Through a chain of serendipities, last week I ended up at Art Cologne, a trade fair for the art industry.
It's an opportunity for galleries to show off their artists, bag new clients and reach their yearly quota for the word ‘zeitgeist’.
I was wearing collared shirt and carrying a notebook, so people thought I was there to buy. As opposed to gawk and finagle, which was closer to the truth.
The art industry is the last true alchemy left in the modern economy.
Like most developed-world business models, it doesn’t really make anything.
It takes equal parts gossip, expectation and propaganda and turns them into revenue.
Collecting art is either an expression of self, the promotion of an idea or an investment in a commodity, depending on which two people are conversing.
Art galleries work like this: You rent a space, you give it a name, you find an artist. You put their stuff on the wall until someone buys it. You take a percentage and move on to the next wall.
It’s like running a mini-mart, except you don’t actually own anything you’re selling.
Creating art may be philosophy, but selling it is pure capitalism.
After the fair, I asked a gallery owner how he decides how much a particular piece will cost.
Why does this diorama, for example, cost $45,000?
Why not $10,000? Or $200,000?
‘Darling,’ he said.
‘It costs whatever they’ll pay.’
I asked him whether the artists attended.
‘You don’t see cows at a cattle rancher convention,’ he said.
After the show, I met a British performance artist
who had a job teaching English to factory workers in The Netherlands.
Instead of teaching them terms like ‘value chain’ and ‘synergy’, she replaced all the course materials with the works of Marx and explanations of labor rights.
‘If the school finds out, they’ll fire me,’ she said. ‘But it’s not a job, goddammit, it’s art.’
After last week I still agree with her sentiment.
But maybe not her italics.