Art and People
"Art used to be somewhere faraway. Or in a museum. Then it was in a book, or on a picture postcard. Now you’re making it possible to move through it, walk around it – for it to come to you. Brilliant!"
- Anthony Haden-Guest
Last December Eazel travelled to Miami for Art Basel where we enjoyed a more temperate onset of winter, checked out the fairs, attended a few parties, but mostly mingled with the culturati come from around the globe to get a sense of what’s happening in the art world these days. We lucked out early-on in our hotel lobby, happening upon one of the culturati’s most cultured—the esteemed writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, producer of barbed comic verse, and social chameleon, Anthony Haden-Guest.
Of course we seized the opportunity to buttonhole said walking wealth of knowledge about the contemporary art scene to get his take on the current state of the art world, as well as our mission to open it up to the uninitiated and help art lovers around the world transcend geographic borders. It was a brief yet pleasant exchange, cut short by busy agendas and the flux of a chaotic hotel lobby. Fortunately we ran into each other a couple more times over the following weekend—occasions not long enough to conduct a formal interview, but just long enough to agree to meet up again in New York City.
So on a blustery morning in January we meet Anthony in a café in the West Village to finally get his thoughts on how the art world is changing, and the role that technology is playing as the pace of this change accelerates. We are, of course, at the forefront of this change in our mission to create a permanent VR record of the geography of the art world—museums, galleries, art fairs, and other significant sites—as well as developing a diaristic record of constituent elements such as artists’ studios, exhibitions, and installations. We believe this will add tremendous value to our cultural armory, and it would seem Anthony believes this as well.
This was just some of what was on our minds when we sat down.
Eazel: Anthony, thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us again. We’d like to get started on a general note. In your nearly fifty years of covering the art world, do you believe things have fundamentally remained the same, or are they now drastically different from the way they were when you first became involved?
Anthony Haden-Guest (AHG): Clearly there have been dramatic changes. The art world has become huge and the culture at large is aware of art as never before. The sheer financial heft of the art business has seen to that. Hello, Leonardo! But beneath this transformation there are fundamentals which are unchanged. Art is made by individuals possessed of the need to communicate by making images. If those individuals have what it takes, the art world will make room for them. And sooner or later the art market will be likely to pay attention. So, yes, there have been great changes, but the basics remain the same.
Eazel: So there has always been change with trends and fashions in constant flux, but which particular changes in the art world do you see as the most significant?
AHG: Speed. Speed, ubiquity, and the consequences of ubiquity and speed. And this is not just a phenomenon of Post-Modernism. The spreading use of mezzotint prints during the 17th century meant you no longer needed to be well-heeled enough to take the Grand Tour to know what Renaissance art looked like. Then along came photography. Now the Internet. And social media. The Yayoi Kusama show, Festival of Life, at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York in December included an Infinity Mirrored Room that was featured on social media. People placidly waited in line for eight hours, often in brutal cold, for a 45 second moment during which they could take a selfie. The show drew 75,000. So, yes, this was a freak weather event, but it also suggests cultural climate change.
Eazel: Shifting gears a little, let’s talk about the art market. There is a lot of discussion these days about a retrenchment taking place in the art world – the effect of a growing gap between a handful of mega-galleries and four star art fairs, and the throng of strivers who make the art world what it is. Or was. Can you speak to this development?
AHG: There are, of course, the A-list art fairs, each of which, more or less willingly, shelters a flock of subsidiary fairs, hotel fairs, and one-off artist performances and/or installations. Then there are a great many second-tier fairs, including specialized fairs, like the Silicon Valley Art Fair, and mostly regional fairs, like Art Market Budapest. It’s the A-listers we mean when we talk about art fairs though, and they have become a giant slice of the pie-chart of the global art economy. Although I did hear buzz in Miami last December that there was more talk than action – that many people were just there for the hoopla and to kick the tires. As of now, though, the expense of maintaining a presence at the main fair circuitry means that the mega-galleries dominate. Which also puts them in a fine position to gobble up emergent talent. And that’s why so many smaller galleries are shuttering world-wide.
Eazel: Will this continue until only the big players survive?
AHG: There will be no extinction of the strivers. They are the rich compost from whom future players will bud. But now more than ever their survival will require suppleness and strategies.
Eazel: Art fairs have captured the imagination of both seasoned collectors and the uninitiated alike. Why do you believe this experience resonates so broadly?
AHG: Art fairs used to be humdrum – like any other trade fairs. They were mostly frequented by dealers. This changed in the nineties when a handful of leading dealers, including many from overseas, took over the Gramercy Park Hotel. They hung shows in rooms and threw parties, often with an artist on hand, as when Jay Jopling debuted Tracey Emin. New York party people showed up. There was buzz and media attention and the fair became a “must” on the social calendar. This was reinforced by the circumstance that after Alfred Taubman took over Sotheby’s, the night auctions became swell affairs that attracted bold-face names. The art-as-an-asset-class world was being born.
Eazel: What role does the internet play in looking at or buying art?
AHG: Very painterly work with lots of pigment can look good online. So can art that uses or appropriates the resources and techniques of mechanical reproduction. But, at least prior to headset magic, most art is drained of its aura online, becomes wraith-like. So that – sorry, but I forget who I am stealing this line from – looking at art online has always been like going to a wine tasting online.
Eazel: Do you believe the growth of outfits selling art online threatens the business of galleries?
AHG: Of course. The art world used to be a culture of handshakes, surreptitious nods and dealers’ back rooms. And to a considerable extent this remains the case. Indeed, one assumes it always will. But the growth and speed of technologies that facilitate communication has meant that substantial amounts of once more or less private information are now available worldwide at the click of a button. Many dealers used to make a living by frequenting small sales in far-flung locations. Their former clients can, and do, now frequent the same sales online. Other dealers would be aware of differentials between the prices of, say, Japanese netsuke in, say, Paris and New York. Such arbitrage is now largely history. In Mao’s China, knowledge of contemporary art practices depended on the covert distribution of, say, old copies of Artforum. And so on. But the transparency of the Internet is not absolute and never can be. Dealers have private doors too. And as long as the art trade involves moving massive amounts of capital around privately, they always will.
Eazel: It is commonplace to attack collectors as speculators. Do you think this is fair?
AHG: There are those who see collecting as a fashionable way to make a killing, yes. But almost all collectors, and perhaps even those who like to speculate, are impelled by obsession. And, by the way, what’s so ugly about the word “speculation”? In this context a collector is speculating that his or her eye, the choices made, will stand the test of time. And the value of the work is a sound way of showing whether they were right or wrong.
Eazel: Do you see a danger that the spread of information will standardize the art economy globally? That as the big brands get bigger, the rest will be forced off the shelves? I’m talking about the actual art here.
AHG: A good question that gets a ‘No’ answer. Yes, there was a moment a few years ago when it seemed that every collector wanted a Damien Hirst Spot painting and a Richard Prince Nurse. But it didn’t happen because of one of the least studied elements of the art world: Collectors. Art collectors are unlike any other consumer I can think of. They get into it because of who knows what reason, and while several have a herd instinct, others are picky and compulsive. So there can never be a Coke/Pepsi situation in the art market.
Eazel: Thank you, Anthony. In closing I’d like to get your thoughts on what we’re working on at Eazel – our mission to virtualize the art world and open it up to future generations of art lovers.
AHG: I see it as unexpected, but necessary – and wholly logical. Art used to be somewhere faraway. Or in a museum. Then it was in a book, or on a picture postcard. Now you’re making it possible to move through it, walk around it – for it to come to you. Brilliant!
Anthony Haden-Guest is the author of True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (Grove Atlantic 1998). Over the nearly fifty years he has been covering the art world he has contributed to many books on artists, including Jeff Koons (Taschen), and his writing on art has appeared regularly in magazines such as The Daily Beast and Avenue Magazine online, as well as the British magazine, Spears. He is presently curating a major show, Big Art, which will open in New York in the spring of 2018. To boot, he is a widely published cartoon artist who has had numerous shows, including one at Deitch Projects. He currently has work up at Manolis Projects in Miami and will have work there in another show this March.