Sunday, July 29, 2007


Watching the little islands of green stock tickers flash feebly against the sea of red on my Bloomberg monitor last Friday somehow got me thinking about art. (It is too early for Christmas, and the way things are going there may be no presents exchanged in Manhattan this year anyway.) Fortunately, DealBook ran a little piece that provided an interesting distraction from the screams of leveraged finance bankers plunging to their deaths from the office buildings surrounding me.

In it, DealBook profiled the list of the top ten art collectors published in the recent issue of ARTnews. Apparently "Budweiser" Ken Griffin of Citadel Investments, the most boring seriously weird rich dude on the profile circuit, has "elbowed his way" into the top 10 to join his competitor and chubby fleece-wearer Steve Cohen of SAC Capital on the list which leading art dealers use as a masturbatory aid. Steve, of course, has already proved his art world bona fides by loaning Damien Hirst's tiger shark floating in formaldehyde to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Perhaps SAC's limited partners were beginning to complain about the smell in the hedge fund's waiting room. Given the current state of the market, Cohen probably decided it was not a good idea to let LPs think the smell of rotting flesh was coming from anywhere near SAC's portfolio.)

Now the cynics among you (surely not among my readers?) might sigh and shift impatiently in your seats, expecting some hackneyed jeremiad about conspicuous consumption, invidious consumption, and fine art as a Veblen good. But no, my hackneyed jeremiad will address one or two far more interesting subtleties which I perceive (or am willing to invent) as characterizing the current phenomenon of hedge fund barons spending their ill-gotten gains on art.

First, I think most people would acknowledge that nouveau riches of all stripes have often felt compelled to buy their way into proper society by contributing to the right charities, belonging to the right clubs, and furnishing their palatial digs with the right furniture and expensive accessories, including works of art. Back in the day when the division between old and new money was clearer and more easily traced—usually by a quick lookup in Burke's Peerage or the local parish register—that's usually where it ended. New money was worthy of suspicion and requiring of acceptance simply by virtue of its being new. Nowadays, when any college student can earn umpty gazillion dollars by stringing two websites together and broadcasting grainy videos of Britney Spears snorting Drano off the chest of Hervé Villechaize, people have become much more sensitive to how a particular nouveau riche earns his or her money.

And this is where hedge funds come into play. For—unlike purveyors of trashy celebrity pornography, whom they embrace unreservedly—most Americans view people who seem to make money too easily or too quickly as having done something vaguely naughty or despicable. Therefore, in addition to the usual social baggage of being nouveau, a socially ambitious hedge fund manager (or his wife) has the added burden of being about as welcome at a charity ball as a Russian oil tycoon or Michael Moore. Spending money on art—a lot of money—can be seen in this context as a form of psychic money laundering, through which the pasha in question can exchange a passel of tainted simoleons—and a good-sized chunk of social guilt—for a highly marketable commodity which even Mrs. Badgley Whittington the Third will recognize as respectable, even if it is not to her taste.

Now arrivistes were buying their way into the Knickerbocker Club with Impressionist and Postimpressionist art long before Al Gore invented the internet, so what makes this any different for hedgies? Well, I have been struck not only by the sheer number of hedge fund honchos milling about the high end of the art world, but also by the simply ludicrous amounts of money some of them seem to be throwing at second- and third-rate art. I mean, eighty million bucks for the half-baked Jasper Johns at the top of this post?! It's not even a cultural icon, for chrissake. Whatever else they are, hedge fund guys are supposed to be excellent judges of value and canny buyers, but the prices some of these guys pay and the money they throw around at Sotheby's and Christies make them look totally unhinged.

DealBook attributes much of the hedgies' collecting fervor to their competitive juices, and there does seem to be quite a bit of the old "mine is bigger than yours" dynamic at play. But this has always been true of the über-wealthy, no matter what the provenance of their squintillions. What makes the hedge fund guys act like the new Japanese, who back in the 1980s seemed to take perverse pride in paying three weeks of revenue at Sony Corporation for a dusty old painting destined to sit in a vault in Tokyo? Is it the case that the new hedge fund collectors are not really collecting art, but rather symbols of their own wealth?

If so, this is the kind of meta-trend that floats a thousand art history PhDs and makes the editors over at Social Text have wet dreams. It also brings me to my second assertion, that, knowingly or unknowingly, these hedge fund collectors are creating an entirely new category of art: fine art as kitsch. As philosopher and critic of art Denis Dutton points out,
Kitsch (from German, pretentious trash, < dialect, kitschen, to smear, verkitschen, to make cheaply, to cheapen)

is usually defined as poor quality, "pseudo-art ... whose essential function is to flatter, soothe, and reassure its viewer and consumer."

Kitsch includes what advertising blurbs might call “original hand-painted reproductions of fine works of art,” mass-produced tourist curios in imitation of honest folk styles, most cinematic versions of famous composers’ lives, much patriotic art, the funerary sculpture of California’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, and all manner of religious reproductions and souvenirs. The kitsch object declares itself “beautiful,” “profound,” “important,” or “moving,” but such values are not internally achieved; they derive merely from the kitsch object’s subject-matter or connotations. According to Tomas Kulka, the standard kitsch work must be instantly identifiable as depicting “an object or theme which is generally considered to be beautiful or highly charged with stock emotions.” Moreover, kitsch “does not substantially enrich our associations related to the depicted subject.” The impact of kitsch is limited to reminding the viewer of great works of art, deep emotions, or grand philosophic, religious, or patriotic sentiments.

Whether you like it or not, most modern and contemporary art—the general period of preference for hedge fund collectors—cannot be classified as kitsch under this definition. But look more closely at the function and purpose of kitsch:

A major function of kitsch in the present century is to reassure its consumers of their status and position, hence its association with the ever-nervous middle classes. Just as an ostentatious set of “great works of literature bound in hand-crafted buckram” is not intended to be read, but to confirm the literacy and wealth of its owner, so works of self-consciously “fine” art may appear in domestic surroundings as emblems of status and good taste.

Clearly, a leather-bound set of Franklin Library classics or a Thomas Kinkade print "hand-highlighted under the supervision of the artist" is not going to cut the mustard in the 10021 zip code, but what about a Jasper Johns painting, or a Damien Hirst sculpture? Just the ticket "to confirm the [cultural] literacy and wealth of its owner," no?

Even better if you and everyone you invite to your Park Avenue coop knows that you paid $80 million for the thing. For no-one can remain unaffected by such knowledge when they attempt to appreciate or understand a work of art. In this context, "money is no object" guarantees that money becomes the object, a kind of meta-haze that any halfway conscious viewer must struggle to see the original piece through. In fact, Ken Griffin's very public purchase of the Johns piece becomes itself a kind of commentary on wealth, art, and social status in this day and age—a performance piece or work of conceptual art in its own right, which could be entitled "Ken Griffin Buys Johns Painting and Gets Himself Written Up About It," or "$80 Million Doesn't Buy You That Much Anymore." It would be less subtle, but he could create much the same effect by stencilling the price he paid onto the original painting.

And here is the capper: I can sense no irony whatsoever, no "poking fun at high art idolatry" in the behavior of Griffin or any of his hedge fund peers in the art world. They take this stuff completely seriously.

Solemnity and a complete absence of irony also mark kitsch: this distinguishes sharply the presentation of a bearded Mona Lisa in Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (1919) from the kitsch appearance of Leonardo’s painting on the top of a jewelry box.

Or, I might add, a preserved shark in a tank at the Met.

Now, if only someone could stuff Paris Hilton and the Jasper Johns canvas into the tank with the shark, we might have a real masterpiece on our hands. We would only have to worry that the Chinese would flood the market with knock-offs for other hedge fund collectors.

Like forgery, kitsch is an inevitable feature of an art world in which money and desire are spread more widely than taste and knowledge.

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Correction: Felix Salmon has correctly observed that I incorrectly described Mr. Hirst's shark-in-a-tank as "bisected" in the original version of this post, twice. Whether two mentions of half a shark add up to one whole one, I leave to you Dear Readers and any conceptual artists in residence to decide. Notwithstanding Felix's other remarks, I stand by the rest of my commentary as-is. See my comments on Felix's site for any required clarification.

© 2007 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.