Saturday, March 18, 2006

Art and Commerce in The New Yorker

Unfortunately, the New Yorker profile of Tobias Meyer, head of contemporary art and auctioneer at Sotheby's, is not online, so if you want to know more than I'm going to tell you, you'll have to find yourself a hard copy. Might be worth it. It's a good article: readable, a fascinating fly-on-the-wall introduction to the heady world of expensive art, ideologically dubious. Of course you know it's the ideological dubiety (isn't that a great word I just made up?) that's gotten me going.

Meyer sounds like a lovely guy: hardworking, well-clad in colorful bespoke clothing, nicely apartmented and boyfriended, and with an aesthetic eye to die for. Also, apparently, raking in enormous amounts of money for Sotheby's, including selling the most expensive painting ever sold, though his February auction did not make as much as Christie's.* And in the gap between that sentence and the end of the previous sentence lies the ideological confusion.

Now I'm not one to erect barriers between art and commerce. God knows, artists need to live and I'd much rather see artists making loads of money than, say, hedge fund managers. So it's not that Meyer has both a killer eye for art and a killer instinct for making money off of art that I find dubious. It's the structure of the article.

The piece begins with Meyer's own beauty, follows him to the Met where he communes with an Antonello, swoons over his apartment and art collection, then goes biographical, lining up the art-loving mother, the precocious stint at a Christie's training course, the art history degree, and the apprenticeship at a local antique shop (all this in the great cities of Europe, of course). And there we have the ingredients for a portrait of the art-lover as a

Then, all of a sudden, just after Meyer's successful first auction in 1997, we are in his office on the Upper East Side in December, trying to get a collector to sell a Lichtenstein, and we're off. The rest of the article is buying and selling and, especially, trying to get other people to buy and sell, with the goal, largely it seems, of making more money than Christie's. Now when Meyer sighs over art, it is "to let collectors know that 'desiring an object, desiring to own an object--that it's O.K."

Well, thank you very much, I'm glad it's ok, and I'm glad that it's so easy to segue from "desiring" to "desiring to own," because, you know, we are living in the triumph of capitalism in which to buy is to live and the triumph of the art-lover is the selling of other people's art. I wish I could slide a Ulysses reference in here, but I'm flagging. My point...what is my point? My point is that this article sets us up to buy into its equation of art and commerce, and that we need to recognize that as a rhetorical move, just like Meyer's rhetorical move, not a fact.

As for me, I'll be fine with the inexpensive art on my walls and the fabulous art that the general public gets to see in museums, even if that means I never get the "very primal pleasure," "soul," and "status," that rich people acquire when they acquire art via Tobias Meyer for obscene amounts of money (little of which goes to the artist, lots of which goes to Sotheby's).

*I learned all this from the article--before I read it, I'd never heard of the guy--and I'm just trying to give you a taste, in case you are too lazy to seek out the current New Yorker.


Jenny Davidson said...

Great run of posts!


1. Meyer profile (which I just read too). Does it really bother you that much, the moneyness of it? I don't know, it seems so much a part of the New Yorker aesthetic, I suppose I am acclimated. I don't have it myself, obviously, but it's one of the things I do love about NY, I am not a fan of tasteful threadbare bohemianism. A colleague of mine once said disapprovingly about a former student we'd both had, someone who's really a star in the making, that he too much enjoyed hanging out for drinks with Mark Morris (or, we might add, Bjork or Matthew Barney or Lou Reed or whoever). But it is very much a part of this particular young person's charms that he loves that scene as well as the weird indie one. I don't know, just a few thoughts.

2. Re: Blink, decision-making. No, that's not really what it's about! (I reviewed Blink at the Voice when it came out, if you're curious.) I think you may be the opposite of a Blink choice-maker (NB your blog name...). I find this sort of fascinating as I (as I may have mentioned to you before) am PATHOLOGICALLY decisive. Really pathologically. I make up my mind in an instant, and I doggedly stick by the decision with no second-guessing long past the point when anyone sensible would have changed their mind. It has its uses, but it may be a character flaw...

3. I LOVE PETE DOHERTY. (Did you get to the Hedi Slimane essay yet?) Altho it is clearly totally inappropriate for the gym, I am always listening to the Liberties album of the same name while exercising, it consoles me for the fact that I am doing something out of character.

4. I bought new running shoes this week also of a previously untried brand, in this case Asics (which I have always in a I-also-can-never-get-the-word-verification-on-blog-comments-right way thought must really by BAsics b/c of the weird squiggle) instead of Adidas... longtime Adidas loyalist... but these are good. And look normal.

This comment is so long it is probably going to be rejected by Blogger...

Jenny Davidson said...

Also needless to say that was LibertiNes--a student of mine burned a ton of stuff for me a while ago, that was the one I listened to first because I am an 18th-century scholar through and through, and I was rewarded....

Anonymous said...

Is this the second profile that The New Yorker has done on Tobias Meyer? I swear I read another New Yorker article in the, say, past ten years which profiled the auctioneer of Christie's or Sotheby's, I can't remember which. I remember he was gay, in a longterm relationship, was European and a great dresser, with a great voice. I don't remember any other particulars. I just remember that people loved his presence at these auctions. Is this the same guy?

Anonymous said...

The "taste" of the article granted to us by Becca is myopic. It is only because of the existence of auction houses that artists are still capable of being financially successful... sure, the art world has been corrupted to some extent by beaurocracy, politics, and capitalism, but please show me an industry that hasn't... the point is rather that tobias meyer recently hosted an auction at sotheby's for contemporary asian art in which almost all the works had been completed by artists in 2005... and yes while the the bulk of the sales did not go to the artists, you can be sure that the rich returns from the auction will make any future works by said artists infinitely more "valuable"... and although we like to believe artists are beyond that superficial concern of making money like those hedge fund managers of whom becca speaks, the hot art market is certainly responsible for drawing in more artists from all over the world who are given the hope that they might actually be able to make a living... if people only hung cheap art on their walls, and only museums contained "expensive" art, you can be sure the amount of working artists would shrink exponentially.
tobias meyer is and should be lauded (as he is in the new yorker article) for making art expensive... it encourages artists, and draws people to the art world who want to know how paintings, sculpturs and such could be retrieving such high prices, which in turn helps the art world at large, because as a whole if the general interest isn't there, nothing, not even the museums will have a bright future.