Lucky you. Lucky me. Both of us have ahead of us in 2009 the totally tantalising prospect of watching how the art world responds to the recession. Will the entire house of cards collapse in on itself, leaving the thinnest of messes? Or will some cunning redrawing be embarked on that eventually results in a new version of the tottering edifice? Ask me again in December. What is absolutely certain is that this recession has come in the nick of time, and that we should welcome it with open arms. The art world has spent a decade and a half metamorphosing into something ugly and worthless. That process has been halted. There is hope.
The art world itself will see things differently, of course. It decided long ago that it was a special case, ungoverned by the usual societal rules. I remember, back in the 1980s, interviewing that dramatic German painter Georg Baselitz, the one who specialised in painting figures upside down, and asking him if he felt any guilt about the astronomical prices his pictures were fetching at auction. Baselitz, who lived in a castle at the time, took a big puff on his cigar and actually blew the smoke out in my face, with the words: “What is better than a painting? Nothing.” Conversation over.
This idea that art exists in a different societal realm to anything else is merely laughable when a human cartoon like Baselitz takes to believing it. But when greed begins to be passed off as a redemptive force at the most basic, democratic levels of society – as happens annually at London’s Frieze Art Fair, say, where tens of thousands of us career past zillions of examples of unwatchable art in the mad search for a redemptive bargain we haven’t a hope in hell of seeing properly, because of all the other redemptive bargains jam-packed into the same tent – then all of us are in desperate need of a good shaking.
As recently as the November auctions, you could still find plenty of inhabitants of Sotheby’s-and-Christie’s-land who were insisting that art was recession-proof, that aesthetic values would, like the salamander, survive any fire. A mere month ago, nobody seemed to be batting much of an eyelid at the prospect of the nation having to come up with £50m to “save” the Duke of Sutherland’s fine pair of Titians from resale. The great works, we were told, would fetch £150m on the open market. The nation was getting a bargain.
Now, I admire Titian as much as the next art-lover, and nobody with half an eye would question the quality of these paintings, but look properly around you and you will see Britain is already Titian-rich. Yes, it would have been sad to see the duke’s pair go abroad, but when a nurse in Yorkshire is paid £17,000 per annum to save lives, and a teacher in an inner-city comprehensive makes do with not much more, there is surely something grotesquely warped about a scale of modern values that brands the giving of £50m to a rich duke for an Italian painting as a national bargain.
This, then, is the art world’s chief and most catastrophic problem – as its prices have risen, so its values have collapsed. In 1986, someone asked Andy Warhol about money. By that time, he was much too experienced a rich man and much too canny an interviewee to pass up the chance to promote his utterly appalling world-view. “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” quipped the paper-thin Warren Buffett of pop. “I wanted to be an art businessman or a business artist.” Other epochs would have pounced on him immediately and told him to explain himself. How could anyone in their right mind be unable to tell the difference between business and art?