In many papers over the past five years I have exposed the various corruptions of the art world. All but one. I have not yet attacked the gallery directly. Some will think this was expedient, and most will think it would be more expedient to continue my silence. But I decided long ago it was most expedient to tell the truth, and this is part of my truth. “Expedience” is “being suited to the end in view,” and the end I have in view is an art market that is healthy. If my accountant should demand that I begin being selfish in choosing my topics, rather than reckless, I could reply that my art will never flourish in a corrupt market, and that only a rectified market will have a place for me. But those who know me will know that is only a rationalization. I would have my say, and enjoy the speech, though I should hang for it on the morn.
Let us start with a lesson from Economics 101. In any sale, you have a buyer and a seller. With no other market considerations, we would assume each party has an equal amount of power in determining the sale. If we assign a number to the total power, say 100, then the seller has a power of 50 and the buyer has a power of 50. Now, if we bring in a third party, this third party must get its power from the available pool. Which means that, even if this third party is completely friendly to both original parties, the split must still be 33 to the buyer, 33 to the seller, and 33 to the third party. This third party is of course called a “middleman.” Using his own flattering terms, he is said to facilitate the sale. But even if he does facilitate the sale, he does not and cannot facilitate the power sharing. Once he enters the equation, the two original parties can only lose power. Even if we imagine the middleman is not predatory, the situation in itself is predatory. One or both of the original parties must lose.
In the art market, the gallery is the middleman. The gallery produces nothing and it buys nothing. It is neither buyer nor producer. It only facilitates the sale. Despite this rather obvious fact, the modern gallery has arrogated to itself a power that far outstrips that of the buyer or the producer. For the gallery has turned out to be predatory. As in all modern business relationships, each party has tended to try to maximize its own profit, but the gallery has turned out to be more efficient at this. Why? Because that is its sole concern.
The buyer of art finds himself in a less predatory posture than he is accustomed to, as a wealthy person. He may even think of himself as vacationing from business. Buying art is part of his time off, and maximizing profit may take backstage in his mind for the moment.
The artist is even less inclined than the buyer to think in terms of maximizing profit, for a number of reasons. One, those who tend to think in terms of profit do not become artists. If you want to get rich in an efficient manner, you don’t go into art production. Two, the artist’s first concern is producing art. The artist must actually develop a skill and put it to use. Maximizing profit is neither an artistic concern nor a concern of craft. For most artists it will play a secondary role. For many it will play no role at all.
But the gallery has no other necessary concern. A gallery owner may profess to love art. He or she may actually love art. But it is of no concern to the business that this is so. From a business standpoint, it is not a necessary concern. In fact, galleries run by owners who do not love art normally prove to be more successful, since such a love must work as an ideal or a prejudice, and business cannot abide such a prejudice.
A buyer’s success is not usually judged on financial concerns. If the buyer has bought paintings that he likes, and continues to like, he has been successful. If an artist has created paintings that he likes and continues to like, he is successful. But a gallery’s success is judged financially. A gallery that makes money, no matter how bad the art, is a success. A gallery that fails to make money, no matter how great the art, is not a success. So it is clear what the gallery’s priorities would tend to be.
Most people think the gallery makes money from the clients only, but the gallery actually makes money in both directions. The more of the clients’ money it can get, the better; but also the more of the artists’ money it can get, the better. The gallery is therefore in some way predetermined to eat into the power shares of the other two parties. The more power it gets, the more money. Power percentages tend to turn directly into cash percentages, so the gallery pursues both simultaneously, and for the same reason.
As the weakest of the three parties—from a bargaining standpoint—the artist must become more and more marginalized in this trio of interests. If, in a perfect world, the artist could expect 1/3 of the power in the sale of art, in the real world the artist has seen his percentage drop far below that. Not all markets or galleries are the same, but in general the gallery has poached far more successfully into the power of the artist than into the power of the client. Since the clients are relatively wealthy people, their interests in the sales are less malleable. They want what they want, and the gallery normally has to more or less cater to that want. In the avant garde markets, this want has been manufactured to a large degree, as I will show; and in realism it is manufactured to a lesser degree; but, at least in realism, the client will always retain a large part of his original 1/3 share of power. He has the money in his pocket at the beginning of the transaction, and this fact must always work in his favor.
But the artist, as producer, has the same problem all modern producers have: he lacks time for “doing business.” For the gallery, doing business means selling, and selling means maximizing profit. This is all the gallery does. For the artist, working means producing the product: painting or sculpting it. Farmers have the same problem, since they cannot spend all their time maximizing profit: they have a crop to plant and to harvest. This is why farmers are also preyed upon by middlemen. All producers are.
“Maximizing profit” is what galleries do. “Maximizing profit” is not what artists do, except (perhaps) when they have finished painting. Many people, including many artists, think that artists hire galleries to “sell for them.” But galleries do not sell for artists. Galleries sell for themselves, and the artist must still bargain and fight for his share of the power. The gallery is not the artist’s agent. The gallery is the agent of the client. In truth, the gallery is paid a hundred percent surcharge by the client to find art for him. To the gallery, the artist is the “found art”. The gallery sees the artist as the field to be reaped, not the master to be served. In the end, it is not the artist that has hired the gallery, it is the client.
Now, some galleries are less predatory than others. A few galleries are still as beneficent as they can be, under the circumstances of business. I have worked with some of these galleries, and still do. But they are quickly becoming a thing of the past. A gallery that does not maximize its profit at every turn—a gallery that fails to prey off both its clients and its artists—finds it more and more difficult to compete with galleries that do. What is true for Fortune 500 companies is true for local galleries; and under our system, the least beneficent tend to prosper.
Many people have asked, in print and in conversation, why art was so much better in the past. Why were the paintings so much better? Why were the artists so much better? Why did the artists seem "bigger"?—more independent, more influential, more genuine? Why did art seem healthier? There are many reasons, and I have addressed a large number of them in other papers. But none is more important than the rise of the gallery.
Before the 19th century, there were very few galleries. There were almost no galleries as we know them: streetfront businesses dealing with the public. If you look at Renaissance commissions, for example, you will find the artist dealing directly with the client. Pope Julius did not contact Michelangelo’s gallery or agent. No, Michelangelo was contacted by the Vatican directly and he talked to the Pope in person, face to face. The two men shouted at each other across the papal desk. And, what is most refreshing, they shouted not only about payment, but also about art. They got worked up not only about money, but about ideas! Imagine that happening today.
Minus the Olympian tantrums, this was the way of art for the next four centuries. Artists and clients set the terms of the commission face to face, with no middleman. As late as 1900, Rodin was still dealing with clients on his own terms, with no outside involvement.
This is why art was healthier: the artist had not yet become emasculated. The artist held ½ the power, and a famous artist might hold much more than ½. Even a weak artist would not expect to fall below 1/3. With only two parties in the transaction, even the weaker party could expect a large share of the total, and thereby demand respect. But with three parties, a weak artist could find himself with only ¼ or 1/5 of the power, or less. And a minority share tends to be a diminishing share, as any economist will tell you. The weakest party is the most attractive to predators, and once the share falls below parity, it is ripe for plunder. Historically this is precisely what happened. The artist fell below 1/3 in the three-party system, and his share was attacked as “vulnerable.” Yes, the producer was and is actually attacked as the superfluous party.
Currently, there are two separate paradigms for the gallery, and it is probably best to separate them. It is counterproductive to criticize the modern gallery, as if there is only one species of the beast. In fact, there are two: What I have called the avant garde gallery and what I have called the realist gallery. The avant garde gallery is the big city gallery that sells Modernism and its offshoots: abstraction, minimalism, conceptual art, installations, and so on. This market is heavily influenced by politics and theory; one might say it is determined by politics and theory, except that it is also determined by profit. Only the artifact is determined by politics and theory; the market is determined by profit.
The realist gallery sells mainly decorative art, although real art occasionally gets exhibited by accident. The realist gallery is also determined by profit, but at least the realist gallery is (mostly) free of politics and theory. The realist gallery is not entirely free of politics and theory, but the politics and theory, when it is present, is normally of a shallow bourgeois type, and is completely subconscious and unintended. The politics and theory are an invisible undercurrent, with variable strength and direction; not a conspicuous and strident flood, required and policed.
The avant garde gallery has been exponentially more successful in the recent past, and although most would attribute this to a critical and intellectual alliance with other power structures, the primary reason is its success in poaching power directly from artist and client. Although the avant garde gallery has admittedly been much more successful at using outside interests like politics and theory as a tool of promotion (as I have pointed out in other papers), these interests have only been a tool. That is to say, it would not matter that critics and academics liked Modernism, if rich people did not take the bait and buy it. The avant garde gallery gets neither power nor money from critics or academics. It gets power and money only when it convinces the client or artist to give them up.
The clients of the avant garde gallery have given up both, in spades. They have handed over exorbitant amounts of cash for trifling and ultimately worthless constructions; and they have given up very nearly their entire 1/3 share of power, handing it directly to the gallery. The client of the avant garde gallery has no will or mind of his own. Whatever the gallery and critic and academic offers him as profound, he accepts as profound. He is a pathetic pawn, even more pitiable than the contemporary artist. A person totally devoid not only of taste, but of will: an utter slave to the most manufactured and vulgar market that ever existed. He cannot even claim to be robbed, the victim of a horrible crime. No, for he sought out this humiliation, freely entering a contract that told him he was a fool on the face of it.
But the avant garde gallery has not only poached in the direction of the client, it has poached just as successfully in the direction of the artist. And the same critical and academic alliances have allowed it to do so. The same theory and politics that allowed for the complete surrender of the client have allowed for the complete surrender of the artist. The artist has not surrendered the whole of his financial share, since he still gets a paycheck. But he has surrendered the whole of his 1/3 share of power, since he now has none. The avant garde artist has absolutely nothing to say about what is art and what is not art, what is hot and what is not, what is theoretically or politically viable and what is not. Those decisions have been farmed out to critics and academics. And since critics and academics are the tool of the gallery, the power ultimately falls to the gallery once again. That is why a gallery like that of Leo Castelli could exist; why a man like Leo Castelli could become so powerful. At Leo Castelli, the gallery had successfully poached very nearly 100 percent of the total power of the transaction. Simply by using a tool provided them for free by the critics and academics, the avant garde galleries were able to bring both clients and artists to their knees. Look again at the picture at the top of this page. Castelli is the king on the throne; Johns is just there to support his chair.
Let me say it again: Leo Castelli never created a thing. He was neither buyer nor producer. He was nothing more than a middleman, a facilitator of a sale. And yet he somehow convinced the world to give him this mantle of power, a level of fame and wealth achieved by almost no one else in the arts in the 20th century. It would be like a Steinway salesman becoming more famous than Van Cliburn. This sort of reversed hierarchy is possible only in a completely perverted and debased market, where all involved are ignorant of every concept: artistic, moral, and economic.
People have asked, in print and conversation, how a gallery like PaceWildenstein or Gagosian can convince clients to pay so much for so little. Well, the alliance to theory and politics, to critics and academics, was the tool that allowed for the usurpation of power. But the power came from the client and the artist. The clients and artists could just as easily have ignored the critics and academics, and if they had the tool would have failed. The gallery has succeeded only by the freely chosen surrender of the client and artist. Power that is taken must also be given, and the client and artist are just as guilty as the gallery.
The realist gallery has not been as successful at poaching power from the client, but it has been almost as successful at poaching power from the artist. In realism, this has been achieved through a general and long-term dumbing-down of the market. Since all the so-called intellectuals were peer-pressured into following the avant garde market, realism has found it most efficient to take what is left to them and run with it. Meaning, it has found it easiest to appeal to non-intellectuals. There are a few very smart people in the realist market, both as artists and clients, but by and large the realist market is a market for the hoi polloi, for people who will admit to a complete ignorance of almost everything (except business) with a smile and a handshake. They don’t know anything about art, modern or traditional, and don’t want to know anything about art. They just want something to go over the sofa. They don’t have good taste, and aren’t concerned with seeming to have good taste. They don’t want to hire someone with good taste—someone with an eye for color or line or composition or beauty—to school them on the subject, they just want to be free to put garbage on their walls, and not be taken to task for it.
This would seem like a great annoyance to the realist gallery owner, and to the few highly educated ones it is, but to the majority of galleries it is just one more business opportunity, and they have finally seen it in those terms. The vulgarity of the clientele means the gallery doesn’t need to look for talented artists. Hacks will do just as well, and hacks are much easier to manipulate. Hacks don’t have any bargaining power, since there is an endless supply of hacks. If some hack artist sells well for a couple of years and starts to get uppity, the galleries just hire a new crop of hacks. That is why you see very few “living masters” in realism. The galleries prefer to work with “emerging” artists and “mid-career” artists: they have no power. They make no demands. They have no expectations. Older artists either have to retire or open their own galleries or make most of their income from teaching. The well-known realists like Schmid and Leffel and Greene are respected much more by young students than they are by galleries. Look where the top names in realism are showing. There is almost no top-end to the realist market.
For further proof, look who does financially inhabit the “top end” of realism: people like Pino and Thomas Kinkaid. These people aren’t artists, they are galleries posing as artists. This is particularly clear with Kinkaid, but it is also true of Pino and the rest. Pino is just the current king of the hacks, a print machine posing as a painter. He is allowed to remain in the market, despite his age and his prices, because he has no demands. He was created completely by the promoters and he knows it. He is not going to “bargain” with these people: that would be like bargaining with God--you can only lose. If Pino so much as coughs in the wrong direction, those promoters can bring in the next slick illustrator and school him on what is hot. Pino will then be back with Fabio before the puddles dry.
And why are so many of the big names in realism ex-illustrators? Most think it is because that is one of the only places people still learn to draw, but that is only a small part of the answer. The larger part of the answer is that realist galleries and illustrators are a perfect fit. Illustrators are used to working for hire, under orders, with very little creative freedom. The realist market therefore seems like a breath of fresh air to them. They get paid more for the same amount of work, and if they have to paint in some sleazy genre, so what? It is no worse than what they were already doing, and is usually better. Look at Pino, for example. His output now is pure kitsch, sugared like an evaporated root beer, but it is a thing of transcendent beauty compared to the Harlequin covers he used to paint. I could say the same about dozens of top artists.
Here in Taos this month, the latest phenom is Nicolai Blokhin, who is currently having a show at the Fechin Museum. Fechin's ghost must be rattling his chains at finding this slick phony inhabiting his lovely house, even for a few weeks. Blokhin is the beneficiary of some first-rate promotion, but his paintings look like Pino's, with more drips. In other words, more empty-headed illustrations with bright colors, flowers tarting up every painting, and gratuitious brushwork to impress the vulgar. Some leading Arizona galleries discovered a market for "Russian impressionism" in the 90's, and this is what it has devolved into only a decade later. In order to further popularize and bastardize the market, these promoters trolled the Russian academies for artists willing to prostitute themselves in America, and were no doubt swamped by applicants (who understandably wanted to flee hard times at home). To be fair, I have a lot of sympathy for the plight of Russians: thanks to our own fascist government we here in the US will likely be where the Russians are within a decade. Beyond that, I exhibited with a number of Russian and Chinese artists at Quast Galleries here in Taos in the 90's, and was proud to do so, since they were producing some very nice work. But I have to say that one Pino is more than enough already: the last thing the realist market in the Southwest needs is an influx—from anywhere on the globe—of more bright, slick, commercial hackwork. We are already inundated with worthless giclees and the worthless paintings that seed them. If the Russians want to come over here and join us—and they are welcome to—they should be required to offer us some real paintings, not these technicolor eyesores, worthy to hang only in the red room at Graceland or the corporate headquarters of Wrestlemania.
This fact of realism trickles down from the top to the lowest levels. At all levels you find artists with no power, prostrate before the gallery. They wouldn’t think of arguing with a gallery, since the gallery is their bread and butter. Without the gallery, they would be back in advertising, working for Coke or Nike or Disney. Many of them came from there and don’t want to go back. All that is understandable, from a human point of view, but from an art-historical view, it is nothing less than a shame. It explains why realism looks more like a Nike ad every decade. The artists learned to draw under that rubric, the clients learned to see under that rubric, and they don’t know what to make of real art anymore. Compared to advertising and Disney and Hollywood, the volume knob of real art is turned too low. In a word, subtlety doesn’t sell anymore. Beauty doesn’t sell anymore. The clients fall for the vulgar clang and clatter, the gallery demands it, and the artists are more than willing to supply it. The Florentine eye of the 16th century was impressed by David; the 21st century eye is impressed by Shrek.
Realism has already dumbed down the level of a Nike ad, and it will only get worse. I have been in the market for less than 20 years, but I have seen the slide even so. The art in a realist gallery is noticeably tackier, more commercial, and less skilled than it was in 1990. The small boom in realism in the last decade has provided us with a few brightening points here and there, and in certain places the top end of realism has broadened and refined itself somewhat. There are real success stories: a handful of artists swimming against the tide, a smattering of new schools teaching again the old religion. But by and large, the boom has not positively affected the realist gallery. More realism has meant more bad realism, not more good realism. Great swaths of new realism look like what I call “high school art,” tepid copies of tepid photographs. [And it is not just the lower ends of realism that I mean here: at the highest levels of the avant garde market we find this sort of high-school art—see David Hockney and Alex Katz and Gerhard Richter and Damien Hirst, for a start. These artists often claim the bad painting is a statement about something, but that is just a dodge. A bad painting is a bad painting, and no amount of attached blurbage can make it anything else but a bad painting]. But even the more technically advanced art is tepid, or worse, vapid. The vapid galleries, fronting for vapid clients, require various proofs of vapidity from the artists, and the artists in tow are hand-picked by their success in proving it. So you see a market-leading gallery like John Pence or Forum, supplying clients who can think of nothing for their art to “say” except “I am gay” or “I am shiny” or “I am boring.” These galleries show paintings of shiny typewriters or shiny gas masks or shiny empty faces: plastic art for plastic souls. How about a painting of a guy at the gym? How about a painting of an empty hallway? How about a painting of an envelope? How about a painting of tea kettle? How about a painting of a grape? How about going back to illustration if that is what you want to paint! Disney can always use a great drawing of a broom for that remake of Fantasia, or of a dancing teacup for Little Mermaid 8, or of a shiny Harley for that fifth sequel to Alladin—Alladin goes to Las Vegas.
In talking about the avant garde market, I was speaking from outside the market. I have never been a player in that market, so I cannot speak first-hand. But I have been a part of the realist market for many years now. I know what I am talking about. I have hung in the same galleries as Pino and Nerdrum and Richard MacDonald and many others. I have talked to these “art loving” gallery owners face-to-face. I know them. I know how shallow are their depths. I have seen how little they know about art, how little they care about art. I have been with the illustrators, big and small. I know that they are more interested in your studio than they are in your art. They judge each other mainly by square footage. I know the major magazines and their editors: they and their readers are also more interested in a tour of the studio than a close look at a painting or sculpture. They are more likely to comment on a large easel or a large frame than on a painting. It is best to keep the whiskey out of sight when these people visit the house, otherwise they can’t concentrate at all: they will be headed toward the kitchen the whole time.
I will tell you some stories, to leaven this lump of polemic. In real life, I don’t talk much, so very few people have heard these stories. If I have a low opinion of realists, realism, and realist galleries, you may understand why after this. One of the first shows I went to, as a participating artist, was a show in Austin, at the largest gallery in that city. I was one of two artists being featured, and the other artist was much older than me. I had not met him before and no one introduced us at the show. He was drinking heavily and would not meet my eye. By the end of the show, he was manic, almost in tears, and he apparently caused a big scene after I left. But what I remember most is that no one looked at the art. Everyone “mingled”, eating cheese and drinking wine, making small talk. I don’t think anyone talked about art, mine or anyone else’s. I remember talking to some older lady, very tan and wrinkled, and she was telling me about her vacation somewhere in the tropics. I was nodding politely. Suddenly a 50-ish man approached us, carrying at least two gin and tonics. He was very sure of himself despite the booze. Without looking at me, he asked the lady, “Who is this, your cabana boy?” She said, “This is the artist.” He didn’t even bother to apologize.
Several years later I was scheduled to have a one-man show with this same gallery. The afternoon before the opening, I went in to check that the lights were set right and so on, only to discover that my biggest painting had been taken down and was facing the wall. The owner’s wife had decided that the painting was “too nude” and that it might offend someone. I threatened to walk out with all my paintings, and the work was finally put back on the wall. But I heard later that after the opening a screen was put up. It was taken down only by request, or if they saw me driving up.
I switched galleries after that, moving to a smaller gallery across town. After a couple of quick sales, the owner decided to have a one-man show. She wanted to advertise and she asked me to go halves on it. I said no. I told her she was already taking 50% and that she should pay for advertising. Two of my galleries were by then selling well, taking only 40%, so I didn’t feel pressured to accept every term offered me. She decided not to advertise. She called me in and showed me the mailer, which was nice but it was in black and white. She said I could pay to upgrade to color. I told her no. I told her promotion was her job. Next she would have me going halves on the air-conditioning and the trash pick-up. Of course the show bombed, and she called me in to scold me. She said I needed to paint things that were more salable, like landscapes and fruit. I told her she needed to learn how to sell, and not to blame me for her stinginess. I said it was interesting that I had been the greatest artist she had ever seen before the show, and now I was not so good. Had the very same paintings suffered such diminishment in only a month?
The first major show I entered was about this time, in Dallas. A big-name realist had been brought in from out of state to judge. To insure anonymity in judging, the hanging committee taped over all the signatures. I found this odd, but interesting nonetheless. I was curious to see how it would affect the judging. It affected the judging in this way: the judge was forced to turn the paintings over and look at the names on the back, in front of everyone. He did his judging as a performance, with the local committee crowding around him and hanging on his every pronouncement. They were not offended at his cheat, and laughed it off immediately. And it is not surprising that they did, since they and the judges’ friends won all the top awards. I saw him turn over several works and say something like, “Oh, that’s Sherry’s. I thought so.” I won a second and a third, but all the first prizes and best of shows went to insiders. In response, I removed the ribbons from my works, threw them on the floor, tucked my paintings under my arms and walked out. Needless to say, I never entered that show again.
I began working with Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio very early in my career. They sold pretty well for me and set me up on many portrait commissions. They also took 50%. Beyond publishing black and white photos of my work in their newsletter a couple of times, they did no advertising and no shows for me. The only shows I took part in at Greenhouse were Oil Painter’s of America shows, in 1995 and 1996. I remember the quality of clients at the OPA shows. There were very few sales, and the conversation was embarrassing. One or two “conversations” stand out. A short lady with badly bleached hair was introduced to me, and I noticed she was holding a pillow. I asked if she had had any injury. She looked at me blankly and then responded, “No, of course not, I am just trying to match my divan.” I said, “Yes, you would have looked silly carrying the whole couch in here, wouldn’t you?” Again, a blank stare from her.
In the other conversation, a friendly wide-eyed lady, apparently very keen on my art, wanted to know if I could change the color of Tess’ hair in one pastel. She explained that her daughter looked somewhat like Tess, but with brown hair. If I would change the color, she would buy it. I suggested she simply hire me to paint her daughter: then I wouldn’t have to deface a finished work. But I suspect her daughter didn’t really look much like Tess, beyond the age of innocence. She preferred Tess with brown hair to her fat little daughter, and nothing came of my suggestion.
After I won awards in both OPA shows, Greenhouse finally decided, after five years, to do some advertising for me. They planned a full page ad in Art and Antiques to coincide with an exhibition. Unfortunately, they missed an important sale that month, from a local client who had also bought from a gallery I was with in Taos. The gallery in Taos was accustomed to give him a courtesy discount of some small amount (which I didn’t know about) and he had asked for the same in San Antonio. They refused and then blamed me when he didn’t buy. Their argument was that I shouldn’t allow any of my galleries to discount. I asked them if they really thought I had that kind of power. I told them that how my galleries dealt with a client was up to them, as long as I got my wholesale price. I said I was not about to meddle in the minute affairs of their business, so how could they expect me to meddle in the same affairs of this gallery in Taos? They then said that if they were going to advertise like this, I should give them a worldwide exclusive. They did not want to compete with my other galleries. I said fine, but what do I get? You get an exclusive, what do I get? This show could bomb, through no fault of mine, and then I have no other source of income. If you want to guarantee me an income, I will sign an exclusive. Otherwise you are going to have to let me have other galleries. They decided to pull the ad and the show, and I responded by pulling all my paintings. Soon afterwards they lost their top artist, Mian Situ, and I can only guess it was due to the same sort of greedy manipulation.
A few years later, the same thing happened to me in San Francisco at Weinstein Gallery. Weinstein had actually asked for submissions from artists, in an ad in Art and Antiques. I had never seen that before, and haven’t seen it since. I responded and was accepted. The director told me he had looked through hundreds of portfolios, but mine was the only good one in a sea of garbage. His words. I sent several paintings, and the first one sold before it was even hung. They quickly sold several more, and the director even bought one himself. They were taking 60% and I wasn’t happy about it, but I planned to bargain back down as soon as possible. At least I was at a major gallery, hanging next to people like Odd Nerdrum, and selling. These guys had clients and knew how to move paintings.
The next step was a three-person show, only a few months after my arrival. Problem is, they put me with two younger artists with lower prices. I told them I expected them to get my prices up, not down. I explained that I had been in the market for 13 years and had sold a lot of paintings. I was no longer emerging. But they had this show planned before I even arrived. I put a good face on it, and imagined we could sort through things as the relationship progressed. The show was a middling success. I sold about half my works, which was fine with me. I was not used to selling out shows. Problem is, they missed a big sale and tried once again to blame me. My cover painting for the brochure was a 7-foot nude, and it hung for several weeks in the front window. I wanted $14,000 as my cut, which is high but not so high for such a painting in such a market. Nerdrum’s paintings next to mine were priced at $250,000, so there was no chance of sticker shock, no matter what they did. $14,000 plus 60% is $35,000, and they decided to round up to $40,000. I thought that was pushing it, but it was their call. I paint the paintings and it is their job to sell them. During the show, they got an offer of $29,000 and came to me to ask me to take less. They wanted to know if I would take $11,000. I said, Come on! You guys are already getting $15,000, which is more than I am getting. If I had this painting at my gallery in Oklahoma, they would be asking only $21,000, taking a third. If you guys want a larger cut, that is fine, but you have to get a higher retail price. Don’t come to me begging for money. I didn’t put it that way, actually. I am not completely stupid. But I refused. I felt my wholesale price was already low, compared to my competition in the market for realist nudes, and I was not prepared to take less. So I said so.
Despite this, they still saw dollar signs when looking at me. And they were in a big hurry to cash in. They “offered” me a worldwide exclusive. They said I should move to San Francisco, let them set all my prices, and kick back. I said fine, guarantee me an income and I’ll do it. But of course they wanted me to do all the giving and for them to do all the receiving. Once again, I was supposed to give them an exclusive and a hatful of other powers, but I was to get nothing in return. In other words, a contract with benefits in only one direction. I refused and they phased me out. They wanted an artist they could control completely, and they simply misjudged me. I told them to put that in their ad next time. Wanted: young artist who will submit to anything.
At about this time I had a couple of pastels featured in Pastel Artist International. Soon thereafter I got a letter from Bryant Gallery in New Orleans. I knew about Bryant Gallery. It was one of the top galleries in the city, and I knew a couple of artists who had been represented there. Bryant wanted to take me on, and they sent me a contract. The contract was for 50%, and I was to be responsible for shipping both directions and all promotional materials. I called Bryant and told him I would like to work with him, but that I knew this contract was far from standard. I said I would pay shipping in one direction, but would pay for none of the promotion. For 50%, I expected him to promote me. At first his director responded favorably, but then they decided they had a real person on the hook and they let me go. They didn’t want a real person, they wanted a young hungry mannequin that would fold into any shape they desired.
That is a small dose of my experience. In these stories, I have talked a lot about percentages. In the 80’s, it was not uncommon for a gallery to still take only 1/3. Shriver Gallery here in Taos took 1/3 well into the 90’s. The gallery I work with in Oklahoma City still only takes 1/3. But this is exceedingly rare now, maybe unique. Most galleries moved to 40% in the 80’s and then to 50% in the 90’s. As I showed with Weinstein, it is now common in the major markets for large galleries to take 60%. I have heard emerging artists in New York City tell of giving up 70% to the gallery. At this rate, the galleries are moving toward the percentage of publishing houses. In a few years, the artist will be lucky to get 10%. For that matter, major publishers have dropped from a standard 15% to around 8% now for first time authors, so it may be that all artistic producers are being squeezed toward zero. Or it may be even worse than that. The bulk of science writers currently make less than zero. Yes, publication in the peer-reviewed journals requires that you transfer your entire copyright to the publisher, and not only get paid nothing for it, but pay for the right to be published. You read that right: you (or your institution) pay to be published. The greatest part of science is a vanity press.
So many people want to be artists that the galleries may ultimately be able to pull off the same scam. Many galleries already charge artists to look at their portfolios. Portraits, Inc., charges artists a fee simply to submit. I wrote Portraits, Inc., a letter back and told them I hoped they never tried to recruit me. If they did I would charge them a $10 fee to kiss my ass.
Payback is going to be hell for a whole lot of people. So many of these galleries have put themselves in the position of the publishers who refused to look at Harry Potter when J.K. Rowling was first submitting. They thought they knew their own business, at least, but it turned out that were ignorant even of that. When the current market finally collapses from sheer rot and rust and putrefaction, I hope the real artists will have learned their lesson. The middlemen will come begging for a real product to sell, and I hope we have the cohones to remind them of that first rule of business: you know, the one about reaping and sowing.
What can be done until that blessed time? First of all, we must recognize the various sources of corruption. It is clear that an unbridled capitalism is the primary source. Just as corporations are mandated to externalize costs, ignore long-term effects, and put the profit of shareholders above all other concerns, the modern gallery is mandated--by circumstance if by nothing else--to prey on both client and artist, and to subordinate the concerns of art to the concerns of business. As you saw above, the “logic” of the business of art demands that the most vulnerable party in the three-party equation be attacked as a diminishing interest. This means that the real artist has found himself to be an “unprofitable cog”, an “unnecessary cost”, an externalizable and ultimately extinguishable cost. In both gallery paradigms, the artist has turned out to be superfluous. In the avant garde gallery, this was clear almost from the beginning. Duchamp showed that anything can be art, which means that anyone can be an artist. It is difficult to have a union when you have no necessary skill. If any mental defective taken directly from the institution* can be drafted to create “art”, then no real artist is necessary. When everyone is an artist, no one is.
We must also recognize that the theories and politics of Modernism have not been just a change in direction, a pursuit of novelty, or a theoretical trial balloon. I have shown that Modernism has allowed for the quick and complete rise of the gallery, the marginalizing of the client, and the extinction of the artist. This economic fact has been hiding behind the great false front of Theory, but it is both the more important fact of the market and also the desired outcome. As a matter of economics, Theory has been nothing but a misdirection, the patter of a clever shill to keep your eyes off the main action. While the various parties were heatedly discussing the politics and theory, tied up in a new terminology and a thousand new words, the gallery took the opportunity to saw the lady in half. The artist (the legs and foundation of the lady) was thrown in the bin, while the now free-floating top-half, including of course the mouth, took over the show. Art is now half what it was, at best, but it cannot get on its legs again.
Seeing the market for what it is remains the surest way to change it. Most people, even those in academia, have not yet seen behind the curtain. The academics, being leftists, are surely aware of the problems of capitalism, but they have a strange ability to ignore or miss the economics of the avant garde art market. They also have a strange ability to ignore or miss the social and economic implications of their own theories and programs. They are prepared to allow the galleries to usurp the entire loaf, but it is not clear to what end. What form of progressivism does the 20th c. art movement imply? What deserving party, heretofore ignored by the elite, has benefited? Some women and people of color have been recognized by Modernism, but could they not just as well have been recognized for real achievement, rather than for being a new breed of con artist? Could real art not have become multicultural just as easily as, or more easily than, fake art and anti-art? Frido Kahlo had already shown that the field was open for both major groups; was it necessary to completely debase art in order to allow the Rachel Whitereads and Basquiats to prosper? Logically, it does not follow that we needed to destroy art and the artist in order to make art equal-opportunity. In what way was this progressive? I would think it must be regressive, since it implies that women and people of color cannot enter art without bastardizing it. I don’t believe this is true, but the method of the critics and academics in the 20th century contradicts their stated intention. If they had wished to impress upon us the equality of all, this was the worst way to achieve it.
What about the realist market? How can that change? Again, by a recognition of the facts. Like the avant garde gallery, the realist gallery has externalized the artist. The artist has been replaced by the hack. Modern people have trouble telling the difference, since the hack may be quite skilled. The difference is that the hack, unlike the artist, cannot create depth or emotion. The work of the hack is one-dimensional, expressionless, manufactured, and dead. The hack cannot come up with an interesting idea or subject, since he or she is used to having the client supply the subject. Every treatment of every subject is flat and straightforward, with no ambiguity, no subtlety, and no individuality. The artist can take almost any subject and make it interesting. The hack, as he or she now appears in the realist gallery, can take any and all subjects and drain the life out of them. Everything the hack touches turns to plastic.
This situation externalizes the artist due to the fact that he becomes an unnecessary cost and an unnecessary burden. The artist is rare; the hack is common. Because the hack is common, he can be paid less and granted less power and respect. If the client can’t tell the difference between artist and hack, the gallery has no reason to provide the real thing. The same thing would be true in a restaurant, where the diners could not tell the difference between sirloin and filet mignon. The chef will serve the sirloin but bill for the filet. The restaurant triples its profit and filet is a thing of the past.
The lower end of the market will always exist. And it should exist. I don’t have any problem with decoration or illustration or kitsch or even mediocre art. I have no problem with sirloin either: not every occasion calls for filet. My problem is that there is no top end. Instead of having the full spectrum, we have decoration and illustration and kitsch posing as art. We have the lower and middle levels posing as the top level, and the top level is extinct or defunct. This is true in both the avant garde and realist galleries. In the avant garde this is obvious, since the hierarchy was destroyed on purpose. Anyone who thinks there is or could be a “top end” to the avant garde simply doesn’t understand what words mean. But in realism it is less generally understood. It may be felt, at times, but it isn’t what one would call common knowledge. We have more successful artists and richer artists, and these are what people think of as the top end. But qualitatively, there is no top end. The top realists today aren’t “top” because they are better, they are top because they are marketed more aggressively. Most people have an aunt that can paint better than Thomas Kinkaid. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of realists stuck in the lower and middle levels can paint better than Pino. A couple of dozen living realists could be creating top level art, but the fact is they aren’t. They aren’t because there is no market for it. They are painting watered-down genre pieces in order to pay the bills. Some of them know they are doing this and some of them don’t, but that is the fact.
There is only one way to change this, and that is to educate the clients. If they are ignorant, they must be told so. They must be embarrassed into an education. The realist clients look at avant garde clients with wonderment and amusement: How can they buy such things?—piles of bricks and flashing lights and maggot-filled containers. True enough, but the realist clients also waste large piles of money on very awful things—paintings of blue dogs and motorcycles and typewriters and umbrellas and vases and mannequins and sculptures of kids on skateboards and men sitting on park benches and ugly people dancing and mimes and on and on. We cannot hope to clean up this whole mess, but we can hope to convince some few intelligent souls to buy something else: to spare the eyes of the Muses: to calm the minds of the befuddled angels. Surely we can cultivate a few dozen connoisseurs out of the seven billion bodies of the earth, a handful of subtle spirits who are not hypnotized and amazed by the flashing lights of Modernism or the trompe l’oeil of realism.
But beyond this modicum of education, we must resist the forces of dissolution in all the art markets: the false words of the critics and academics as well as the ever-burgeoning power of the galleries and promoters. We must organize and fight back. We must demand fair terms from all parties, we must open our own galleries, we must publish our own manifestoes and books and journals. But mostly, we must create great works, the market be damned. That is the first and last step: all the steps in between will fill themselves in, in time, in getting from the beginning to the end.
*This is literally what is now done in the UK, in seeking candidates for the Turner Prize.
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