How do you place a price tag on art in an age of perpetual crisis?

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“It shows the limited quality of the press,” Jeff Koons said in an interview at the TED-style Art for Tomorrow conference in Athens in June, bewailing how journalists, in his view, are obsessed with writing about the price of his art, rather than the art itself. “What is easier for them is to talk about money, and these types of aspects. I think the writers are insecure to speak about art,” added Koons, who has an estimated wealth of $400m, according to Celebrity Net Worth website.

The interview was held a few days before Koons’s big, blingy steel sculpture Balloon Monkey (Magenta), from 2006-2013, was auctioned in London at Christie’s for £10.1m ($12.4m). The price was less than half the $25.9m another version of the sculpture, Balloon Monkey (Orange), set at auction in 2014. Back then, at the last height of the market, Koons was the world’s 10th highest grossing artist at auction. At the time of writing, he was the 65th, according to Artprice.

During the previous two decades, Koons, like Damien Hirst, had been one of the world’s most successful producers of what might be termed “market” art. These highly expensive, conceptually unchallenging works, released in an instantly recognisable series of unique variants, were specifically made for gallery shows and fairs frequented by the international super-rich. Given such advanced levels of commodification and financialisation, the most interesting thing to write about market art, like NFTs—which are its logical digital extension—is, ultimately, the price.

Instagrammable art

And it continues to be. A small 2018 oil-on-paper Study by Flora Yukhnovich, currently one of the art market’s most coveted must-have names, sold at Phillips in June for £52,920 ($62,499), ten times the estimate.

Yukhnovich is part of an ever-expanding cohort of young artists whose Rococo-style paintings happen to look terrific on Instagram and on the white walls of galleries and super-prime homes. These artists all have a distinctive aesthetic, which is repeated again and again for the queues of waiting buyers (and flippers) at the dealerships who represent them.

“Artists are categorised like trading cards. People are buying lots of work in the hope of having something that goes berserk in the auctions,” says the artist Greg Ito, who is based in Los Angeles, where more and more dealers are holding more and more shows of Instagrammable young art. “It seems there are just more speculative collectors following trends and more galleries that support these trends for market purposes,” Ito adds.

Sooner or later these artists might fall out of fashion but, like the tyres of a Formula One car racing round and round a Grand Prix track, they can be quickly replaced. And just like F1, the art market is an environmentally heedless circus that astutely moves wherever the money is. Miami hosted its inaugural Grand Prix this year, Seoul its first Frieze art fair.

At the same time, vast swathes of our warming planet have been stricken by the most severe droughts in living memory, the war in Ukraine threatens to go nuclear, food prices soar, oil companies reap record profits, income inequality widens. The checklist of major issues afflicting humanity goes on and on.

The institutional art world is trying its best to showcase art that grapples with this. The 15th edition of Documenta in Kassel has controversially delegated its curation to a collective from Indonesia, giving a rare leading role to artists from the Global South and their concerns. Meanwhile, Sun & Sea, Lithuania’s Golden Lion-winning eco-opera from the 2019 Venice Biennale, is touring the Global North, melodising the nullity of flying 6,000 miles to play frisbee on a beach, and the Serpentine gallery’s ongoing Back to Earth programme has asked more than 60 creatives to address the climate emergency.

But why haven’t these new imperatives gained more traction in the market? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired record auction prices for previously undervalued talents such as Kerry James Marshall, Barkley Hendricks, Charles White and Amy Sherald.

“The doom-and-gloom headlines have a paralysing effect on people,” explains John Wolf, a Los Angeles-based art adviser, referring to the crushingly apocalyptic tone of much of the media’s environmental coverage.

Wolf is doing his bit to alter the art market’s mindset by mounting a pop-up group exhibition of 18 paintings and ceramics inspired by the climate emergency in Yucca Valley, California, where global warming is threatening the famed Joshua tree with extinction. Helter Swelter, which runs until 30 September, includes the 2022 Eric Yahnker oil painting, Toast, depicting two hands clinking champagne glasses in an ever-rising ocean, priced at $8,000. Julie Curtiss’s 2018 gouache, The Nest, showing a fish caught high and dry in an expanse of the New York’s artist’s trademark tightly braided hair, is marked at $44,000.

Confront and subvert

Trying to sell environmentally aware paintings is one thing. Finding a market for conceptually ambitious art that actually confronts and subverts the economic forces that have landed 21st-century humanity in this mess is another.

Renzo Martens, for instance, is a Dutch artist who has collaborated with the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League to make figure sculptures out of chocolate that seriously mess with the West’s post-colonial complacencies of mind. Enthusiastically reviewed when exhibited at the SculptureCenter in New York in 2017, these unnerving inedible, unmeltable creations sell for up to $20,000 each to raise funds for communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo impoverished by the closure of Unilever’s palm oil plantation business. They have so far made a profit of $150,000, according to Martens.

“It is remarkable that a blue-chip gallery has yet to pick them up, as that would generate a most meaningful shift in the art market,” Martens says. So far, that hasn’t happened, and none of the sculptures have appeared at auction.

The Congolese collective’s struggle to make an impact in the market typifies the challenges faced by politically engaged “activist” art.

“If activist art is monetised, it fails,” says Gregory Sholette, a New York-based artist and writer, whose latest book, The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art, is published by Lund Humphries this month.

“How do we stop that? Artists either just leave the art world completely, or they try to oppose it, and then risk becoming entangled in it,” Sholette adds.

Banksy is arguably the world’s most famous activist-artist. He is also the market’s eighth best-selling artist at auction, according to Artprice. In 2018, one of his paintings was meant to self-destruct at a Sotheby’s sale, thereby satirising and nullifying the excesses of the market. But the shredding mechanism stopped halfway, and the damaged canvas went on to sell for £1.04m ($1.4m). Three years later, re-marketed by Sotheby’s as a masterpiece of performance art, the semi-shredded painting was flipped for £18.6m ($25.4m).

“Capitalist thoughts and concepts have reached their peak,” says Ai Weiwei, one of the few other politically engaged artists whose output has been enthusiastically embraced by the market, with all its entanglements. Our present education and value systems “do not encourage self-introspection and critical thinking”, he adds.

Ai believes “the feeling of powerlessness and decadence in the field of art will not dissolve anytime soon” and the “lack of politically engaged artworks will continue into the foreseeable future”.

It certainly will if this field and its media continue to evaluate art primarily by its price.

Maybe Jeff has a point.

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