“I’m dead. I just haven’t fallen over yet.”
This is how one of our region’s more prominent artists reacted to a panel discussion held last weekend at the Nasher Sculpture Center. I ran into her as we were leaving the auditorium and asked her what she thought. I’ve known this artist for years. All the blood had drained from her face, though her look was resigned.
The panel had featured the notorious art flipper/dealer Stefan Simchowitz (along with some other bigwigs in the art-world; the discussion was a huge draw), and it turns out this artist’s dismay at Simchowitz’s methodical strategy for his… progressive brand of art-world venture capitalism was par for the artists in attendance.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, I’d run into a lot more artists who had attended the event and the refrain from them was the same. They were essentially demoralized by Simchowitz’s attitude toward art and artists (which wouldn’t bother anyone too much if Simchowitz didn’t use his money and influence to try to make and break artists). These artists I spoke to aren’t naive ones who don’t make a living. These are seasoned artists who do make a living. And ‘demoralized’ is the perfect word to describe what happens to art when Simchowitz zeroes in on it.
After listening to him sound off for 90 minutes up on stage, one thing is clear: Simchowitz may enjoy the controversy, but he does not fundamentally recognize why what he does induces cringes from artists and people who love art. And so the problem starts here: he doesn’t have an intrinsic understanding for the transformative, poetic impact that art can have in the world—I’d just say he doesn’t have a “feel” for art, which requires an emotional and psychological spectrum he can’t access. It’s like being tone deaf or color blind. But with art it’s worse, because plenty of people who have no feel for art can still enter the art world by hiding behind academic analytics and language (whereas a tone-deaf person is not going to play in any symphony). In Simchowitz’s case, he just throws a lot of money at his lack-of-feel problem, and recasts art as pure product. His aggressive “commonsense” approach is meant to make art lovers shut the hell up, because we all know money talks louder than anything else.
But art lovers won’t shut the hell up when it comes to Simchowitz. And Simchowitz gets angry and defensive when art people question his methods. At the Nasher, he kept instructing the other panelists to get rid of the notion of a ‘moral high ground’ in the art market. Like most committed capitalists, he objects to the idea that a ‘morality’ should invade something as straightforward as an economy. He has a point, up to a point, and artists and those who love art have long ago accepted that there’s no way to keep art separate from a market. But economies are built on the backs of human ideas and endeavor, and art is one of the most human of endeavors. To demoralize an artist through unchecked capitalism is to also ‘de-moralize’ the art, which essentially strips an artist of his will to produce and disregards the ineffable, undefinable quality that makes us, as humans, value art at its core.
When economies lose sight of the human at the end of the transaction, we have crises and disasters. In Flint, it’s the water. In art, it’s the exploitation of an artist whose career tanks at the hands of mismanagement and greed, and the bundling of that artist’s work into something like a junk bond to be sold to the lowest bidder, or locked away forever, or destroyed like unwanted retail inventory. Simchowitz buys young artists’ work in bulk at huge discounts (what is a discount when you haven’t established a market and Simchowitz is your market?) and then attempts to sell the work off to other moneied people and celebrities who aren’t doing a lot of homework when it comes to art’s meaning or history.
Forgive me for thinking art is one market that could use some protection from this fate. And it’s telling that a lot of galleries won’t sell to Simchowitz. (It implies better-than-usual things about dealers and worse-than-usual things about a businessman like Simchowitz. Galleries really want to sell work.)
In the art world, any “moral high ground” (when it comes to transparency, movement of inventory, production of editions, payment to artists, i.e. all the transactions that make up a market) as practiced by consensus is really just a convenient term for the much-needed system of ethics and honor toward the art and the artists, as well as the people parting with their money. And people who love art, including many collectors, have internalized that art is worth protecting from the vulgarities of a cold and unchecked flow of money, regardless of how many art fairs are in Abu Dhabi or Hong Kong. Here Simchowitz would have a problem with the word “vulgarity,” because he can’t recognize the shape of vulgarity as it relates to art. On the panel, Paul Schimmel and Amy Cappellazzo seemed almost mystified by Simchowitz’s bluster, because in the end, though everyone on stage was talking about art, Simchowitz was only able to talk about art in his very narrow understanding of its potential monetary value, which while being an aspect of the art world the panelists deal with, is not the only art world that Schimmel and Cappellazzo inhabit. Fundamentally liking art for art’s sake doesn’t have a dollar amount attached to it, no matter how high prices climb.
The artist is unlike any other ‘content creator’ (forgive me); he’s the only one who makes a discrete object that (generally) can’t or won’t be mass produced or disseminated. Simchowitz mostly buys art that’s already been produced, though he very much wants to be a (mass) producer of ‘product’ and he idealizes that business model, no matter its (or his) track record in relation to working artists. Simchowitz claims he got into the art business, as opposed to, say, tech startups, because he likes ideas, and he’s right that art is primarily about ideas. But in art, the idea does indeed usually lead to an object, and the impulses and ideas and direction of objects evolve. An art object can have a life outside the artist’s studio, and all of us who love art are responsible for that object, both as an object and as an embodiment of its originating impulse, and as a place marker in the evolution of an artist. Buying one physical work of art—or dozens or hundreds or thousands of them—knowing full well they are likely to be stored in a warehouse, unwanted and forgotten (as Simchowitz admits is a likely outcome of his buckshot approach to mass buying and producing), is a dehumanizing tactic only the most cynical collector can make. And it’s a route only the most naive and desperate artist—or cynical or conspiring artist—would agree to participate in.
Simchowitz makes for good copy, but there’s so little traction and/or presence in his operation and output that it’s very unlikely people will remember him—or the art he hawks (if you can call it that)—in 100 years’ time, or even ten years. On Saturday, Simchowitz confirmed everything we’ve read about him; he gamely performed the part of the bad-guy art flipper, and he knew he was doing it, and he called out the audience, the press, and the panel’s organizers for setting him up to be the villain. But here’s the thing. He can’t play any other role; he can’t bring any compelling gray area or nuance to his arguments. He can demoralize us, but he can’t surprise us, because he doesn’t grasp the whole picture in the first place.