Advice on Collecting (part iii): In Defense of Wall Street

Drawers-for-Museum-to-store-flat-paintings (800x406)

Homa Taj (IMDb) is an American curator and filmmaker who is producing two feature films about the art world: René (The Movie) & The Dealer (Movie).

Every day, legions of fast-talking, so-called art experts are selling objects that they know too well have no chance of surviving the test of the global art market, let alone art history, to financial advisers and their business clients.

These include a certain breed of private, online and traditional gallerists, content-providers-masquerading-as-critics, art flippers and interior designers whom the art press loves to tout as art experts … not to mention their celebrity clients. Most of us working in aspects of the art world know who these characters are though we may choose to deny their existence, or give them the benefit of the doubt, for any number of reasons.

How do these characters manage to excel in the art world, you may wonder?

Aside from (1) Orating faded academic jargon that are systematically configured to intimidate non-practitioners; they (2) Play perversely entertaining pseudo-elitist mind-games that are often effective on the huge percentage of new American, and emerging markets’, self-made millionaires;* (3) Flaunt flowcharts and algorithms that are deeply flawed by virtue of their systematic exclusion of certain fundamental facts and data; (4)Claim to be disruptors of the system by ‘giving them [business clients] a taste of their own medicine;’ and (5) Good old fashioned lying … through their teeth.

Remember the “Everything is art!” mantra?

Quite often this amusingly affected declaration is followed by “It’s just how you package it, man. It’s all bullsh*t anyway.” Art flippers, in particular, love this phrase since the sheer power of its stupidity serves as an effective conversation-stopper for anyone who is serious about art.

Of course when these flippers – artists, gallerists, etc. – make this claim they are only talking about their own products. As for the other guys’ art being “art,” too? Well, not so much.

Along with “Everything is art!” – a phrase that should alert any serious investor to run for their money – “Everyone knows that art appreciates with time!” is another astonishingly shameless lie in which far too many otherwise sound and sane people choose to believe.

Everyone knows that art appreciates with time!” No, it doesn’t. In fact, the value of the majority of contemporary art depreciates with time – sometimes, the moment you leave an art gallery, an artist’s studio or an art fair. Much like buying a brand new car as opposed to investing in, say, a 1933 Maserati 8CM.

Honestly, if you believe in any of these statements, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you that comes with flowcharts and algorithms that prove its solidity. Call me.

Back to my Defense of Wall Street: How do you think that so much junk gets sold under the auspices of art for hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars per transaction? Every day? How is it that so many art historians, academics, critics and museum curators choose to look the other way when they clearly recognize poorly conceived and shoddily executed objects that are based on tired, old traditions and whose ‘concepts’ are packaged as avant-garde or cutting-edge art?

Do these art buyers – I refrain from calling the poor fellows collectors – even realize that they have been swindled out of not too small fortunes?

When I was an undergraduate in art history, I used to think that most of them do. This, of course, was my level of intellectual understanding, or lack thereof, of the complexities of cultural production and its interdependence with economics. I suppose this is why 20-something year-old producer-artists are in great demand, these days. It is very easy to engage young (a fiercely fashionable buzz word) artists who don’t care to appreciate the long-term affects of their poorly produced bulk cultural productions.

This, of course, is the inverse (or is the reverse?) of what an academic-humanist like myself used to believe in: that what I did was above money matters as opposed to a certain new breed of art world practitioners who believe that money matters are above all else. Either way, it seems that the art world is infected with a toxic apathy toward anyone with, or access to, wealth.

Experience has proven me oh so very wrong. I learned the hard way – through personal, professional and scholarly experience – that a multitude of these business folks truly don’t realize that they have been bamboozled by a group of impersonators masquerading as art experts.

If they were in any way aware, I doubt that they would boast about ‘art collections’ that match their luxury penthouses’ carpets and curtains. Why would anyone who knows what has happened to them wish to brag about being deceived by some ventriloquist art adviser, or artist? Majority of them don’t know. They are victims of an art market whose formation, unwittingly or unwittingly, has been facilitated by art historians, artists, art advisers, curators, museum directors, critics, publishers and other informed collectors. That is by those of us who know better but have chosen to remain silent in the face of this much cultural defilement. We see what is being done in the name of art, and our profession, yet choose to remain silent by allowing our society’s economic elite be defrauded, every day.

So, what does it matter if a notable majority of our affluent class is exploited by certain artists or galleries, you may ask?

First, talk to any number of authentic cultural disruptors - curators, scholars and artists who have dedicated their lives to their arts and craft, including those artists and administrators in the non-tangible heritage fields: indie filmmakers, dancers, choreographers, poets, playwrights and performers. Ask them how excruciatingly difficult it is for them to find patronage for their work. Ask them how hard it is for them to gain the trust of the members of the affluent class who have been burnt by others in the name of art.

Every dollar conned out of a potential arts patron is a dollar stolen from true and dedicated artists and cultural practitioners whose contributions form our cultural heritage – its past, present and future.

Second, some of the “Hey, man, everything is art” objects eventually find their into our public museums and thus enter the canon of our art, culture and history. At tax payers’ expense.

This is a travesty.

These are the wrongful results of deceiving our country’s financial elite, in the name of art. What does it take to right these wrongs? We, art historians, curators, artists, filmmakers and other trained and experienced cultural workers need to authentically disrupt those systems and organisms that have lost their mission to gather, create, preserve, research and exhibit (or disseminate) art and its histories.

No great body of art in any period in the history of humanity has ever been created, preserved and promoted without the patronage of a group of well-informed benefactors. This is why educating and Defending Wall Street should be on the top of every artmakers’ agenda.

Also see original posts on LINKEDIN: Advice on Collecting (part i) and Advice on Collecting (part ii): Disrupting Wall Street

Stay tuned for my next post: Advice on Collecting (part iv): Algorithms and Cyberspace

Advice on Collecting (part ii): Disrupting Wall Street

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Collection The Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Collection The Musée d’Orsay, Paris

By Homa Taj (IMDb)

About two weeks ago, The New Yorker published an article entitled The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong. The author of the piece is Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard University.

Lepore’s is a long and complex essay to which disservice would be done if one tried to paraphrase it in 3-4 sentences. As the title suggests, the Harvard historian challenges the very fashionable and exceedingly popular theory of Disruptive Innovation which is “a term of art” coined by Harvard Business School Professor of Business Administration, Clayton Christensen.

According to Christensen’s website, Disruption Innovation “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

I appreciate Lepore’s position as a historian to be at the bottom of the academic ‘market.’ To put it simply, in the eyes of the American financial sector, those in the fields of humanities are a bunch of losers. One of many online responses to Lepore’s essay, for example, went so far as to “argue that the ‘business model’ for the humanities, …will need to be radically disrupted or simply become a highly subsidized business line whose sustainability can no longer be supported on a market basis.” On a market basis?

Only in our virulently anti-intellectual and purely profit-driven culture would someone in a position of influence feel comfortable enough to make such a sadly informed statement as opposed to acknowledging the fact that, in any advanced and civilized society, ‘humanities’ and ‘the market’ are necessarily complimentary forces which need to grow side-by-side. In fact, reading Professor Christensen’s description of Disruption Innovation, one can very (very) easily draw parallels between the processes of innovation/artistic production and the art/market – that is history of art.

Here is the beginning of Christensen’s description of Disruption Innovation – including my insertions [ - ]:

“As companies [the art market] tend to innovate faster than their customers’ [private or public collectors'] needs evolve, most organizations [galleries and auction houses] eventually end up producing products or services [visual or performance arts] that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market.

Companies [the art market] pursue these ‘sustaining innovations’ [works of art] at the higher tiers of their markets [highly affluent collectors, or museums] because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers [collectors] at the top of the market, companies [galleries and auction houses] will achieve the greatest profitability.

However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to ‘disruptive innovations’ at the bottom of the market…” And, so on.

Again, Christensen may very well have drawn inspiration for his theory of Disrution Innovation – his “term of art”(?) – from histories of artistic innovation which have been formally documented since the age of Giorgio Vasari, c. 1550. It is no coincidence that the 16th century also marked the advent of the art market, as we know it. This was the era during which individuals began to be able to acquire art for their private, and even secular, pleasure.

In his critical study Modern Art in the Common Culture, Thomas Crow (Yale University’s Professor of Art History) writes, “From its beginnings, the artistic avant-garde has discovered, renewed, or re-invented itself by identifying with marginal, ‘non-artistic’ forms of expressivity and display – forms improvised by other social groups out of the degraded materials of capitalist manufacture… The identification with the social practices of mass diversion – whether uncritically reproduced, caricatured or transformed into abstract Arcadias – remains a durable constant in early modernism.” Crow cites Manet’s Olympia (1863) as the tipping point of modern Disruptive Innovation. That would be 150 years before our time.

So, here is the rub: in their attempts to forge seemingly self-sufficient markets for themselves, the business sector efficiently extracts all allusions to humanities, especially history – complex cycles of innovation and decline – the same way that humanists extract economic realities – financial and market forces – from their rhetoric on histories of aesthetic and cultural production.

In the American educational context, the two fields of humanities and finance do not meet since they are mutually considered inconsequential. This is why even the study of the art market – with history of collecting, at its roots – is regarded as an esoteric field in art history circles. It is also the reason why art and its markets are often, and quite inadequately, taught by organizations that have their own limited agendas, e.g. auction houses.

*I, for example, had to move to England to pursue research into the history of collecting which is the examination of intersections between histories of art and economics, at The Courtauld Institute of Art and University of Oxford.

For well over two weeks, Lepore-Christensen’s disruptive dialogue spread across the web with more than a dozen published angry responses to the Harvard historian’s The New Yorker essay. Pretty much every single one of these rebuttals expressed outrage at Lepore’s audacity to critique their Harvard Guru’s contributions to theories of business administration. Without getting too deep into this exchange – though I encourage you to do so -, I initially thought it most amusing that the disrupters took such offense at being disrupted.

Having spent too long (more than 15 years) pursuing academic research, I am well accustomed to academics’ “Revolutions are great … but not in my backyard” psyche. So, these exchanges have served as entertaining reminders that this attitude is just as equally and widely prevalent among business professionals who consider their work antidotes to those of academics’, most of whom they often regard as dysfunctional grammarians. “Disruptions are great … but not in my backyard.”

To Disrupt (Oxford Dictionary):
VERB: To interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem; To drastically alter or destroy the structure of (something).

After my amusement at this cyber war between MBA-armed businessmen & financial advisers and that lonely (though symbolically representative of all) humanist-historian(s) faded away, I came full circle back to reflect on my own experiences of working with public and private collectors, as a curator and museologist.

Though these responders’ texts conveyed their up-to-date knowledge of theories of business, especially history of disruptive innovation, I am bewildered by how they have collectively bought into a single academically-produced business management theory, and stuck with it. I am equally baffled by the ways in which their arguments fall apart, even in short 500-word texts.

A fairly generic response begins with:

I hold an MBA [expensive university degree] from a [brand name elite] university. I have done X number of years of research [pedigree & history], under so and so [famous brand name elitist academic]. I am now the CEO [important position, hierarchy] of a company [pedigree] which has been in business for x number of years [pedigree & history].

Yet, every article concludes with, something like:

Unfortunately, there are those who would hide behind the arguments of preserving the good old days [pedigree & history] to hold onto the preferential position [elitist academic], hierarchy [Oops! There it is], and control [CEO? Important position?] that they have selfishly guarded [elitist].

At first, I wondered whether these gentlemen – since there are no gentle ladies to be found among them – were remotely aware of the anti-humanist, anti-intellectual, anti-cultural and deeply hypocritical spiel that they are promoting. Do they not realize that their arguments embody the antithesis of that which they are defending?

“Disruptions are great … but not in my backyard.”

Is this why Businessweek called Lepore’s essay, “an attack on one of the most widely cited and celebrated ideas in modern business“? I see. So the problem is that a disruption has been imposed on one of the most widely cited and celebrated ideas in modern business and the disrupters aren’t happy about it.

Well, I’ll be damned.

After some thought, I became quite convinced that none of these business advisors realize how poorly their arguments are formed. This reminded me of two truisms: first, that our financial elites are not immune from falling for fashionable academic schticks the criticism of which, I believe, was at the heart to Lepore’s argument. And, second, money doesn’t buy great education. Every single one of these financial ‘experts’ continues to repeat academically produced theoretical jargons which are succinctly packaged to roll off one’s tongue, trippingly.

As a recovering academic, I am well aware of the toxicity of academic cottage industries and the perverse ways through which they perpetuate themselves.

No, I do not consider Professor Christensen’s contributions as nonsensical, or toxic. I just happen to be extremely wary of all neatly packaged academic theoretical shticks that are uncritically absorbed by popular consumption, and remain there for at least a generation.

Sadly, we cannot rely on our educational system as a corrective or critical measure since its disastrous failure to teach us the most basic elements of sciences – math and physics – not to mention humanities – geography, literature, and history – resonates at all levels of cultural and economic realities. Money doesn’t buy great education. But, … I repeat myself.

How does all this relate to “art collecting,” you may ask?

The growing lack of mutual appreciation for and acknowledgement between our financial and cultural sectors has bred a most perversely monstrous market. I only speak of the market with which I am most familiar: the art market. One whose currency is based on our national-cultural heritage, its past, present and future. Recognizing the growing gap between the two camps of humanists and the financial sector, an army of opportunist pretenders have commandeered the contemporary art market for their own short-term and short-sighted benefits. A huge majority of them would trade fixtures and fittings or, for example, exotic spices if they could make as much seemingly easy money as in the unregulated art market.

Have I mention that, according to Bloomberg News, in 2013 Global art sales approached their pre-crisis high of $66 Billion?

Every day, our financial elites are duped by a certain dubious breed of advisers, gallerists, auctioneers, critics, artists, interior designers, curators and art flippers who are masters at spouting third-rate fashionable pseudo-academic jargons … often, at cocktail parties. And, there is no one to reign in these carpetbaggers. “Hey, man: everything is art.” No, it is not!

In my next post, I will discuss why this artificial divide between finance and humanities has opened the floodgates of an entirely new breed of speculators that manipulate the production of tangible and non-tangible heritage to the grave detriment of our economic and cultural future.

Advice on Collecting (part iii): In Defense of Wall Street

The Dealer (Movie) by American Curator & Filmmaker Homa Taj

Teshima Art Museum(1024x765)

THE DEALER is a stylish thriller about a mid 30 year-old idealist art dealer who struggles with the contemporary art world and art market’s rapidly evolving structures. 

THE DEALER is a third generation art dealer whose father, uncles and grandfather had sold art to some of fin de siècle’s most prominent figures, from European aristocrats to American industrialists

THE DEALER is conceived by American curator and filmmaker, HOMA TAJ (IMDb). The film is inspired by Homa’s many years of experience working with art dealers, as well as art collectors, museum curators, and academically trained art historians. Daughter of an artist mother and a collector father, Homa was trained as an art historian and museologist at The Courtauld Institute of Art, Harvard and Oxford Universities.

Follow THE DEALER on Twitter.


Now You See It: Photography and Concealment at The Met Museum, NYC

The Met Museum, Now You See It, Now You Don't


The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is hosting Now You See It: Photography and Concealment, an exhibition that explores the hidden, obscure, or hitherto unseen. Disclaimer, though I am yet to see the show at The Met, its concept somewhat (!) reminds me of another exhibition that was co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Art, almost four years ago. Now You See It examines “The tension between publicity and privacy—the simultaneous desire to be looked at and to evade the merciless gaze of the camera—animates the work of artists as diverse as Arbus, Lutz Bacher, Jack Pierson, and Taryn Simon…”

Back then, I interview Sandra S. Phillips, SFMoMa’s Senior Curator of Photography who discussed, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. The show, that was on display at Tate Modern, moved to San Francisco where it was on view from October 30, 2010 until April 17, 2011.

I look forward to seeing The Met’s exhibition, before it closes on September 1, 2014.

Homa Taj (IMDb)