent, on making art a career. This transmogrification, which destroys all, is part of the deal. The key is to split yourself into parts. One part never leaves the studio, and if possible, the other part never enters it. I would say I'm doing not badly, but if you are in a position similar to mine, it is worth making your own psychological accommodations, or you will lose your fucking soul.

Yeager makes accommodations, and while the narrative tragedy of the book is that she does not ultimately succeed in the art world, the thematic tragedy is that she doesn't really get to keep her soul either. The book is sprinkled with sharp passages describing art, but they give way under the pressure of art-dealing to a more completely objects-of-value outlook.

So much for the story. It's Yeager's story, not mine. The rest is delicious portraiture of people and transactions, extracted from all sorts of different nooks and crannies. Here a collector couple examines a Milton Avery painting -

this one, actually

- on sale at Sotheby's, where Yeager starts her career:

"Do you mind?" he said, indicating he would like to take the picture off the wall. He held up the picture and looked closely at it.

"He likes to hold pictures. I say why do you have to hold them?"

"She's right," Saul said amiably, "I don't know what it means, but I do it."

"You do it a lot," said Estelle.

His portrayals of cold people are cold, as in a scene of rivalry between two dealers over the attention of a collector who has invited them to dinner:

Gayle was more like a great basketball player than an art dealer: she unfailingly covered her man, making it impossible for Talley to throw him a pass. However, Talley knew that there would be a moment after dinner when Gayle would have to go vomit, leaving her man wide open.

But he is not inhuman, and neither are they:

He [Flores, the collector] once sneaked into a Manhattan art fair a day before it opened by disguising himself as a janitor in order to get first crack at the best in the show. But Talley thought Gayle had misjudged her man. Flores never thought of himself as a competitor; he just liked art.

The emotional nature of collecting is illustrated in interaction with the corrosion of Yeager's outlook:

...she realized, after sending Patrice Claire a check for eight thousand dollars in Paris, that she hated it [the painting]... This was an eight-thousand-dollar souvenir, the price tag on an exotic and egotistical moment far away. However, it was the most expensive thing she owned, so she hung it in a place of honor...

And the perspective sometimes zooms back to the explicitly systemic:

The collectors liked to meet museum people because one approving word from them about a single painting in a hallway could, by liberal extrapolation, validate an entire collection. Directors liked to meet collectors because maybe they would soon be dead and their collection would come to their museum.

Steve Martin is a collector, and he is at his most natural depicting the quirks and experiences of collectors. But he is at his best depicting dealers, because he's put so much work - observation, research, and imagination alike - into understanding them. His tone reads as detached delight, but once the dust settles, what remains is dismay.

The longitudinal approach yields a timeline of booms and crashes - the booming market of the 90's, the crash following 9/11, the boom, a different kind of boom, in the 00's, and the crash resulting from the general crash of 2008. The cast evolves, grows older, and prospers or fails over time. Each success and failure is a lesson - the book looks like a history, but it is itself a lesson, in the social ecology of a specific corner of the human enterprise.

Enough about it - An Object of Beauty embraces the double-sided nature of becoming engaged in a temporal way with art, so glorious in its interaction with the art itself, so stomach-turning in its politicking and predation - and the glorious part only makes the stomach-turning part more horrific. If you've made the dubious choice to enter into the art world, you ought to read it.


Reading back over this, it seems to me a very bleak description of a phenomenon. And it is bleak, but you should not be bleaked out if the issues involved apply to you. For one thing, there is a wonderful line of dialogue in a play by my friend, Mac Rogers (whose plays you should always go to if you can): "There is no 'shouldn't have to' in nature." And for another, we are still discussing human beings, doing the best they can to implement in the world a thing that is essentially immaterial. They fail and do petty and wretched things - the system itself can fail and be petty and wretched. But when engaged in it, you are always in companionship with human beings, with all the joys and complexities of that companionship. I experience kindness and generosity in the art world all the time - and they are not absent from An Object of Beauty either.


  1. Daniel, great post! But you did use a picture of Chevy Chase! Steve Martin is the white haired dude in the white suit.

  2. Great post, as always. I find Steve Martin fascinating. I mean, I thought he was funny back in the King Tut days, but I read his more recent book *Born Standing Up*, and learned a lot about him and how incredibly hard he worked for such a long, long time to make his "overnight success" happen. I think he's a genius. And a pretty damn good banjo player.

  3. Kevin - thanks! And, uh, yeah, I know that's Chevy Chase. I did that on purpose. Sigh.

    Ed - thanks! I should read that one too, obviously I really enjoyed "An Object of Beauty," and the one book of comedic sketches of his that my roommate used to have. Well, I used to have the roommate, I'm pretty sure he still has the book. I've seen him playing with a bluegrass band too! It is bluegrass, right? I don't know my genres very well.

  4. Whew. Big sigh. I never know when you're kidding. You are exactly like me in that respect.

  5. It's disconcerting in person, que non?

  6. How are critics and the press separate from one another? Shouldn't the former be considered a subset of the latter?

  7. I went back and forth on making that distinction, and I may be getting finicky in that region because I have more experience with it, but... in my experience, critics do exert a distinct influence on the art scene, separate from their affiliation with any particular press entity, while press entities also make their own decisions, which can alter the tapestry of the art world, independently of critics.

    For instance, I've been in a fair number of magazines at this point, but my presence in those magazines was the outcome of decisions by editorial, not critics. Conversely, I've received private support from several significant critics, but none of them has decided to publicly support my work, a move which would obviously alter their own public standing.

    So I've penetrated both the press node and the critic node, with differing results. My hunch is that I need to up my standing in several other nodes a bit more before I draw public support from important members of the critic node.

  8. Either that or always pick up the tab when you lunch or drink with a critic, -not that I really thing anyone of that stature would be influenced by such crass gestures. ;-)

  9. No idea, I've never tried that one!