Art 101

The Art Market Shouldn't be the Judge of Good Art

Kenny Schachter argues that the art market represents current whims and fashions and that the best judge of good art is based on fundamentals: Experience, education, scholarship and passion. From Damien Hirst to Manet and Warhol, Kenny cites countless examples from art history where the markets got it wrong.

By Kenny Schachter


We can end this before we start. The best judge of good art is simple and unequivocal: experience, education, scholarship, and passion. The market, and namely money which is what we are talking about, is a snapshot of current whims, fashions and fads. Oftentimes, the crowd leading the auction scene is not the culturally brightest bunch at the brunch. Not to mention the rampant manipulation, speculation and deceit that is part and parcel of the auction process, with all due respect to members of the respective houses. But that’s why we love the art market, the last unregulated multi-billion dollar business.


What is the best judge of good art? Art is a lifelong learning curve and the market is no substitute for putting eyeballs directly on it—smelling it, tasting it and touching it. You need to lift it, hang it, insure it, frame it, pack it, ship it, live with it, damage it, hate it and idolize it. And read it like a book, day in and day out. That is the best judge of art: experience and tactility. Honing your eyes is of paramount importance; people always refer in art to having a good eye, but I say one is not enough.

Andy Warhol - 200 $1 dollar bills


All markets are by nature, inefficient, at least at moments. When the stock market goes up, the good, bad and ugly follow suit, same when it goes down; and, it’s the same with art. Auctions die because of lack of confidence, and quality works are often the casualty, call it death by (un)friendly fire. Reputations go up and reputations go down, history is revised regularly, so why depend on any one signifier of value when in effect it is many variables that contribute to worth. Don't get me wrong I am a true believer in art and money and think they make cozy bedfellows, but the “market”, or rather dollar value, being just one determining factor.


Manet couldn’t find a gallery to sell his work or a collector to buy it early in his career so he was reduced to borrowing money from his mother to build a temporary structure to house a one person exhibit of his work as no one else would have it. Duchamp barely sold his own art so he ended up relying on interior decorating and art advising rich patrons; he also pulled off wildly unsuccessful and impractical entrepreneurial flubs, like cardboard optical illusions for children that spun on turntables and a shirt dying enterprise. Try to buy work by either now.


Consider Warhol’s market before and after his death. During his lifetime, his auction record was about $285,000 in 1986, a fact that disappointed Andy to the core: the painting, 200 $1 Dollar Bills, went to Greek born, London based collector Paulina Karpides who sold it in 2009 for close to $44m. When Warhol died in 1987 due to medical malpractice after what was routine gallbladder surgery at New York Hospital, he was more known for cheesy portraits of Pia Zadora, hanging out at a different type of studio—Studio 54, a guest appearance on the Love Boat, and handing copies of Interview Magazine out of a satchel in Soho. Hardly the glory days of the $100m painting where we are today. Which market characterization makes more sense?


In fact, the art market is incapable of judging anything about art other than what one person (not necessarily of sound mind) will pay for something at a given point in time. There are no assurances or guarantees that there is anything backing up a price other than capriciousness. There are countless instances of collectors, speculators and dealers getting fired up and excited about the day's soup de jour that turned into nothing, that is nominal scrap value or perhaps less. Rather than good, the market can be a very bad judge of markets—and value.


There are many, many instances of meteoric rises offset by swift declines: for example, since the early 80s, the markets of Donald Sultan, David Salle, Julian Schnabel; and the triumvirate of Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, and Enzo Cuuchi. They are not all bad artists, though some most assuredly are; the market certainly thinks so now—but it certainly didn’t think so then.


As much as I admire Damien Hirst and I do, the late 80s to mid 90s stuff anyway, in the art world it’s like admitting to reading the Daily Mail. It is human nature to find something sexy knowing an artwork is worth a lot of money, or we wouldn't be so obsessed. But the Qatari’s, the alleged purchasers at auction for $19m of some metal shelving laden with garish tchotchkes: you have been forewarned. Beware of ever-decreasing insurance valuations. 


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