December 31, 2009

Tenacity of Benevolence

In anticipation of our excursion to Muir Woods National Monument tomorrow morning, here are some wise words from The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, published by the Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont. We found this inspiring book at The Warming Hut at Crissy Field while hiking the San Francisco portion of the California Coastal Trail.

. . . . . . . . 

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

. . . . . . . . 

There he began thrusting his iron rod into the earth, making a hole in which he planted an acorn; then he refilled the hole. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose it was? He did not. He supposed it was community property, or perhaps belonged to people who cared nothing about it. He was not interested in finding out whose it was. He planted his hundred acorns with the greatest care.

After the midday meal he resumed his planting. I suppose I must have been fairly insistent in my questioning, for he answered me. For three years he had been planting trees in this wilderness. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of the twenty thousand he still expected to lose about half, to rodents or the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak trees to grow where nothing had grown before.

. . . . . . . . 

It had taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to glow with health and prosperity. On the site of ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms, cleanly plastered, testifying to a happy and comfortable life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Their waters have been channeled. On each farm, in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow on to carpets of fresh mint. Little by little the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure. Along the roads you meet hearty men and women, boys and girls who understand laughter and have recovered a taste for picnics. Counting the former population, unrecognizable now that they live in comfort, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzeard Bouffier.

When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God.

December 24, 2009


YouTube video posted by scs75

We're headed out to San Francisco (one of our favorite cities in the country) for the holidays and each time we visit, thoughts inevitably drift to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller Vertigo starring Kim Novak and James Stewart.

Love, Fear, Obsession and Confusion (plus some scenery to boot) ... sounds enough like real life, doesn't it? 

YouTube video posted by randallmae

YouTube video posted by tonyflagg9

December 21, 2009

The Moral Idiot Is Tolerated...

Clement Greenberg outside Jackson Pollock's Studio, c. 1950
Photograph by Hans Namuth

Excerpts from Clement Greenberg - The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volumes 1 - 4 (writings from 1939-69), edited by John O'Brian and published by the University of Chicago Press, 1988 and 1995:

... Everybody knows more or less how to paint. Examine any picture, and you will see a good amount of knowledge and manual competence in it, if not sensitivity. And you will even see enough of that. Everybody knows what has already made painting great. But very few know, feel, or suspect what makes painting great anywhere and at any time - that it is necessary to register what the artist makes of himself and his experience in the world, not merely to record his intentions, foibles, and predilections.  The same tastes that lead one to prefer scrambled eggs to fried are not enough to furnish the content of a picture. The trouble with American art is that it substitutes pretension for ambition.

. . . . . . . . 

Life includes and is more important than art, and it judges things by their consequences.

... In any case, I am sick of the art adoration that prevails among cultured people, more in our time than in any other : that art silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist's part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else, even if at the cost of his art. As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society.

. . . . . . . . 

Once again, you make your own way through art, no matter what you read, no matter what you hear. Or rather, you ought to; if you don't you're missing most of the fun. That includes changing your mind as you go along. If you don't find yourself changing your mind from time to time, then you're not really looking for yourself - and there's no use looking at art if you don't look for yourself.

. . . . . . . . 

There are, of course, more important things than art : life itself, what actually happens to you. This may sound silly, but I have to say it, given what I've heard art-silly people say all my life : I say that if you have to choose between life and happiness or art, remember always to choose life and happiness. Art solves nothing, either for the artist himself or for those who receive his art.

December 20, 2009


NBC's premature cancellation of Freaks and Geeks still stings to this day, but do yourself a favor and catch Community on and yes, on NBC. This well-written comedy series stars Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, and Ken Jeong as lovable oddball characters at fictional Greendale Community College. The talented and balanced cast begs the question of everyone's inner Senor Chang that if community is finally possible (and visible) on the small screen, when and how can we carry that ideal into our real lives?

December 13, 2009

It's That Little Souvenir Of A Terrible Year

Here's Where The Story Ends 
YouTube video posted by vear1976

While walking to Chinatown for some fruits and vegetables this morning, we were pleased to see Lou Reed at such an early hour as we passed by Astor Place. During one of the many unconventional moments in our lives, Anna and I decided to play Lou Reed's Perfect Day at our small wedding ceremony to the "delight" of our guests. Seeing the artist in person got me to thinking about the state of music and culture today ... and the nonsense pumped out continuously by companies such as the American Idol marketing machine, etc. Really, at what point does the crap end? 

Of course, the title to the song Here's Where The Story Ends by The Sundays then popped into my zany mind and it brought me back to a slightly more innocent time (not that long ago really) before we were all inundated by the 24/7 brash and branded pop culture of today's world. Do kids even have a fighting chance these days? 

Here's to The Sundays on a Sunday. Here's to the trinity of their three classic releases: 

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic by The Sundays, 1990

Blind by The Sundays, 1992

Static & Silence by The Sundays, 1997

Live performance of Monochrome 
from the album Static & Silence 
YouTube video posted by comebackharriet

December 7, 2009

You Will Lose Your Power

... and if you still don't believe that some aspects of our modern society need more reasonable regulation and oversight, educate yourself about the modus operandi of credit card companies and the consumer loan industry. Please follow this link to watch the full program of Frontline's The Card Game, written and produced by Lowell Bergman & Oriana Zill de Granados - original air date November 24, 2009.

. . . . . . . .

To tell you the truth, it doesn't surprise me that the majority of those who are truly wealthy or are implicitly involved in big business have never much cared for the people of the lower class. After all, they probably see these folks as a burden and there just isn't much of a return on investment for caring, is there?

But what does amaze me from watching recent Frontline programs such as The Card Game and The Warning is the smugness with which some of those in big business, the banking industry, and on Wall Street conduct themselves and in effect are now dismissive toward our country's middle class. 30+ percent interest rates tacked on to credit cards. Passing questionable financial products that assured many Americans would lose their jobs, businesses, homes, savings, and lifelong dreams. In a reckless and immoral pursuit of profits, these supposedly respectable members of society stomped on every citizen's fundamental human rights.

Those in the middle class probably don't want to hear this, but the upper class has always viewed the middle class as gullible and malleable ... and unfortunately a necessary evil. What confounds me is doesn't the upper class realize that if they lose the support of the middle class, they will effectively lose their power? The middle class is the backbone of the United States of America - the people who does the dirty work for you ... the people who bought into the fantastical American dream. Why would you want to screw with that carefully balanced narrative? Are you willing to keep pushing until the people are forced to take to the streets?    

We Americans respect those who work hard, put in the long hours, and succeed. We respect success. We do not respect crooks. Roll out your standard patriotic, patriarchal, and biblical responses against reason. Keep talking about trickle-down economics and the free market economy ... you're running out of sheep faster than you can count. It's no longer believable that everyone else is just lazy and on the dole. Everyone else is really everyone else this time around. Who's going to bail out your mistakes, fight your wars, and believe in your fairy tales when the people cannot even put food on the dinner table for their children and families?

You, the self-proclaimed best and the brightest, are about to lose the middle class of America. You are about to lose your power. - PS

December 6, 2009

Analysis Of A White-Collar Crime

Brooksley Born, Chairperson of the Commodity 
Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), 1996-99

"In Washington, they say the financial sector has five lobbyists for every congressman."

> Congressional committee question, Summer 1998: "My question again is what are you trying to protect?"

> Brooksley Born: "We're trying to protect the money of the American public, which is at risk in these markets."

In The Warning, learn about Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve (and a disciple of Ayn Rand), and his complete faith in business, anti-regulation and the free market. As well, learn more about Brooksley Born, "who speaks for the first time on television about her failed campaign to regulate the secretive, multitrillion-dollar derivatives market whose crash helped trigger the financial collapse in the fall of 2008."

On October 23, 2008, Greenspan answered the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief."

December 2, 2009

November 23, 2009

Separation of Church and Art

Striking Worker, Assassinated, 1934 by Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Photograph from the collection of The Getty Center Los Angeles

"Somewhere along the way, the Vatican's relations with the art world had clearly gone astray.

And so in an effort to improve the Catholic Church's engagement with contemporary artists - and perhaps put a gentler face on a contentious papacy - the Vatican invited more than 250 artists, architects, musicians, directors, writers and composers for an audience on Saturday with Pope Benedict XVI.

Sitting before Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, after a choir sang music by Palestrina, Benedict urged them to embark on "a quest for beauty." In what he called "a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal," he told his guests to be "fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty."

. . . . . . . . 

From writings by the artist Sue Coe:

"If I get safe contraceptives I can paint romance not abortion.
If you create jobs I won't paint poverty.
If you remove your armies from other people's countries, I won't paint war.
If you remove prisons I won't paint the incarcerated.
If you remove bloody nuclear weapons from my garden, I will find time to paint the flowers."

. . . . . . . .

Instead of being worried about its own divisive nature, exclusionary beliefs, male-dominated agenda of control and profit, questionable political alliances, involvement in and support of mankind's conflicts and wars, and a very serious history of abuse issues ... organized religion decides to ask artists to embark on "a quest for beauty."

William E. Geist's November 12, 1983 article Residents Give A Bronx Cheer To Decal Plan always reminds me of Mayor Edward I. Koch's fiasco in authorizing New York City to "place large vinyl decals depicting shutters, potted plants, Venetian blinds and window shades over the yawning windows of abandoned city-owned buildings" in the Bronx in an effort to improve the image of the borough.

What do they say about putting lipstick on a pig?

November 20, 2009

Broken Bottles, Attempted Murder and a Chimichurri Truck

Film still from the movie To Kill A Mockingbird, 1962

After two days of initial jury selection (voir dire) and a five-day long criminal trial, the proceedings (and my first lengthy jury duty service) officially came to an end today. Like everyone else who originally received a summons, I honestly didn't want to take time out of my schedule to be in court. At the end of the trial and deliberations however, I can say with certainty that each of the twelve jurors understood the weight of the important decision that we had been entrusted to make. We also all learned to respect the court procedures and deeply appreciated the privilege of having been selected to serve.

There is certainly nothing pretty about multiple counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault. As well, there is nothing positive that can be said about deep lacerations, a stabbing in the eye, or in one policeman's words, a Washington Heights street "awash in blood." But what I was most impressed by was that the process played itself out fairly and in a structured manner. Everyone had a voice and understood what "beyond a reasonable doubt" meant. Twelve jurors of different ages, ethnicities, gender, educational levels, economic backgrounds, and most likely political leanings sat in the closed jury room for two days and calmly discussed the case, available evidence, and the words of the law. We were not always in agreement, but in the end the group was able to come to a unanimous decision and find the defendant not guilty of all four serious charges against him. I am not dramatizing when I say that it is one of the more memorable moments of my almost four decades of existence. I may have indeed found a renewed sense of hope in the system.

Tomorrow, I leave the very real world of lower Manhattan's criminal court and step back into the world of art - a world that in many ways is disappointing and has been overtaken by shallow attributes. It is not enough anymore and we are certainly not challenging ourselves if we collectively continue to cater to bullshit concerns and mere sensations. This is an open call for the arts to be serious and high-minded again. There's enough entertainment around. Let's take this damn thing we call life and see if we can make it better. - PS

November 13, 2009

Art Is Free, But It Is Not A Free-For-All

Abstract Painting, Blue, 1953
oil on canvas by Ad Reinhardt

Excerpts from Art-as-Art : The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, Edited by Barbara Rose, first paperback printing by University of California Press, 1991:

"Reinhardt defended abstract art both as an aesthetic and as a moral cause. At a time when many American artists were still confusing abstraction with various kinds of representational art including illustration, Reinhardt spoke, as always, against any sort of compromise. For him, ethics and aesthetics were one.

... The self-proclaimed "conscience of the art world," Reinhardt was undeniably a moralist. For example, he objected to surrealism and expressionism not on aesthetic but on moral grounds. He thought of both as forms of primitivism, which he detested. Throughout his life, he believed that man's greatest task was to raise himself from his origins in primordial chaos to reach the furthest heights of the human spirit, which expresses itself through order. He believed that civilization was worth the discontents it brought with it. If our own civilization had fallen into the decadence of materialism and sensationalism, he looked for spiritual values in other civilizations, older and perhaps wiser than our own."

Red Painting, 1953
oil on canvas by Ad Reinhardt

Abstract Art Refuses by Ad Reinhardt, from "Contemporary American Painting" exhibition catalogue, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1952:

"... And today many artists like myself refuse to be involved in some ideas. In painting, for me no fooling-the-eye, no window-hole-in-the-wall, no illusions, no representations, no associations, no distortions, no paint-caricaturings, no cream pictures or drippings, no delirium trimmings, no sadism or slashings, no therapy, no kicking-the-effigy, no clowning, no acrobatics, no heroics, no self-pity, no guilt, no anguish, no supernaturalism or subhumanism, no divine inspiration or daily perspiration, no personality-picturesqueness, no romantic bait, no gallery gimmicks, no neo-religious or neo-architectural hocus-pocus, no poetry or drama or theater, no entertainment business, no vested interests, no Sunday hobby, no drug-store museums, no free-for-all history, no art history in America of ashcan-regional-WPA-Pepsi-Cola styles, no professionalism, no equity, no cultural enterprises, no bargain-art commodity, no juries, no contests, no masterpieces, no prizes, no mannerisms or techniques, no communication or information, no magic tools, no bag of tricks-of-the-trade, no structure, no paint qualities, no impasto, no plasticity, no relationships, no experiments, no rules, no coercion, no anarchy, no anti-intellectualism, no irresponsibility, no innocence, no irrationalism, no low level of consciousness, no nature-mending, no reality-reducing, no life-mirroring, no abstracting from anything, no nonsense, no involvements, no confusing painting with everything that is not painting."

. . . . . . . . 

Art-As-Art by Ad Reinhardt, from Art International (Lugano), December 1962:

"... The one assault on fine art is the ceaseless attempt to subserve it as a means to some other end or value. The one fight in art is not between art and non-art, but between true and false art, between pure art and action-assemblage art, between abstract and surrealist-expressionist anti-art, between free art and servile art. Abstract art has its own integrity, not someone else's "integration" with something else. Any combining, mixing, adding, diluting, exploiting, vulgarizing, or popularizing abstract art deprives art of its essence and depraves the artist's artistic consciousness. Art is free, but it is not a free-for-all."

. . . . . . . .

The Next Revolution in Art by Ad Reinhardt, from Art News (New York), February 1964:

"... The artist-as-artist's first enemy is the philistine-artist, the "all-too-human" or subhuman or superhuman artist inside or outside or beside himself, the socially useful and usable artist, the artist-jobber and sales artist, the expressionist-businessman and "action" artist, the artist who "has to eat," who has to "express himself," and who lives off, on, in, for or from his art.

The artist-as-artist's second enemy is the art dealer who deals in art, the private collector who collects art, in other words, the public profiteer who profits from art.

The artist-as-artist's third enemy is the utilitarian, acquisitive, exploiting society in which any tendency to do anything for its own transcendental sake cannot be tolerated.

Art-as-art has always been and always will be a trouble for philosophers, priests, politicians, professors, patriots, provincials, property people, proud possessors, primitives, poets, psychiatrists, petit-bourgeois persons, pensioneers, patrons, plutocrats, paupers, panderers, pecksniffs, and pleasure-seekers, for the reason of art's own Reason that needs no other reason or unreason."

Abstract Painting, 1956
oil on canvas by Ad Reinhardt

Unpublished notes by Ad Reinhardt, 1963:

"... A museum of fine art should be separate from museums of ethnology, geology, archaeology, history, decorative arts, industrial arts, military arts, and museums of other things. A museum is a treasure house and tomb, not a countinghouse or amusement center. A museum should not be an art curator's personal monument or an art-collector-sanctifying establishment or an art-history-manufacturing plant or an artist's market block."

. . . . . . . . 

Unpublished notes by Ad Reinhardt, 1966:

[The Present Situation In Art]

"Things are lousy. The avant-garde is arrears. Artists are selling themselves like hot cakes. Art is a good thing. Art education is a holy-schmo business. Artists are jobbing. The lousy government is in this dirty war. One doesn't know what one can do about it. The art critics are all corrupt. The art critics are the art curators and they're also the art collectors and assistant art dealers too. The good old art words are dead. Things are awful. Artists don't know what to do, they're repeating themselves, they're making movies. Artists make telephone directions for making art instead of making it themselves. Some people still think the mass media can explain things. Artists are like businessmen.

Things are great. The avant-garde is behind us. Artists are making out. Lots of money around. Art is a good thing, everywhere. You can do anything you want. Artists are free of expressionism. The old rackets, scumbling, fumbling, staining, straining, striping, stripping are all gone. The art critics are all corrupt. Artists are freer than they've ever been. There are bigger and nicer art books than ever before. Artists are working more and bigger and faster. Telephones have never been so busy. The mass media give more space to artists who are working that gap between technology and life."

. . . . . . . .

From an interview with Mary Fuller, April 27, 1966:

"... There isn't anything that doesn't go now. The artist community is completely dissolved and artists aren't even talking to each other. They're all geared to the public, at least intellectually. The pop artists exploded the thing. They really did. They really ran all those meanings into the ground. Pollock wanted to become a celebrity and he did. He got kicked out of the 21 Club many times, and de Kooning is living like Elizabeth Taylor. Everybody wants to know who he's sleeping with, about the house he's building and everything. He has no private life. But finally it was Andy Warhol. He has become the most famous. He's a household word. He ran together all the desires of artists to become celebrities, to make money, to have a good time, all the surrealist ideas. Andy Warhol has made it easy. He runs discotheques...."

. . . . . . . . 

Unpublished notes by Ad Reinhardt, undated:

-> A twinge of conscience is a glimpse of God
"If evil is not reproved, virtue is not praised"

November 9, 2009

Happiness Only Real When Shared

YouTube video posted by filip54852

Eddie Vedder's uplifting cover of Hard Sun from the 2007 motion picture Into the Wild (originally recorded by Gordon Peterson / Indio for the album Big Harvest, 1989).  

YouTube video posted by Adorablekitty06

"If you want something in life, reach out and grab it."

November 8, 2009

All The World's A Stage

Andy Warhol, artist, New York City, August 20, 1969 
Photograph by Richard Avedon

I was reading with much amusement Carole Lieff's November 5, 2009 Art Advisor Newsletter titled The Spy Who Loved Me: Pop 'n Art and in typical pull no punches fashion, Ms. Lieff writes:

Pop, Art, Leo Castelli and Andy Warhol became the Wizards of Nothing. Leo said, "I make myths." For Pop he conjured the "suffering artist," "misunderstood genius" or maybe even both. Warhol said, "All artists are also actors, I think."

Maybe because the writer Ayn Rand has been in the news so much lately (more on that in a future blog post), but Warhol's thoughts made me think of a passage from Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead:

I never meet the men whose work I love. The work means too much to me. I don't want the men to spoil it. They usually do. They're an anticlimax to their own talent. You're not. I don't mind talking to you. I told you this only because I want you to know that I respect very little in life, but I respect the things in my gallery, and your buildings, and man's capacity to produce work like that. Maybe it's the only religion I've ever had.

November 7, 2009

1-2-3-4 Monsters Walking Across The Floor

YouTube video posted by BobbyBenson85

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, here's Canadian singer Feist reminding us in a lighthearted way of life's numbers game.

November 4, 2009

Practice What You Preach

Marriage License, 1955 by Norman Rockwell

Everyday, people the world over do the best they can to survive and live with issues of power, control, anger, hate, sadness, fear, destruction, denial, and divisiveness. With all these difficult challenges facing us, how can anyone be against the idea of two people finding love? If you preach love, you cannot be against love.

On November 3, 2009:

The Dollar Menu

There's a popular fast food commercial playing on television these days that asks "What can I get for a dollar?"

"Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pulled out a narrow re-election victory on Tuesday, as voters angry over his maneuver to undo the city's term limits law and his extravagant campaign spending provided an unexpected lift to his vastly underfinanced challenger, William C. Thompson Jr."

"The billionaire mayor had poured $90 million of his own fortune into the race, a sum without equal in the history of municipal politics that gave him a 14-to-1 advantage in campaign spending."

. . . . . . . .

Sigh. I think Charles Wesley Mumbere's personal journey from nurse's aide to king of the Rwenzururu Kingdom is a slightly more interesting read at this point.

A kingdom is a kingdom is a kingdom.

November 2, 2009

Mary and Mom and Hells Angels

YouTube video posted by Swordmaster10

Here's the lesser known gem Frank Mills from the 1968 Broadway cast recording of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Shelley Plimpton's voice carries the beauty and uncertainties of an entire generation. 

November 1, 2009

We're Not Candy

We're Not Candy public service announcement, 1980s 
YouTube video posted by tchrcruter1

Well, Halloween 2009 has come and gone and seeing all those excited Trick-Or-Treaters in the neighborhood with overstuffed bags of candy brought this dandy ditty to mind. Enjoy!

October 24, 2009

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 
first inaugural address, March 4, 1933

In separate speaking appearances this past week, ex-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney resorted to fear mongering and divisive words yet once again to skillfully drive home their points. Please gentlemen, we're smarter now...we're tired...and we need more than that. The American public needs their government's help and inspiration.

Perhaps Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Cheney could learn more about the art of effective speaking from classic speeches such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address from March 4, 1933. Following is a powerful excerpt:

"...Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."

. . . . . . . . 


October 19, 2009

Laughing All The Way To The Bank

Execution, 1995 by Yue Minjun

While attending the 2007 CIGE Art Fair (China International Gallery Exposition) in Beijing, China, I remarked to my colleague Margit how lukewarm I felt about the paintings on the walls. Many of the canvases were repetitively Mao-centric or concerned only with self in subject matter and exhibited the thinnest layers of surface paint possible. Almost all had the appearance of having been slapped together quickly with only commerce in mind.

Since those heady days, the art world has learned that the words bubble and market correction don't just simply apply to the great housing and real estate debacle. Following are several informative articles from the New York Times published in recent years (serving both as a timeline and as a commentary on the times we live in) regarding the highs and lows of the Chinese contemporary art market.

. . . . . . . . 

From David Barboza's article Schooling the Artist's Republic of China, published March 30, 2008:

"On a recent lazy afternoon Wang Haiyang, a student at China's top art school, was quietly packing away some of his new oil paintings in the campus's printmaking department. He is 23, and he just had his first major art exhibition at a big Beijing gallery.

Many of his works sold for more than $3,000 each, he said. And he hasn't even graduated.

"This is one of my new works," he said proudly, gesturing toward a sexually provocative painting of a couple embracing. "I'll be having another show in Singapore in March."

For better or worse - depending on whom you talk to - Beijing's state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts has been transformed into a breeding ground for hot young artists and designers who are quickly snapped up by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai.

The school is so selective that it turns away more than 90 percent of its applicants each year. Many of its faculty members are millionaires and its alumni include some of China's most successful new artists, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. And with the booming market for contemporary Chinese art, its students are suddenly so popular that collectors frequently show up on campus in search of the next art superstar. At the annual student exhibition the students no longer label their works only with their name and a title. They leave an e-mail address and cellphone number.

..."The buyers are also going to the school to look for the next Zhang Xiaogang," said Cheng Xindong, a dealer in Beijing, referring to an art star, one of whose paintings sold for $3.3 million at a Sotheby's sale in London in February. "And immediately they make contact with them, even before they graduate from school, saying, 'I will buy everything from you' " (A similar phenomenon has been observed in recent years at hot art schools in New York and Los Angeles.)

"This can be a dangerous thing," he said. "These young artists need time to develop."

. . . . . . . .

From Carol Vogel's article Amid Asian Art Boom, Manhattan Gallery to Open Branch in Beijing, published April 29, 2008:

"With works by Chinese contemporary artists fetching millions of dollars at auction and the number of Asian collectors multiplying, it was only a matter of time before a major Manhattan art gallery announced plans to put down roots in Beijing.

The first to do so is PaceWildenstein, which this summer will open Pace Beijing, a 22,000-square-foot space in a former munitions factory. The site is in the heart of the city's gallery neighborhood, the Factory 798 District.

... Pace Beijing will be in a neighborhood that is the equivalent of New York's Chelsea. "Factory 798 District is the third-biggest sightseeing attraction in Beijing," said Mr. Glimcher (after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City).

"There are already about 200 galleries there," he added. "It has 10 times the attendance of Chelsea."

. . . . . . . .

From David Barboza's article An Auction of New Chinese Art Leaves Disjointed Noses in Its Wake, published May 7, 2008:

"Sotheby's auction house called it the "most important collection of contemporary Chinese art to ever come to market" - some 200 works by some of China's hottest names.

And when the first half of the trove, called the Estella Collection, went on the block in April in Hong Kong, it brought in $18 million and set some record prices for artists, like $6 million for a canvas by the Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang.

But the sale of the works has stirred indignation among many of the artists and their dealers and some curators.

Those artists and curators say that as the collection was being formed, they were duped into thinking that a rich Westerner was putting together a permanent collection and would eventually donate some of the works to leading museums.

Instead, they say, the buyers were a group of investors who quickly cashed in by selling the works last August to the Manhattan dealer William Acquavella, who is in turn selling them through Sotheby's. (The second half of the collection is to be auctioned this fall in New York.)

... The conflict suggests the tensions that have arisen between artists, curators, galleries and museums around the world since the booming art market became global. The challenges are particularly acute when it comes to China, which has become a magnet for some of the world's biggest galleries, museums, collectors and art market speculators, but is relatively new to the game.

Chinese artists who a few years ago were selling works for just $10,000 each are suddenly signing deals with international galleries and seeing their works fetch $500,000 or more at auction. Indeed, Art Market Trends 2007 reported that last year, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists at auction were born in China, led by Mr. Zhang, 50, whose works sold for a total of $56.8 million at auction last year.

"It's amazing," said Fabien Fryns, a founder of F2 Gallery in Beijing. "I think there'll be a $20 million painting some time soon."

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From Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop's article Chinese contemporary art bubble goes flat, published December 5, 2008:

"The enigmatic self-portraits of Yue Minjun with their jaw-breaking grin are one of the most recognizable images of Chinese contemporary art and, when the going was good, those dealing in Yue's smiling men also laughed all the way to the bank.

... But collectors are no longer snapping up Yue's work. After four years of unprecedented boom, some sense is returning to the market.

"The market for Chinese contemporary art had long been overheated. Many artworks and artists are overpriced and overrated, notwithstanding the fact that they are good artworks by good artists. Needless to say, there is a lot of junk being traded as "meaningful artwork," said Daniel Komala, the president of Larasati Auctioneers in Singapore.

"For good artworks, the bubble has deflated significantly; for meaningless artworks, the bubble simply burst," Komala said. "The market is looking for a new equilibrium, which is somewhere between 30 to 40 percent below its peak."

... Nicole Schoeni, director of the Hong Kong-based Schoeni Art Gallery, said recent auction results would "humble a lot of people."

"I'm in a sense quite relieved to see this happening," she added. "A lot of the speculators are also not getting involved anymore."

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From David Barboza's article China's Art Market: Cold or Maybe Hibernating, published March 10, 2009:

"But just as he (artist Zeng Fanzhi) and dozens of other artists in Beijing and Shanghai put the finishing touches on lavish studios that proclaim their success, the market for Chinese contemporary art has entered a downward spiral.

A global financial crisis has wiped out vast amounts of personal wealth, prompting a plunge in art prices. Suddenly bereft of visitors, galleries are laying off staff members, and the collectors who patronized them now worry that their art investments may prove a colossal folly.

"It's been a long, cold winter," said Zoe Butt, director of international programs at Long March Space, which is closing two of its three Beijing galleries. "The era of Chinese contemporary art commanding such high prices is over."

... Experts say the contracting market is also putting the squeeze on major collectors, many of whom had been hoping to unload high-priced works in 2009."

... Many collectors were seduced by the numbers. "For people who got into the market three years ago, I feel sorry for them," said Fabien Fryns, who runs F2 Gallery in Beijing.

Artists who have benefited most from this country's rising profile as an arts center are still living in luxury residences and driving BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. But recently, they've been getting fewer visitors.

"Before, every day visitors would come and knock on the door, and I had to spend the morning taking them around," Mr. Zeng said, sitting on a leather sofa in his studio. "Now it's about half as much."

He seems somewhat relieved, however. And experts say the market drop may be salubrious in some ways for Chinese art. Soaring prices had created a circuslike atmosphere, with some artists turning their studios into assembly lines that mass-produced their most popular works."

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From Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop's article Chinese Art Prices Show Signs of Stabilizing, published June 9, 2009:
"In May 2007, "The Sisters (Grand Family No. 7)," an oil painting by Zhang Xiaogang, sold for $1.16 million at Christie's New York. Last month, it went under the hammer there again - this time for $722,500.

That sale sent mixed signals. The 27 percent price fall mirrored the overall state of the contemporary art market; still, bidding was active, and the painting came through as the top lot of the afternoon's offering of postwar and contemporary art, beating works by Damien Hirst, Keith Haring and Richard Prince. After its initial collapse, as the economic crisis struck, the Chinese contemporary market may be bottoming out.

... Still, two of three paintings by Yue Minjun - who was red-hot recently - failed to sell at Christie's day sale; and at Phillips Contemporary Art auction in New York in May, Yue's "Backyard Garden," a 2005 painting with his signature laughing men, estimated at $500,000 to $600,000, also went unsold.

"People are being selective about what's worth it and what's not," Ms. Dudek said. "Collectors are taking a more piece-by-piece approach. His most recent pieces have not sold as well as the older ones. The critical consensus on some of his recent pieces is not 100 percent established, but his earlier pieces come through with much higher prices because they remain fairly established in term of quality and value."

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Lesson learned (if any): Buy art you love, buy quality, and support those artists whose work and ideas you believe in for the long-term. It is not advisable to speculate. Unfortunately as they say, there is indeed "a sucker born every minute."