I Am What I Have

According to Sartre, “I am what I have” is the reigning attitude of the bourgeoisie. Much as I dislike the word bourgeois and its historic uses, Sartre’s comment is on the money when it comes to art collectors. “I am my paintings.” Collecting is an upscale recreation, a game that confers the illusion of cultural superiority on the players.
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Cleaning out old files, I came across a copy of a speech given by Eugene Schwartz, a leading collector of contemporary art until his death in 1995. The speech had been delivered in 1970 but the copy made in 1987, the year New York Magazine featured Schwartz and his wife on the cover as embodiments of the 1980’s art boom. He was circulating the speech because he still stood by its premise:

The only prize in the art game is art. The only thing important about art is art. The only thing that matters, at least as far as I know, is who ends up with the painting.

In other words, competition is the spur. Forget all that highminded reflection on the ennobling aspects of art. Acing out the other guy, getting in on the ground floor, and proving oneself a ranking investor are the incentives. The promise of asset longevity, of a clever transaction, is the single aesthetic factor. In somewhat the manner of physicist Paul Durac who gauged the truth of equations by their elegance, the art collector takes aesthetic pleasure in the successful speculative stab. Beauty begins with smart money.

Most people think that to buy valid new art—art that lasts—you have to predict the future. This, of course is nonsense. . . . If you can predict the present, you don’t have to predict the future at all. . . . All you have to do is see what’s happening now—to see what’s REALLY happening now—and you can pretty well tell what’s going to happen next.

“Overexpression” (1998) Ross Bleckner
“Overexpression” (1998) Ross Bleckner

Schwartz continues with a self-congratulatory riff on his own prescience in buying Ross Bleckner and Peter Halley in their IPO stage. Then he offers ways to REALLY see the present in order to predict it.

1. Great art plays checkers. First it jumps one way, and then it jumps another. Picasso does Cubism, and then he paints classical figures. Minimalism jumps into Neo-Expressionism, and then into Neo-Geo. Therefore, look for the next jump.

2. Look for bird dogs. These are usually critics or freelance curators or especially young galleries who have one overwhelming skill—they can see the present. Colliins and and Milazzo with Neo-Geo, or Stux with the Starn twins are prime examples.

Photomontage by Mike and Doug Starn
Photomontage by Mike and Doug Starn

3. Look not only at the art, but at its effects. Who’s being picked up by established galleries for group shows? What young artists are older artists imitating? Who are the crazier curators exhibiting. What galleries, previously overlooked or disregarded, are getting a lot of important visitors suddenly?

Precisely how do desirous looky-lous determine which insignificant gallery is suddenly on the trade routes of deep-pocket VIPs? Are spotters stationed at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 25th Street? No matter.  What counts in #3 is Schwartz’s understanding of the word effects. No determinant is given for art’s humane or aesthetic impact.
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The art need not have any. All it needs is to have been noticed by Serious Spenders.

There is something refreshing about aviso #3. Love of art is fine as it goes; but, honestly now, how far does it really go? The fact of ownership trumps everything else. Schwartz’ obituary quoted him: “Collecting is the only socially commendable form of greed.”

Greed may sometimes correspond to connoisseurship of a more soulful kind. But even the most unregenerate vulgarians are under pressure to display hints of a sensitive nature. They must tremble in front of their purchases. Obedient to the protocols, Schwartz confessed to “an unshakable thrill, or an unshakable shiver” that halts his shopping cart in front of a particular work.

Why are collectors so reluctant to admit to collecting because it is lucrative?  And an investment in prestige? Any such admission would shatter the aristocratic model which beckons collectors. It is a devious siren. And often blind.
© 2013 Maureen Mullarkey