Art for the One Percent: 60 Minutes on the Excess & Hubris of the International Art Market

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:

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Comments (4)
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  • donna w says:

    For me, I think, the artspeak is the high end art market’s piece de resistance. Perhaps if I could understand what the heck critics were talking about, I’d be more inclined to appreciate a blank canvas or can of excrement. And if artspeak were almost, but not quite, understandable, I’d probably be awed, intrigued, intimidated, and likely to believe what the critics said. As a grad student in English, I’m used to theory and critic lingo, but artspeak is Sanskrit to me. Whatever skills I have do not transfer to that language. Because the art is so unfathomable and the critics are so unfathomable, it seems to me that the only explanation for the entire shebang is that it is the highest return on an investment that a very, very rich person can make. It’s a very risky investment, but no other market has the exponential return the art market has. The work of art is at bottom a commodity, like pork bellies. I mean, I’m glad the artists are making money, but it’s mind boggling how collectors, dealers, and likely some artists traffic in such mumbo jumbo with a straight face.

  • Justin says:

    As an artist I can look at anything and everything and say that “All is art” and I really mean it. But, to look at a jar of turds and think “this is telling me something” or “Wow, I should buy that!”… It’s so incredibly self important and ridiculous to think that this kind of art says anything more than “You have your self important head shoved too far up your ass to realize that this is just a jar full of shit”. It says more about the people willing to display the work as art, the so-called artists and the patrons who seem to be insulated from reality and have more money and time than common sense. This is one aspect of the art world that has always made me laugh because it’s more about parting rich people from their money than anything else. It’s all about who you know or who you blow baby, hahaha.

  • Christine says:

    I can think of a very simple solution to all this over-hyped, over-priced contemporary art and it is this: ban all forms of “found art”. Make it gauche to rifle through a warehouse and stick your name on a piece of found porcelain. Make it so that anything that isn’t actually made by the artist cannot be classified as art; and that includes culminating a series of found objects into one larger nonsensical object. There was once a time and place for it back in the 20th century and now that time is past. It has become way too out of hand now and must stop. The reason why it won’t is made abundantly clear in both videos– the players in this farce enjoy the cliquishness of their money-flow and these “art shows” are merely a facade. These works have no meaning because they are purely based on financial discourse. I can think of nothing sadder.

  • Cheryl says:

    And still, art remains our most precious commodity, our most protected treasure in the world. What really counts is what survives for posterity, just like the art of our forbears. It is none of your business how wealthy people spend their money. Until you succeed in a revolution, you can just sit with your mouths hanging open.

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