ON SEPTEMBER 16, 2008, Damien Hirst sold a selection of his artwork at auction in London for something like two hundred million dollars. In the run-up to the sale, much was made of Hirst’s move to bypass the gallery system and offer new work from his studio directly on the open market. There have been plenty of headline-capturing auction results in the ensuing decade, but the Hirst bonanza remains especially memorable, and not only because he beat sales expectations: on the day before the artist cashed in, investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, kicking off a grinding financial crisis that, for many, hasn’t let up.
At the time, I was a teaching assistant for an introductory art history course. I discussed the Hirst sale with students who were bemused by the stark juxtaposition of boom and bust. They rightly questioned how the imminent downfall of the global banking system could have failed to dampen, even slightly, demand for what looked like mass-produced abstract paintings. There was a distinct feeling that art market actors had run headlong off a cliff but had not yet mustered the courage to look down.
One wonders if they ever did. Over the past ten years, even as the institutions undergirding our economic and political system came under tremendous strain, art institutions, if not artists themselves, appeared to thrive. From one perspective, the history of art in America since 2008 looks like a tale of great success: old museums massively expanded, new museums (mostly private) opened, and crowds flocked to exhibitions. Some galleries closed, of course. But these are minor blips in the overall rise of a powerful art–fashion–real estate complex. In 2008 New York’s main gallery district in Chelsea—now a glamorous residential area for people who love to buy art, or at least to invest in condos—still retained some vestiges of its historic character as an out-of-the way area to get your car fixed. There was even an abandoned elevated railway you could sneak onto.
The apparent contradiction between social collapse and thriving culture, of course, isn’t really a contradiction at all. Most ex post facto accounts of the 2008 crash make clear that recovery efforts benefited the patron class first and most lavishly. In turn, the arts overall were buttressed. But how long can this status quo hold? The Hirst event came to mind after a recent string of auction-related stunts that suggest some cracks might be starting to show. One buyer at a London auction got a surprise after the gavel fell on a sentimental painting by the street artist Banksy: a siren sounded and the work partially dropped through a shredder hidden in its gilded frame. A few weeks later, at another auction in New York, a painting created by artificial intelligence sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. These weird, high-profile gimmicks and money games inspire clever commentary, but they should unnerve. A clear intensification of bullshit is underway. There’s a strained urgency beneath the carnivalesque appearance of it all, as if people in power were testing the limits of what they can get away with before things fall apart. Are we at the tail end of a recovery, or on the precipice of another collapse?
WE MIGHT TRY to understand developments in recent art as partly driven by financial crisis. An art history of recurring collapse might start with the meltdown of 1987. In this issue Domenick Ammirati writes about the legacy of gallerists Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, taking stock of an exhibition related to their archives on view at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Both Hearn and de Land opened spaces in downtown New York in the 1980s, a time when the area was still cheap enough for cultural institutions to set up shop. Among the works on view at Pat Hearn’s gallery in SoHo was an installation by Kirsten Mosher comprising a trash chute going out one window of the gallery’s building and back in through another. It’s the perfect image for the neighborhood today. Behind the carefully protected landmark facades, interiors are in a seemingly continuous process of renovation for high-end lofts and pop-up stores.
De Land’s gallery, American Fine Arts, Co., exhibited work that appears equally prescient in its critique of American power. Artist Peter Fend created a full proposal for a bioenergy project that remains ahead of its time even now in its call for a wholesale rejection of fossil fuel. Lincoln Tobier devoted an exhibition to exploring the influence of Roger Ailes before the right-wing propagandist established Fox News. And Cady Noland installed pieces conjuring the resentful, violent culture of the most potent voting bloc today, what pundits call the “white working class.” Reviewing Noland’s work for A.i.A. in 1998, Lisa Liebmann found a landscape of “Yankee-Doodle chaos”:
The front part of the gallery, which smelled of sour beer, was littered with crushed Bud cans lying around an area sectioned off by freestanding steel bars. Inside and just outside this scruffy pen there was also a red barbecue grill and some steel-wire crates, filled with more battered cans, that looked as if they might have been stolen from a supermarket. The whole tableau suggested an impromptu picnic ground set up on a highway shoulder.
Here were symbols of normalcy—beer, bbq—that Noland had turned into a nightmare. At the same time, it was all arranged in a commercial gallery. “Once the initial thrill of anarchy subsides,” Liebmann continued, “her concise and precise sculptures prove her quite the ideal contemporary Puritan: austere and critical, but, ultimately, well-disposed toward commerce.” The last observation is a pithy summation of how Hearn and de Land operated under constant financial pressure. As Ammirati notes, Hearn featured abstract painters and sculptors within a program of institutional critique, a mix that was not only savvy for her business (paintings sell more easily than trash chutes) but also true to the makeup of diverse artistic communities. Still, the bohemia that Hearn and de Land supported was not some romantic ideal. The work they exhibited and sold remains resonant today precisely because it emerged from a world where disillusionment was inextricable from hope, always responding to material precarity.
Even the term “bohemia” has a false ring to it these days: in 2008 you could still encounter exhibitions by men in New York whose work expressed desire for a glamorously wild lifestyle. But this fell out of fashion after the crash: bohemianism began to look like privilege rather than rebellion. It’s telling in this respect that two of the most important retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art this past year surveyed the work of Adrian Piper and Bruce Nauman, artists who have consciously distanced themselves from the art world. Lucy Ives discusses Piper’s brilliant exhibition (now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles) in relation to the artist’s decision to “escape,” as Piper puts it, from the United States—a country to which she refuses to return. Piper’s art certainly complicates my imagined art history of collapse, as she allows for few periods of normalcy and recovery. The racism and misogyny that Piper addresses appear instead as constants in the United States. Her response is equally unwavering: an ethical stance grounded in philosophical study and predicated on interpersonal trust.
Nauman has lived on a ranch in New Mexico for the past three decades. In this issue, artist Gordon Hall discusses how Nauman’s sculptures capture the intricacies of bodily experience. Long understood as concerned with direct physical action and process, Nauman today has been taken up by Hall and other artists, including choreographer Ralph Lemon, as a model for thinking about gender, race, and class. Questions of identity may have been at the core of Nauman’s project all along, and form the basis of his relationship to the swings of the art economy. As he said in an interview with Joan Simon published in this magazine in 1988: “Many artists used to feel all right about making a living with their art because they identified with the working class. Some still do. I mean, I do . . .”