"Art-Fair Art" + "Popcorn Movie" Syndrome
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I have a fetish for analyzing both the incentives facing the different actors in the art market and the consequences those incentives create. Some of my favorite posts this year, from Speed Kills to The Menace of the ‘More’ Machine to Narratives Make the Art World Go 'Round, have all centered on how the accelerating velocity of transactions is warping the strategies of museums, gallerists, artists, and collectors in varying ways.
Yesterday, dependably thoughtful gallerist and author Edward Winkleman penned a short blog post that neatly interlaced with some of those ideas. But it also spurred my brain’s hyperactive comparison-drawing function into another parallel between high art and Hollywood–with some potentially unsettling implications for visual culture.
The nucleus of Winkleman’s post is concern–specifically, concern that the industry’s intensifying time pressures are spurring contemporary artists to churn out work that satisfies only two of three targets a collector once told him all truly great art bulls-eyes: the head, the heart, and the libido. (Or in slightly more academic terms, the intellectual, the emotional, and the sensual.)
To buttress his argument, Winkleman cites fellow dual merchant of words and images Kenny Schachter, who bemoaned what he saw as the disappointing expected-ness swirled through last week’s FIAC/(OFF)ICIELLE double dip like the bland marshmallow substitute in a vegan Rocky Road sundae.
Winkleman’s point is both simple and dead-on: The work that failed to stimulate Schachter’s endorphins is just one example of how gallerists’ increasingly urgent need for inventory risks stunting the growth of promising young artists. The art market moves too fast for creative innovation to take root. Everyone needs to sell too much and too often to let ideas gestate. And to me, there’s no stronger piston driving the harvest’s manic pace than art fairs.
Schachter, though, takes the matter one step further by off-handedly defining a new category: “art-fair art,” or work tailor-made to be hocked at a blue chip fine art swap meet like FIAC. It’s technically “new” but only by the minimum amount of development possible from what came before–an art content to settle for “incremental tweaks,” in his words, rather than striving for meaningful evolution.
Winkleman suggests that this category could also be defined as meeting only two of his unnamed collector’s three criteria of great art–smart and sexy, but heartless; emotional and smart, but dowdy; sexy and expressive, but empty-headed.
I’m more inclined towards Winkleman’s definition, but what I find most compelling about the idea of “art-fair art” is less its precise meaning than its clear separation from “great art.” I think Winkleman and Schachter would agree that “art-fair art” is in some way creatively lacking but instantly marketable, while the latter is potentially revelatory but decidedly uncommercial. And seemingly every day, the sea level rises up to swallow more of the land bridge keeping these two species’ habitats connected.
This divisive trend loudly echoes what’s happened with American studio movies over the course of the past two decades or so. As everyone both inside and outside the industry recognizes, Hollywood now splits its calendar into equal-yet-opposite fragments like a yin-yang symbol. The summer and fall comprise the inverse teardrops, and the late winter and early spring act as the complementary dots mirroring the grander discrepancy.
“Popcorn movies”–genre fare hoping to leverage hollow spectacle and pre-existing source material like comic books, young adult novels, or previous blockbusters into gaudy box office returns, mostly by wowing the young–rule the summer and, to a lesser extent, the spring. “Awards movies”–those that reach for Oscar-worthy substance by maxing out the medium as an art form and catering to a smaller, more mature audience–ascend in the autumn, peak around Christmas, and then coast into an initial descent as winter presses on.
That’s the schedule. Separate but equal.
Except, not exactly.
As I noted in Part IX of my Average Is Over series, there’s a simple explanation for why Hollywood keeps pumping ever more hot air and cold cash into the slickly designed parade floats that are this generation’s popcorn movies: No matter how vacuous they may be, blockbusters are the assets that generate an overwhelming proportion of the studios’ revenue. I wrote at the time:
According to Box Office Mojo, eight of the top 10, 12 of the top 15, and 17 of the top 25 worldwide-grossing movies of 2013 were all either sequels, reboots, or adaptations of known source material, from Iron Man 3 to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to Monsters University. Together those 17 features alone accounted for about $10.5B of the approximately $35.9B in worldwide ticket sales for the calendar year, as reported by NATO and the MPAA…
How many other movies did it take to bring in the other $24.5B or so of the year’s global gross? 316. And even that’s a fraught measure since plenty more franchise adaptations, sequels, and reboots built on audience pre-awareness are mixed into the batter.
Of course, no one has the industry-wide data to prove that a similar profit profile applies to contemporary gallerists and their “art-fair art” inventory. But the anecdotal evidence–especially the virus cell-like proliferation of fairs– suggests that if it’s not already the case, we’re well on our way.
That sets the incentives in concrete for artists who want to make a living selling their work: Try to play the game, or risk stretching themselves on the rack between a creative passion and a begrudging side gig for the rest of their careers (which, as I’ve written before, is a dangerous path).
Is it any wonder, then, that the familiar (read: historically marketable) dominates the innovative (read: commercially unproven) in the industry’s most blatant feeding troughs?
However, unlike its Hollywood comp, the big risk for the arts is that there is no “art fair season.” Major international bazaars now plant their flags in every quarter. The Armory Show, TEFAF, and Art Basel Hong Kong will land in March 2015. Art Basel proper strikes in June. Frieze and FIAC own October. Art Basel Miami Beach serves as the format’s balmy, euphoric grand finale in December.
And those are just the heaviest hitters. The in-between months are now littered with lesser, more specialized fairs in smaller cities across the globe, all clamoring for any sliver of the spotlight they can grab.
So, like a pack of hyenas stalking a dying gazelle, my question about artists’ incentives to rehash is followed by several more troubling ones.
Given the art fair’s ever-presence and huge financial importance to gallerists, will contemporary art clearly fragment into “art-fair art” versus “nonprofit art” in the same way as Hollywood has clearly fragmented into popcorn movies versus awards movies? Are the two categories already diverging onto permanently parallel tracks?
Or since visual arts prizes and honors tend not to carry the same level of wide-reaching career benefits as major film awards–winning the Turner Prize or a MacArthur grant is great, but I would argue that it doesn’t carry nearly the transactional heft of winning an Oscar–does “art-fair art” ultimately devour its more contemplative counter-party and become the only game in town?
I’d like to think there’s a third way. Or at the very least, that the answer to the last question is “No.” But given the market trends I’m seeing now, the box office may ultimately be a dark omen for the future of the white cube.