Regular readers of The Gray Market know the usual format for Monday posts: I cherry-pick a few choice morsels from the week's sprawling buffet of art-industry news in order to lay out what I believe is a critical theme. For this edition, though, out-of-the-ordinary events call for an out-of-the-ordinary approach.
It would be intellectually dishonest of me to pretend that any theme this week was more critical––either to the arts or anything else––than the aftershocks of Donald Trump's landing in the Oval Office. But that acknowledgment also puts the premise of this newsletter in somewhat of a bind.
In the days immediately following the US election results, art-media outlets mostly tried to do their job without ignoring the larger issue. For instance, Marion Maneker took to Art Market Monitor on Wednesday morning to post some heavily caveated thoughts about Trump's potential impact on the art trade, mostly focusing on how economic uncertainty and rising inflation––both possible hallmarks of the next four years, based on DJT's campaign––tend to trigger increased interest in alternative assets like artwork, jewelry, etc.
But from what I've seen online and heard in person, much of the artistic community's reaction to this more-or-less "business as usual" approach has been nearly unanimous in its disapproval. Essentially, people have demanded to know how anyone can possibly be crass enough to spend time on THE ART MARKET in the wake of––if Trump's rhetoric reflects his true agenda––existential threats to democracy, a free press, and, most important, the lives of thousands of citizens who live outside the narrow boundaries of the president-elect's base.
This (understandable) exasperation brings me back to two of The Gray Market's core questions: What do most of us usually mean when we talk about "the art market," and how does it color our understanding of both business and culture?
I believe the standard answer to those questions appears in Nate Freeman's contribution to the same conversation Maneker entered on November 9th. Consider the quote Freeman includes from Sotheby's co-chief Amy Cappellazzo: "Trump is probably better for the art market if you analyze it." Or how about the sound bite he serves up from Armory Fair director Benjamin Genocchio, who believes that, during a Trump presidency, "the kind of people who participate in the art market are looking at a huge financial windfall"––one that should presumably sustain or augment profits in the industry until at least 2020.
The assumptions in play here explain why I ultimately chose not to try to engage with the specifics of, say, Brian Boucher and Eileen Kinsella's otherwise-fine roundup of industry experts' opinions about what comes next for collectors, gallerists, et al. In the wake of a potential inflection point in the history of western social, political, and cultural life, it DOES seem a little questionable to dial in on "the art market"––at least, if we're going to consciously or unconsciously define that term only as a closed arena in which socioeconomic elites buy and sell expensive objects for some combination of entertainment, status, and possible financial gain.
But the truth is that the art market is more than just this narrow strip of plutocratic real estate. More broadly, the art market is the means by which a global populace of diverse individuals tries to scrap together a sustainable living through the creation and distribution of ideas, emotions, and innovations in visual form.
The problem, of course, is that too many of us tend to forget about everyone not commercially successful enough to make headlines. And that creates an enormous blind spot in our understanding of the field.
The reality is that the vast majority of artists, curators, gallerists, arts writers, and others who participate in this strange, unique, and sometimes-frustrating industry are NOT looking at "a huge financial windfall" from the upper-class tax cuts and other policies expected from a Trump administration. Instead, both professionally and personally, many of them suddenly fear the future in ways that the pundit class assured them were irrational just six days ago. And this new reality is just as much a part of the art market as what happens in Peter Brant's private museum, even though coverage of it will have a much harder time getting greenlit in the average editorial department.
Now, it remains to be seen whether the hurricane so many think they see rushing toward the White House will actually make landfall. I'll admit that I don't have the faintest clue what kind of president Trump will actually turn out to be, let alone how his time as the leader of the free world will affect the arts (at least, other than to trigger a likely tidal wave of socially and politically engaged work.) I also think anyone who claims to have a clearer view of these outcomes is braver than me, no matter how closely they've watched the campaign. As pop-culture critic Molly Lambert tweeted on Friday, "Almost everyone's pre-election takes were totally wrong, why would their post-election takes be any less wrong?"
Yet Trump's election and the clamor around it have already done one thing for certain. They have reminded me that "the art market" isn't a high-end mall supplied by robots. It's a collection of people, many of them lifelong misfits trying to make a living by expressing or championing precisely what they feel has made them so different from so many others for so long. And that deserves to be protected.
It can be easy to lose sight of this truth amid the mega-gallery blockbusters, luxury-brand collaborations, and auction-market records that increasingly dominate art-industry news in the 21st century. And it would be irresponsible of me to ignore the cloud city completely if I'm going to fulfill The Gray Market's mission.
But there's so much more to see if we look hard enough, too. So all I can pledge is that I'll do my damnedest to keep my head on a swivel in the times ahead––not because of any particular political leaning, but because that's the only way to discover the deserving people and ideas that no one else might. And I hope that's a worthwhile enough endeavor to keep you reading during the next four years and beyond.
That's all for this edition. Assuming the world at large isn't ambushed by any other potentially society-reshaping events, I'll return to the usual newsletter format next week. Til then, keep your chins up and your eyes open.