The chill in the air? That sense of an impending ice age, with no foreseeable thaw? Not entirely the weather. In this week’s New York Magazine, art critic Jerry Saltz files his report from the Frieze Art Fair in London on the effects of the financial crisis on the contemporary art world. The piece is noticeably crackly. This, from a critic whose strength–and maybe shortcoming–is his buoyant sense of the social moment.
As I made my way through the 152 booths, I thought about the moment in Titanic when the designer of the doomed luxury liner warns Kate Winslet to find a lifeboat because “all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic.” When I tried this idea out on attendees, several said I was “a buzzkill.” I asked, “Isn’t the buzz already beginning to disappear?”
If the art economy is as bad as it looks–if worse comes to worst–40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits–possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.
As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk.
Much good art got made while money ruled; I like a lot of it, and hardship and poverty aren’t virtues. The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists–especially emerging ones–won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.
Saltz is perhaps the quintessential art world insider. His art tangy, provisional reports on the contemporary art world are invaluable for the rest of us on the outside, looking in. Along with his wife, Times critic Roberta Smith, Mr. Saltz is often cited as the most influential contemporary art critic writing today. (How influential can a critic be? Robert Hughes once compared the task of the art critic to playing the piano in a whorehouse. All the action is upstairs.) Together, they see everything. They know everyone. I will admit to my surprise, once, when stopping at an out of the way gallery on the Lower East Side, I had a look at the registry. The place was about as big as gym locker; the art was obscure. But there, on the last page, were two names: Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith. The pair had stopped by the gallery earlier that morning, like field marshals graciously touring the sick tent.
So for Saltz to say that the temperature is dropping, that the herd is thinning out, and that art must test its worth against the recession, is worth noting. Then again, this post on ARTINFO on the social-circus over at the Whitney, suggests that any change in art world behavior will not be lasting.