Jedi Mind Trick: How Artists Sell to Their Own Punch Lines
Since the turn of this century, collecting contemporary art has become both a trend and a social necessity among the world's global elites, particularly the new money most desperate to portray itself as a lasting, worthy part of the cultural status quo. Back in 2014, I began referring to this class of art buyers as COINs, or "Collectors Only In Name." Their stockpiles of cash and thirst for legitimacy in the art world have inspired major shifts in the business models of all manners of industry insiders––including artists themselves, even at the highest levels of the market.
Some of these artists' attempts to cash in on the COINs have been particularly blatant. As Georgina Adam notes in her excellent book Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century, it's not a cosmic coincidence that Cai Guo-Qiang presented a 2011 body of work in Qatar that “included galloping Arabian horses… desert landscapes, robed Arabs, and a suspended camel: not themes he has explored in the rest of his work." But a few artists have conceptualized their way into the COINs' pockets much more subtly and cleverly: by creating works that send up the absurdity of the 21st-century collecting lifestyle––and that, in a telling indictment of today's art market, therefore become most appealing to the very people they're targeting.
Looking at a few specific examples helps clarify this phenomenon's economic and psychological foundations. In 2013, Eric Fischl initiated a (still-ongoing) series of Art Fair paintings, which literally depict scenes of crowds perusing booths at blue-chip fairs. Fischl creates the compositions by digitally combining parts of various photos he's snapped at Art Basel, Frieze, etc., then working the results onto canvas. Given that no one would ever suspect the different pictorial elements come from different events, the pieces quietly emphasize the uniformity of the crowds, inventory, and experiences at every stop on the high-end fair circuit.
Fischl has publicly stated that fairs are "the plague," and that "every single reason for art to exist does not exist in those places." And yet, in a kind of living MC Escher outtake, the Art Fair paintings have actually been offered in booths at the same supposedly contaminated, soulless events they condemn, including one at Art Basel 2015 for a cool $500,000. Virulent hellscapes shouldn't come cheap, apparently.
Stepping down from the blue-chip tier, the emerging artist Jonas Lund seems intent on making a career out of addressing the new realities of collecting. In his 2015 series Strings Attached, each canvas teams a wallpaper-like patterned background with tongue-in-cheek text that “restricts” the work's ownership, such as “THIS PAINTING MAY NEVER BE OFFERED AT AUCTION”—or, conversely, “THIS PAINTING MUST BE RESOLD BY MARCH 21, 2017.”
A year earlier, Lund fired similar rubber bullets at the new collecting class with Flip City, a series of digital paintings that directly "sample" compositional elements from the work of young process-based abstractionists that COINs were pumping and dumping from roughly 2011 to mid-2015. Aside from setting a visual honey trap for this demographic, each Flip City painting also includes a GPS device linked to a website that continually tracks the piece's movements through the physical world––and, in a sense, the market––as it's shipped, exhibited, consigned, and resold into eternity.
These artists and their gallerists position the series in question as provocative critiques of the new COIN-operated art market. There is some truth to that portrayal, and I don't doubt for a moment that Fischl and Lund harbor some genuine distaste for the most finance- and fashion-driven buyers. But from a marketing perspective, part of the works' brilliance is that they can also act as hall passes for any collector who acquires them. After all, who else besides a true connoisseur would buy a piece that ridicules the know-nothing trend-followers that have so shamelessly cheapened his passion? Only a truly special snowflake would spend five to six figures on self-deprecation or self-loathing on canvas.
So the subject matter in these artists' works becomes a kind of Jedi mind trick on the new collecting class. It promises to help them prove that they're a part of the in-group by visibly shoveling dirt on the "real" outsiders... even if, as is so often the case, the bullies and the bullied are actually cut from the same cloth. Essentially, what a COIN buys in these works is plausible deniability. And in a socioeconomic class where the optics of status and legitimacy mean everything, that purchase is worth every penny.