In 1993, CBS 60 Minutes journalist Morley Safer ruffled a few feathers in the art world with a piece called "Yes...But is it Art?" The program featured works made up of things like vacuum cleaners, empty canvases--even a can of human feces, which the artist had labeled "Merda d'artista."
On Sunday, Safer returned with a report on the excess and hubris of the international art market. The segment (above) was taped in December at Art Basel Miami Beach, a gathering billed as "the most prestigious art show in the Americas," where exhibitors pay $150,000 to show their wares to a clientele of millionaires and billionaires who fly in for the event on private jets.
Safer's report, "Art Market," is more an exercise in social criticism than art criticism. Naturally some people took it personally. "Now that Andy Rooney has gone up to that big grumpychamber in the sky," wrote Stephanie Murg on the Media Bistro "UnBeige" blog, "Morley Safer has taken over the role of irascible clean-up hitter for the doddering team of Bad News Bears that is 60 Minutes."
In a piece on the "Arts Beat" blog headlined "Safer Looks at Art but Only Hears the Cash Register," critic Roberta Smith called Safer's return visit to the art world "a relatively toothless, if still quite clueless, exercise":
Moving down the aisles he uttered some dismissive phrases like "the cute, the kitsch and the clumsy" while the camera passed often inconsequential work that was left unidentified. Mention was made of performance and video art. Occasionally he mustered feeble attempts to be receptive. There was a respectful pause in the aspersions as the camera passed a canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, although her name was not mentioned. Kara Walker was referred to as a "truly talented artist." At the Metro Pictures booth it was hard to know whether he liked the work of Cindy Sherman, but he noted that her photographs sold for $4 million (glossing over the fact that only one did).
At one point on Safer's stroll there is a chilly encounter with art dealer Larry Gagosian, who has galleries on three continents.
"At least say hello," says Safer.
"Hey Morley," says Gagosian, without getting up from his chair or offering the 80-year-old man a seat. "You always look so dapper. I love that."
Regardless of whether you love the art Gagosian sells at his galleries in Beverly Hills, Paris, Geneva and at least eight other cities around the world, you have wonder at the economic reality Safer's report exposes. At a time when unemployment in America is still well above 8 percent, when more than one in five mortgage holders have negative equity in their homes, when the top one percent of the population is pocketing 93 percent of the gains from a glacial economic recovery, Safer's piece does what a work of art should: it opens the eyes.
Safer's 1993 report: