5 Shockingly Dark Secrets Of The Art World
Art comes in many forms: hilariously insane, criminally insane, obsessively insane, spitefully insane, perversely insane, and video games. Still, as much as we like to poke fun at weird artists and their weirdo creations, should we really expect anything but lunacy from them? After all, they all operate within the belly of a much bigger, more insane beast: the art world itself.
The Art World Is Tailor-Made For Crime
You're a cocaine dealer from South America, and you just made hundreds of millions of dollars off your delicious dope. How do you keep lawmen from seizing your dirty cash? You clean it with art, of course! The art world just so happens to be a perfect haven for money laundering. Traditional methods of money laundering (like the restaurant business) have all sorts of safeguards against full anonymity: stupid, petty stuff like having to name your business, keeping your books in something approaching balance, and actually dealing with customers that want to trade money for food. The bastards.
And try explaining why your car wash customers all pay in coke and/or blood stained $50s.
All that bullshit goes away with art. Secrecy is a hallmark of art dealing, one of the few industries where both the buyer and seller can and frequently prefer to remain anonymous, which is perfect for criminals wanting to move their dirty cash. One way to do it is by importing art at a ridiculously cheap price, when in reality the painting is worth millions of dollars. How bold do they get? Pretty damn, we'd say: In 2007, authorities caught a Brazilian embezzler transporting an $8 million Basquiat painting, labeled to be worth just $100.
Clearly too low a price for such a masterpiece.
Sadly, this was a rare arrest because art deals exclusively in intangible values based on perception. There is little legal oversight for who owns what, how much a piece of art is really worth, and where any of it actually goes, which makes keeping track of things and their exact value pretty much impossible. Thanks to the whole anonymity thing, no one knows how much this artificial inflation is affecting the art world. However, just looking at the way the prices of new artists' works keep inexplicably rising compared to the works of old masters, and the large amount of anonymous buyers and sellers in the game, we'd guess that the answer is probably measured in mountains of coke.
Art Galleries Trap Artists And Make Them Pay For Everything
Let's say you have a bunch of paintings that you wish to display in a cool gallery. Before you even make it through the paperwork, you'll receive a short, sharp shock known as commission. Commercial galleries can take as much as 60 percent of your work's selling price, which -- even though you didn't major in math -- you'll still recognize is "a shit-load" of cash.
Smart artists sell their stuff on the street, where the real money is.
"Sure, it's pretty high," you say to yourself. "But this gallery is in a nice area of town, and the staff are good at what they do, so the rent and wages are probably quite high." Trusting most of that shit is overhead, you give them your paintings anyway -- only to be told that you'll also be footing the bill for framing your works, painting the walls, printing out a few thousand paper invitations to the opening -- oh, and even the 15 bottles of wine that they're going to be pouring out for free. Ever wonder why artists are always shitfaced in their own openings? That's because they know they're going to be paying for those damn canapes you're wolfing down.
As much as this sucks seven sorts of monkey ass, there's still an upside. Maybe a gallery exhibition boosts traffic to your website, and you can make some direct sales. But wait -- did you sign a contract with that gallery? Most demand it. If so, you might actually be obligated to conduct all sales through them. That means the gallery now gets to take commission on any and all artwork that you sell. Does your best customer want to buy a painting directly from you? Tell him to start walking toward the gallery, because you apparently hate money.
"Go buy my latest piece! It's about slavery."
Still, no one's saying the gallery system is all bad: Without them, you might be able to scrape up an easier living, but you'd lack their seal of approval and might have a hard time establishing your name in the museum and auction circuit.
We're not sure if we just described the art world or pimpin'.
Successful Artists Run Factories, Not Studios
While the vast majority of artists weigh down the "struggling" end of the scale, and work from home or rent a studio with three other people and a colony of rats, the true mark of a successful rock-star artist is an opulent studio space. Take Damien Hirst, one of the highest-paid living artists in history, whom you may better know as "that dude who pickles cows." Hirst commands a vast, 2.2-acre studio complex that contains a personal gallery and separate formaldehyde building for whatever animal corpse he feels like exploiting that day. And don't start picturing Hirst himself in a bloodstained lab coat and clown mask, because it's unlikely he does any of the work himself. At one point, Hirst had as many as 150 employees carrying out his every bizarre whim.
Subway sandwich artists deserve more art cred than this guy.
And he's not the only one. A number of huge and prolific artists have made the transition from lowly painter to something more like an art foreman. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has made a career of commercializing his art, expanding his studio to an entire corporation called Kaikai Kiki. The company has offices in Tokyo and New York, and represents both Murakami and a number of his young proteges. Assistants produce most of the work that goes out under the name "Takashi Murakami," leaving the artist himself in a strange mascot role not unlike a pretentious Ronald McDonald.
Jeff Koons has gone on record, stating that he is seldom physically involved in the process of making his artwork. Koons comes up with the concepts, provides paid employees with paint-by-numbers style instructions for how to execute them, lies back, and tells his "laugh all the way to the bank" assistant to start cackling. And it works like a dream. He's worth a cool $100 million.
"Jeff Koons" is a CEO name, not an artist name.
And then there's Alexander Gorlizki, a New York artist who openly admits that he outsources all of his production to seven far superior painters in Jaipur, India. According to Gorlizki, it would just be too much of a hassle to learn the techniques himself. And isn't that what you got into art back in college to avoid: learnin' stuff?
The Art World Is Ridiculously Sexist
The stereotype of the artist as a tortured, moody man painting shit in a dark studio somewhere is a heavy-handed and persistent one. Women, as far as the art world is concerned, can go hang, preferably naked and framed on the wall.
Google makes us censor the nipples because advertisers hate art.
German painter Georg Baselitz is of the opinion that women are just no good at painting. Art critic Brian Sewell has been known to astutely point out that there are no great woman artists and "only men are capable of aesthetic greatness." We wish we were kidding.
"Women lack the penis, nature's paintbrush."
Luckily, these attitudes are slowly changing. Individual ladies are already making an impact, and the most popular artist in 2014 was Yayoi Kusama, a 86-year-old Japanese woman. But for now, a good chunk of women who wind up earning a living in the art world do so in the service of male artists who keep entire PR teams made up of women, dutifully promoting, selling, and representing the artist's work while he dutifully takes all credit and refuses to acknowledge their existence.
The Price Of Art Has No Real-World Basis
Because literally nothing in the art world has a fixed price tag, with the right marketing, a table full of groceries can and totally does get listed at $12,000.
Insider art tip: Never shop hungry.
Don't chalk that up to those flaky artists not understanding how money works; there are art dealers out there intentionally fucking up the prices by buying art solely to sell it forward for a profit. (Think flipping a house, only with a lot less work and a lot more money involved.)
To combat this, both artists and galleries maintain blacklists of dodgy dealers to whom they absolutely won't sell. The problem here is the buyer anonymity we mentioned before. Auction houses and galleries usually make sale prices public but keep buyers' identities a secret, so the high-end market for art is about as transparent as a lump of coal in a lead safe.
Market value: $11 million.
How unethical is this? Well, as Bloomberg.com points out, if the art world was Wall Street, everyone would get jail time for market manipulation. Well ... theoretically. We saw how well that played out in the real Wall Street.
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