BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 04 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

Careless Whisper

Might the art world’s discretion on economic matters amount to a denial?

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 04 APR 09

Margarette Lampkin shares a secret with Andy Warhol at a Factory party, 1964.

The only thing doing well these days is the whisper. Too bad it’s not a commodity. If champagne spread apace with the bubble, then whispering is appropriate to the crash ‘n’ burn that has now come after the burst. It seems that the ‘pop’ of the cork is not so distant from the ‘psssst!’ of the whisper after all; at some level, inflation and deflation is all about air. At art fairs, exhibition openings and dinner parties of late, there’s inevitably that murmuring moment when someone lowers his eyes and then lowers his voice to tell you a tale of economic woe.

At first, I expected these soft-spoken interlocutors to reveal a major secret: an illicit love affair, a plan to escape for a few months, an embarrassing penchant (‘I just can’t stop thinking about Larry Gagosian’s hair.’) Or to indulge in some technical trade tattle: the artwork (or the artist) stuck at the airport, the sculpture broken by the installers, the compensation still unpaid by the insurers or someone’s hissy fit. But these days I know that the whispering is going to get graphic in a way that combines the numbers in a flow chart with the victims in a splatter film.

And there are tonnes of morbid tales to tell: the appearance of a 30 percent rebate on certain art sales in commercial galleries, its transformation from a proposal into an ultimatum and its subsequent rise to 35 percent; the extinction of sales since October; cancelled shows and scaled-down projects; the irate letter to the gallerists who dared to ask for a discount on their fair stand fees because the fair would surely not be the same one they had applied to last year; lay-offs, down-scales and closures; and the search for a day job (among artists: usually teaching), if not the search for another profession.

And I have to stop there because – whisper – I’m not at liberty to add any details to this paltry list. Among the gallerists lingering at their fair stands, the most ubiquitous sound-bite they have been willing to hand over to journalists over the past months has been a succinctly temporal one: ‘Collectors are taking more time.’ More time to buy or more time to pay? No one is saying, but, since time is money, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

The most absurd sweet nothings recently whispered into my ears involve the closure of a gallery. When the unnamed director explained to the press that the unnamed gallery in the unnamed city was closing down due to the global economic down-turn that doesn’t need to be named, it seems that a few other unnamed gallerists were unhappy with such an unabashedly realistic statement because it was so negative, it might reflect badly on the entire art market and eventually force them to close down, too. But what else could be blamed for … dare I say ‘bankruptcy’?

Of course, the art market – while a bastion of conspicuous consumption – has never been renowned for its transparency at any time, high or low, fast or slow. While sales were visible – thanks in part to those popping corks at the fair stands – the deals have tended to remain under wraps. Figures belong to sculptures; numbers to editions; and critics almost never mention prices in their reviews, let alone judge them. But is the rapidly spreading silence – a silence barely distinguishable from denial – the right approach to a crisis? Is the whispered tidbit – quickly followed by yet another denial (‘Don’t quote me on that!’) – the best way to share information, to find solutions and to make compromises in a global crisis that has an impact on everyone?

My paltry list above deals with facts only, albeit facts – I can’t believe I am writing these words – that cannot be reported. There are so many more questions, projections and possibilities, which have also been left out of the discussion as we whisper and worry about our own names being softly spoken to someone else. What lies beyond the state and the market? Can art still be considered a social good, distinct from other commodities? What if galleries become as rare as small booksellers and record shops? Is there any collective plan for 2010, when the cultural budgets will show the impact of last autumn’s crash? Did the bubble reflect a wider transformation of wage labour into a freelance entrepreneurial force, liberated from working hours as well as social security?

Unfortunately – this sentence I am going to shout – I cannot really address these issues in relation to the events that are happening right now in the contemporary art realm because no one wants to be quoted. Instead I will quote one Leonard Cohen, an old bard forced out of retirement because his agent allegedly made off with his savings. ‘I was able to satisfy the only dictum I set up for myself: I didn’t want to work for pay, but I wanted to be paid for my work.’ We might just be so lucky, too, if only we’d raise our voices.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.