The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 29 2001 3:00 AM

The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup

Do the art cognoscenti like the work they buy?

{{Hirst_Uncaring#111197}}The spring contemporary art auctions closed a couple of weeks ago with some record-breaking sales. Fears that the R-word would prohibit spirited bidding proved overblown. Enthusiastic prattling greeted such sales as Damien Hirst's shelving unit stocked with jars of internal cow organs ($250,000); Rachel Whiteread's full-size rubber and foam mattress ($330,000); and Robert Gober's crib shaped in the form of an X ($380,000). You may have heard about these sales, and you may have legitimately wondered: Who, in a troubled economy, is buying this stuff? Do they really believe they'll enjoy looking at it for the rest of their lives? And perhaps most important, where do they put it?

{{Mattress#111201}}To the art cognoscenti, and just as significantly, to the people whose deep pockets support the cognoscenti, the mere asking of these questions reflects a yahoo philistinism, a provincial conservatism that they'd rather die than be associated with. Only among the few members of the press who weren't wearing head-to-toe black did I hear anything that could remotely be called skepticism.

And even that rarely ended up in their articles. The art world, through a masterful manipulation of intellectual insecurities, has made itself largely immune to real criticism for the past 30 years. Its standard dismissal is: People have doubted the value of contemporary art since the beginning. And that's true. The 20th-century avant-garde, by definition, depended on confrontation with the bourgeoisie. Even Impressionism, which can now seem as banal as a Hallmark card, caused quite a sensation when it first came on the scene.

{{Friedman_Styrofoam#111198}}But there are two major differences today. One, it's not just the bourgeoisie who's failing to grasp why anyone would pay $29,900 for Tom Friedman's Styrofoam cup with dead ladybug. It's also sophisticated, often liberal, "cultured" folk who enjoy edgy work in music, films, and theater and would like to do the same with art. And two, most 20th-century work that's deemed classic today was appreciated by these types of sophisticates shortly after an initial alienation. This is far from the case today. How did we get here and, more important, how do we get out?

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The 1960s saw the beginning of two seemingly contradictory phenomena. One, content replaced form as the primary means of evaluating a work of art; and two, the art market became more about investment than about pleasure. In the '60s, conceptualism (emphasizing the concept behind a work rather than its physical expression) gave rise to abstruse, problem-solving art. This dovetailed in the '70s with multiculturalism, when artists became obsessed with issues of gender, race, or other types of inequality. The fact that you often needed to be well versed in postmodernist theory in order to appreciate the art seemed to be part of the point. Says Robert Storr, senior curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA: "The nature of really serious art is that you don't know what you're looking at." Not only is form considered irrelevant, but any value given to it is considered either elitist or philistine.

The art world has recently moved away from blatantly political critiques to a tongue-in-cheek embrace of the "global entertainment culture," whatever that means. This may explain the rise of "spectacle" art, of the Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan variety. So, while it used to be just the uglier and more obscure the better, we now have the more outlandish the better. Impressively, sensationalism, self-promotion, celebrification, trend-mongering, exorbitant prices—everything that has come to characterize the contemporary art world—is now justified as a critique of the commercialization of art.

This has all fit in nicely with what's been happening on the financial end. Despite claims to the contrary, the art market has always been about money. Before the 1960s, though, collectors didn't typically see art as a way to actually make money; they bought work both because they liked it and because it conferred a certain status. During the '60s the auction houses started publishing stats and graphs that showed the degree to which art appreciates in value in a very short time. This began to attract a wholly different sort of collector, one far more interested in investment value than artistic value. And since there were no longer any standards to judge a work other than "did an artist successfully critique society in the way he/she set out to?" the value of a work—both critically and commercially—began to stem largely from hype. Art speculation reached its peak during the '80s, before a seismic crash in 1990 sent prices and confidence through the hardwood floors. Today, about half of the people who buy contemporary art are serious collectors—they know art history and try to understand why a work is considered important; they may even like looking at it. The other half puts the stuff in storage, waiting for an expert to tell them when to put it on the block again. For the most part, though, both groups buy what others buy; brand names drive the art market today even more than the clothes market. Collectors invariably claim that they buy "according to their gut," but if you look at their acquisitions, you'll notice that their guts talk a lot like everyone else's.

Though the auction houses have been doing contemporary art sales since the early '70s, only in recent years have they tried to aggressively seize control of the market. To the horror of dealers, there is now such a huge gap between what a piece sells for in a gallery and what it sells for at auction that speculators buy artists' latest works in galleries, then flip them at Sotheby's, Christie's, or Phillips for a quick profit. Why would anyone buy at auction? The practical reason is that a new collector may not have any choice: Dealers often have long waiting lists of favored clients. But auction season is also a big social scene (at "preview" parties there's far more posing than viewing) and a unique form of entertainment. The auctioneers are funny and not just because they have to rapidly repeat numbers in a silly voice. Tobias Meyer, managing director of Sotheby's, looked keenly down at a woman who hesitated before raising her paddle for a $3.2 million bid and offered: "You look stressed—would you like to bid?"

The entertainment factor has been helped in recent years by the type of art being sold. At the auctions last fall, Christie's had actors prancing about in Pink Panther costumes with rock music blaring in order to promote Jeff Koons' Pink Panther, a porcelain sculpture of a seminude blonde hugging the cartoon character. And it worked: The piece sold for $1.8 million to an anonymous bidder.

{{Pope#111199}}Art cogs argue that, compared with even six months ago, some of the hype has gone out of the market—people are being more cautious. That may be, but it's hard to take the whole thing seriously when you're sitting in Sotheby's—whose name, even after being embroiled with Christie's for the past 17 months in a federal investigation of price-fixing, still oozes prestige—holding a special catalog on Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles, an Über-kitsch life-size porcelain sculpture of Jackson and his pet chimpanzee, reading that it's "a stroke of artistic genius," and watching someone buy it for $5.6 million. The surreal highlight of the season, though, had to be watching someone at Christie's pay $886,000 for Cattelan's 1999 installation The Ninth Hour, a room-size work depicting a realistic, life-size wax effigy of Pope John Paul II in white robes, felled by a meteorite that has crashed through the ceiling.