'Selling the unsellable': the contemporary art market

  • The Cone (from performance) by Martina Schmuecker

A talk at the London School of Economics last month looked at the issue of selling performance-based, conceptual or otherwise ephemeral work on the contemporary art market. How do you turn a transient experience into something that can be bought and sold? Artist and writer Rebecca LaMarre went along to hear an expert view from Noah Horowitz of Sotheby's and the Armory Show in New York

Two thirds of all the artworks sold are paintings. The most expensive artwork sold in 2012 was Cezanne’s Card Players, acquired by the Qatari royal family for a modest $250 million. In the remaining third of the art market, among those works bought and sold that are not painting, are photographs, sculptures and prints. What about video, performance, drawing, time-based or conceptual practices? These account for less than 1% of the market.

Noah Horowitz, the source of these data, is an art historian and expert on the international art market. His talk at the LSE last month, on Monday 15 October, dealt with the economics of time-based, installation and performance art: the practice of selling what is ostensibly “unsellable”. As his facts suggest, this is a miracle wrought by the art market not every day but often enough that a handful of video and performance artists can still dream, however unrealistically, of one day making money directly from sales of their work. But how does this process work?

Horowitz is the author of Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market. He’s also the managing director of the Armory Show and a member of faculty at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. At the LSE talk, co-organised with Breese Little, he sketched out the problematic territory of immaterial or time-based work: “Since the 1960s, artists have created ephemeral and experiential works of art that were frequently informed by a desire to thwart the market's mechanisms, or simply by ambivalence to economic conventions. How then do these works of art enter the market? By what means can a performance artist make a living without public subsidy? And what challenges and opportunities do conceptual, installation and performance works present to both commercial galleries and collectors?”

Horowitz wanted to explore why, given the art-world’s penchant for multidisciplinary and immaterial work, sales are so dismal. For example, not a single work of the top 50 most expensive artworks sold in 2009 was video-based. Horowitz sees this as a problem of institutionalisation, and praised the recent retrospective of Marina Abramović’s work at MoMA, and Andrea Fraser’s video piece Untitled (2003), where she is paid by a collector to record on video a $20,000 sexual encounter. Horowitz cited these as examples of time-based and ephemeral critique that kept in consideration the possibility that they could be sold. With the former, this consideration was provided by the institution; with the latter, it was built into the work.

At a time when institutional critique was developing and artists were positioning their work as a critique of the market, artists like Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, and especially Yves Klein were careful to document their work in ways that could be sold to collectors. This took the form of carefully executed certificates, high-production-value photographs, limited edition prints, and other ephemera that went on to be collected by individuals and cultural institutions. The most famous example, naturally, was Yves Klein’s The Void, sold to collectors for a gold coin. Upon giving a receipt of transaction to the collector, Klein promptly threw the gold coin into the Seine.  Those receipts are now on display in glass vitrines at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

These works were made possible by a number of devoted collectors of avant-garde work, who were committed to the artists’ careers from the very beginning. Horowitz argued that immaterial work is only immaterial in theory; it is material in practice and relies on the market-oriented strategies of producing the appearance of limited access through claims of uniqueness or authenticity. The issue at the centre of this discussion is intellectual property and how this kind of property is sold.

The last part of the lecture was devoted to relational aesthetics. Horowitz sees this much-maligned tendency as using the legacy of the avant-garde to make work directly within institutions, rather than critiquing them from the outside, as well as more financially successful video and performance practices, like Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle (2002).

The art market is exclusive, and on its terms art objects are status symbols for the wealthy people who purchase them. Based on this, Horowitz said that the best strategies for an artist to use are those necessary for creating scarcity. He also argued that, given the current popularity of artists who sell ideas staged for brief periods of time, like the recent Tino Sehgal show at the Tate, now would be an interesting time to become an art lawyer. The disputes about intellectual property and who has the rights to it once it has been purchased will be inflating along with the art market, which hasn’t been dented by the recession and is predicted to have a turnover within the billions by the next decade.

Whether or not these considerations should come into an artistic practice is a much longer debate, and naturally, when the audience asked questions about labour, feminism and fair pay for artistic practitioners, Horowitz declined to answer, leaving those more difficult questions to the board of directors representing the various institutions he works for. Horowitz speaks from the perspective of economics, not from that of philosophy, art or politics. He was there to talk about the economy of art, and the lecture was an excellent opportunity to hear a clear outline of what art looks like from the viewpoint of economics. Good news for gifted painters, at least.