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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