In the triumvirate (“virate” used loosely here) of art critics who adjudicate the good, bad, and indifferent in New York’s art galleries, the profiles are rather clear: Jerry Saltz is the Whitmanesque street preacher; Roberta Smith is the close-looker and fine-thinker; and Peter Schjeldahl is the poet and feeler-in-chief, writing from the highest aerie (in a good way). So, while the first two frequently address the market in their critiques, it comes as something of a surprise to see Schjeldahl writing one of his rare New Yorker features about art fairs of all things—those buzzing pop-up souks where dealers hawk art hot and fast in an atmosphere more welcoming to day traders than people who care about Velázquez. Of course, art fairs are currently the premier place where art gets sold, careers get made, and museum exhibitions and acquisitions get hammered out, so it’s interesting to see what he has to say.
Somewhat disappointingly, Schjeldahl spends most of his time on exposition, laying out the current fair landscape—Armory Show, Basels, Friezes, satellites, et al.—and summing up the state of an art market whose irrational exuberance is already clear to anyone paying the slightest attention. This sort of thing would have been best left to a plain old reporter with a talent for digging around beneath the surface (though there is some wry fun in seeing a quote from David Zwirner followed by a quote from… David Zwirner’s dad). It’s only really when he reaches the end that Schjeldahl makes his stand. Conceding that the art market is “a bubble made up of small bubbles, a bubble bath… [and,] having proved recession-proof, it may outlast anything short of a rogue asteroid,” he balks at the idea that, in this fizzy moment when owning contemporary art equals status and sophistication from Beijing to Brasília to Brooklyn, “people need to not not collect,” as one dealer puts it. The critic concludes: “Even with the best of mutual good will, a spiritual gulf steadily widens between the people who buy art and those who only love it.”
Compare and contrast that with something Schjeldahl said last year in a New Yorker Festival talk with Steve Martin: “If I had money, I’d be a collector in a minute. I’d stop writing criticism. Writing a check is so much more sincere than writing a review, because writing a check hurts.” Class warfare! That’s a glib joke, but it’s remarkable to still see the art world in a muddle over its relation to money, as evidenced by Occupy Museums‘s protest of the “rampant financialisation of art” that allows certain lucky artists to get wealthy while others don’t—which isn’t such a terrible state, considering that the historical alternative is not some utopia where all artists make money but a situation where almost no artists make money, aka pre-1980s planet Earth. Then you’ve got W.A.G.E. arguing (sensibly) that artists should get fair pay for their creative work with art institutions.
The irony in all of this—as Schjehldahl’s festival quote acknowledges—is that while it might be out of the range of many people, buying art is actually the most accessible, democratic way for a non-art-critic to support and advance living artists, especially emerging artists, at a time when public art funding is dramatically on the wane everywhere (except in China). The real question is: are the artists you could support with your patronage, or just with your attention, deserving of that support? Another question: is the money pouring into the art world having a salubrious effect on the quality of the art being made? And here is where we look to Peter Schjeldahl.