A journalist goes undercover to reveal the absurdity of the art scene

From The Washington Post:

“If you are not rich, you’re not getting rich,” the writer Fran Lebowitz once quipped about life in contemporary America. Judging from “Get the Picture,” Bianca Bosker’s mesmerizing new book about New York’s contemporary art scene, Lebowitz might as well have been talking about cultural capital. If you’re not born with it, you probably won’t amass much of it, because the gatekeepers in this book make it clear that they’re not sharing any wealth. “The art world is the way it is because not everyone has access to it. And not everyone understands it. And that’s sort of what creates interest and intrigue,” a gallerist on the Lower East Side tells the author.

Bosker, an Atlantic contributor goes semi-undercover with the 1 percent of cultural capital, in swanky Chelsea galleries and drug-fueled VIP rooms at Miami’s Art Basel. Her goal is to figure out why contemporary art attracts so much money, status and (occasionally) talent. She spent several years taking entry-level jobs in galleries and artist studios so she could vividly capture the new class hierarchies in American culture and the subtle cues that mark cultural distinction.

In one memorable scene, a former assistant at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery describes how her employer had “such stringent guidelines on answering the phone that her boss made her record herself rehearsing the one-word greeting (‘Gagosian.’), then practice till she aced the intonation: curt with a downward inflection, because ‘you do not want to sound happy.’”

Bosker learns that money is never enough in the New York art world; it must be the right kind of money, preferably old, or at least vaguely attached to cultural prestige. “Gallerists hid the prices, then refused to sell you a piece, even if you could pay for it,” she writes. She patiently talks to an endless succession of nepo babies who are reluctant to discuss their inherited privilege, so it’s refreshing when the gallerist Rob Dimin admits he would never last in the New York art world without his trust fund: “To get to this point without the family support — hell [expletive] no.”

In a telling scene, the artist Julie Curtiss panics when her paintings sell at record prices at auctions, not just because she doesn’t get a cut from secondary sales but because hype that comes too quickly can destroy careers. When the art becomes associated with nouveau riche investors, top galleries turn up their noses, and careers can collapse quicker than a meme stock.

The galleries inform her that the way to avoid this is to sell art only to “Good Persons,” which tends to mean wealthy White people with friends at powerful institutions. One gallerist tells her, “You don’t necessarily want just, like, Joe Schmo to buy it and put it in his one-bedroom Bed-Stuy apartment and it never sees the light of day again.”

The book also asks deeper questions about the ways art institutions now fetishize political radicalism, while often abusing or excluding those who live it. Contemporary art galleries are happy to exhibit Black, queer or even (occasionally) working-class artists; they just prefer not to sell the art to them or share boardrooms with them. At the time Bosker’s book was written, there were 176 members of the Art Dealers Association of America, one of them African American.

Meanwhile, salaries in the art world are so absurdly low that only rich kids with family money can afford the entry-level jobs, turning galleries into self-selecting clubs that perpetuate their own privilege. Bosker exposes the often-abusive labor practices of art institutions and shows how gallerists, artists and curators take pride in treating their employees like vermin. They “hire by feel and fire on whims,” and one Manhattan gallerist brags about putting assistants “through hell the first day.”

Language also helps to keep outsiders away. Bosker quotes a widely discussed paper on the birth of “International Art English,” a blatantly exclusionary dialect, “not necessarily for communicating,” that instead serves to build tribal identity among art elites. It grew, the argument goes, out of dubious translations of French theory in American magazines in the 1980s and still shapes art-industry-speak, where the francophone suffix -ité is often applied awkwardly to made-up English words. Bosker quotes a news release describing artworks that allegedly “summon forces of indexicality and iconicity from the aspirations, alibis and abuses of sovereignty.”

“Art devotees spoke like they were trapped in dictionaries and being forced to chew their way out,” Bosker writes. When she told a curator that a performance art piece was “boring,” the curator disagreed: It wasn’t boring, it was “durational.”

Thankfully, Bosker’s book is neither boring nor durational. She has written a dark comedy of manners, and what she exposes here might be a new kind of country club mentality, where the cultural elite can no longer exclude people based on race, gender or sexual identity, so they come up with clever new ways to build moats around their little castles. “Outsiders,” a gallerist explains, “have zero social currency and just can’t help anyone.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to C. for the tip.

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4 thoughts on “A journalist goes undercover to reveal the absurdity of the art scene”

  1. Who likes all those plain grey boxes just littering the landscape

    Observation might indicate socialists love them.

  2. Her goal is to figure out why contemporary art attracts so much money, status and (occasionally) talent.

    My goodness, how tedious the modern art world sounds! The “occasionally” part is funny because it’s true. I avoid contemporary art; I only like the kind that requires talent and skill and imagination. If I had mad art skills I think I would stick to computer games, VFX, cover illustrations — art people will see and enjoy.

    Oh, as for why the modern art world attracts money — so it’s not money laundering? Because we don’t appear to live in an age anymore where someone is paying a Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I prefer Beaux Arts to Brutalist, but *dons monocle, talks through nose* “Beautiful, life-affirming art is not Our Thing, Muffy.”

    The one initiative the Orange Guy came up with that I hoped everyone would get behind was the Bring Back Beautiful Buildings initiative (aka, Make America Beautiful Again). Who likes all those plain grey boxes just littering the landscape when you could have something Second Empire, Italianate, Art Deco … ?

    The book is probably funny, but I think it would depress me so I’ll skip it.

    • Art Deco is supposed to be having a revival.


      “Art Deco is all about hope and excitement. As we look ahead into 2022 and speculate on future design trends, maybe we’re no longer captivated by the constant argument on whether we’re living in a Modernist or Post-Modernist Era- but instead, an Art Deco one. Our understanding of the past is giving us a new opportunity to understand and appreciate the influences and immense beauty of this important movement.”

      Furniture and fonts I’m not too fond off but architecture? By all means, bring it.
      Even brutalist is better than the silly designs of recent decades.

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