Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ghouls Among Us: Why Dealers and Other Power-Brokers Can Be So Bloody Mean

(Note: the following analysis might be called a screed, a diatribe, a swift kick-in-the pants.  It's only perfunctorily fair-minded and isn't at all friendly.  Yet it is based on personal experience.  Given the strengths and limitations of the form I have chosen, it is also truthful.  Yet like any two-dimensional representation, it cannot contain every aspect of the person, or persons, it reflects.  Nor does it claim to.  Nor does it want to.)

Ever since I was snubbed by my first dealer - a rite of passage the halt and lame among us must endure - I've wondered why so many behind-the-scenes folk in the art world are so absurdly objectionable.  Of course, any dealer would resent the imputation of being anywhere but out front, so perhaps I should attribute my sense of direction to a naive egotism that puts the man or woman who makes all these other people lamentably necessary in a more out-front position.  Mine is not an uncommon perception; many artists would say that they occupy The Out-Front Position.   

And some really do.  I doubt if Odd Nerdrum - at least nowadays - is subject to arbitrary temper-fits or instructions to use the backstairs.  They let him in, fawn over him for a bit, and allow him to circulate.  Or, if he doesn't show up, the shrine of his work will speak for him.

It would be interesting to know what happened to Odd and any given gallerist the first time he decided to enter the marketplace.  Was he allowed the front door?  Did he wait, with proverbial hat in hand, as a screaming meemie in an adjacent room reamed out the cleaning personnel?  Was he tempted, at this point, to storm out?  Slink away?  Or was he even more frightened then than he was when he sat down?  As I said, it would be interesting to know.  Wonder if, given the opportunity, he would tell?

The only revenge artist-types can get is in retrospect.  Everybody enjoys a little dish now and then.  Once they're in the pantheon, Hollywood actors like to call their employers onto the carpet and, to mix furnishings, turn tables on them.  Success allows that safe remove from which one can glance, with a certain amount of affection, at otherwise humiliating episodes.  One might even say that success is the Great Anaesthetic that binds all wounds, mends all fences, and soothes the obscurely striving ego that, if scratched, is still raw enough to have its say.  Laurence Olivier talked about a producer who singled him out as the "ugliest" actor on the lot.  Must've hurt at the time, but The Great Man into whom Laurence Olivier evolved could look back on another man's delusions without rancor.  Good for him, we all say.  But who in his right mind would have thought Olivier an ugly fellow, let alone the very ugliest?  Such a person clearly couldn't see straight - a decided handicap in the motion-picture business.

One might say that that is what makes the incident so "funny."  I would say that's open to question.
Art people share with moguls and producers the felicitous habit of denigrating, as well as raising up, their charges.

I can't say, in context of some labor/management relationships, that art world leaders are any worse than anybody else.  But that is indictment enough.  Some are obliged to deal with the help in person, but many don't.  The internet has allowed a cushioning effect assistants and other buffers used to provide.  And still do.  No art dealer need even see his or her acolytes until an opening, say, or some other social event which requires the presence of both.  The dealer sells; the artist waits.  That is the essense of the relationship.  But it should be more complicated than that.  And, possibly, more human.  The fact that it isn't - at least in my experience - says something about who needs to be on top.  In the art world, power-sharing doesn't exist unless the artist insists upon it.  Amd that has rarely happened.  As the percentages are increased to favor the seller; as manners get increasingly obtuse; and as bargaining rights disappear, the artist has - or is perceived to have - fewer options.  As a rule, he meekly acquiesces to whatever his overlords decide they can do to him.  What they do for him happens in an indefinite future on which neither can rely.  (Let me apologize to all women artists for the male pronoun.  I just have an aversion to saying "they" where an individual subject is concerned.  Use of the female pronoun also suggests a bending-over-backwards effort to right past wrongs.  These past wrongs cannot be righted fast enough, but not with a "her" as opposed to a "him".)  Few dealers are likely to forge a mutually beneficial relationship.  If the subject is broached, he or she tells the artist that the door that has just opened can also shut.  Few artists have enough character, courage, or wherewithal to say "Fuck you!" - or even a simple goodbye - on the way out.  Most stay inside and take what's coming to them.  In a short while, they can tell everybody they're in a gallery and all will be well.   

Yet. . .are dealers and curators really so nasty as I most emphatically pronounce most of them to be?  What about those nice folk on Antiques Roadshow?  Wouldn't you just love to have dinner with 'em?  Be thrilled with tales of loss and discovery; astonished with the "ones that got away"; captivated by the glamor and mystery of provenence?  Some of them are very charming indeed.  Some even work hard after their own sense of that. I've known a dealer who was dedicated to rooting out the very best people she could find.  And she was honest about the money too.  But her autocratic assumptions - as well as my collaborative instincts - ultimately drove us apart.  I knew another guy who was perfectly decent - and absolutely ineffectual.  When he wouldn't take up for himself, I knew he wouldn't take up for anybody else either.  He complained that his clients had no taste, but did not attempt to find new ones.  I knew yet another dealer who was moderately friendly and periodically useful - though he didn't bother to work any harder than was absolutely necessary.  These people, as Iago said, had "some soul."  Yet the soul that is present in them is conspicuously absent from their colleagues.

Why is that?  One who isn't privy to the soul - or lack of it - can only speculate.  I don't mind doing that in the least.  It is the only means I have to confront the burning question which may ultimately elude me.  Why are these people, having been, for the most part, raised by loving parents, been sent to the best schools, and had enough nurturance for two of three of their peers. . .why are these folk, when let out into the world to realize their dreams, so bloody nasty?

A sense of entitlement, which often overlaps with the search for power, comes to mind.  If you feel you ought to rule, chances are you'll start ruling.  People who have doubt make the coffee and help the deliverymen.  I have never in my life seen a high-ranking arts professional move anything beyond a purse or a checkbook.  Some have been known to lug coffee-table books around, but I've never seen it. 

Where do these assumptions and practices come from?  Were such people denied access to power in their formative years - or did they have "too much too soon" and found that, as adults, they could keep it going?  I've often wondered about the snootier kids in my elementary school classes.  Some had the makings of art dealers.  They were smug, unapproachable, and absolutely sure that they more to offer than anybody else.  Given the rude democracy of children, some were mercilessly ridiculed and given - in a social sense - the heave-so.  How did these young'uns react?  Some with tears, others with silence, still others with a supernatural sense of outrage they possibly took into their adult lives and. . .used it.  I've sometimes thought that nasty peoples' rage against life revolved around sex - or the suppression of that instinct.  People who deal with the unruly folk who are in the business of making art objects - or things a vocal minority
 claim to be art objects - can be attractive to people who are used to controlling things.  Yet no meshing of gears is really possible.  This state of affairs can inspire a certain hauteur on the part of the un-creative person who manages things and an acute sense of discomfort among his or her minions.  There's also the heady thrill of determining what sort of career these creative types will have.  Such a relationship does not promote equality and merely widens whatever rifts occur in the course of doing business.  What can artists know about that?  Possibly nothing, possibly a great deal.  It is a question that is never asked.  People who gravitate toward the management of people who can't contain themselves for a living are, on the surface, control-oriented.  But I suspect that all sorts of unrequited passions wage war with the controlling person whose face might twitch now and then, but seems largely inscrutable.  One might almost admire such self-mastery, but I think it leads to fundamentally destructive behaviors.  Those who have power and don't want it tend to exercise it with restraint.  Those who've wanted it all their lives get caught inside of it and won't let it go.  And it is these sort of people who generally run things.

Given such psychological susceptibilities, is the nastiness of which I so bitterly complain a natural outgrowth of who "they" are?  Probably not.  The truly secretive person doesn't want you to glimpse his or her darker impulses and tries to conceal them.  Art people do too - with their peers.  I've always thought inherently nasty people reveal themselves by how they treat economic and social inferiors.  How do they tip?  Do they exchange pleasantries with stranges?  When they park, do they close in on the back bumper of the vehicle in front of them or leave a car-straddling gap?  The powerful folk - particularly among their kind - rate very poorly in these regards.  An artist friend of mine has waited tables at a restaurant that serves local power-brokers.  I'll point to an unsually despicable specimen and ask how he tips.  Her face will cloud over and she'll merely shake her head.  If she's really exercised, she'll release an audible steam of warm air that suggests a full-blown raspberry, but must, as it were, keep its head.

To facilitate the understanding process, I'm going to create a real person.  Don't bother to look for this person.  I'm making her up.  Yes, let's make her a she!  It is my own caprice - though it is based on genuine experience.  The mid-sized city where I used to scramble about for the odd dime has spawned three women who, for reasons they may never actually reveal, went into the art business.  They thrive at least somewhat to this day.  They are archeypes of a sort and would be familiar to anyone who has ever waited with slides/portfolio/CD in hand.  Or got these things back in a scrambled condition.  Or were told by an assistant that they'd been lost or thrown away.

She is middle-aged, often married to money, but just as often independently well-to-do.  Rudely energetic scions took care of the money-making process - which has kept subsequent family members comfortable.  She went to a good school, did reasonably well, and married.  Sometimes she is divorced.

She is, if of the svelte body-type, elegantly contained.  Her public persona is steeped in the mystery of understatment.  She is aloof and intimidating to inferiors; coldly cordial to the people she knows.  She may desire the warmth ordinary human relations provide, but it does not show in her public persona.  She has good cheekbones and an excellently coiffed head of hair.  She is not ostentatious and doesn't need to be.  She exudes the infuriating primacy of class and confirms what detractors say about it - which is to say: it's high-falutin'. 

If of the rounder persuasion, she dresses all right, but can't fit into the clothes for which her social condition has prepared her.  But because she has lots of money, she can buy her way into elegance.  During perverse moments, she'll want to dress "like everybody else", but can't really pull it off.  She subscribes to the notion that "One can neither be too rich nor too thin", but lacks the discipline to ride it out in her person.

Whereas her leaner counterpart is never exactly rude, she can be.  An indeterminate rage swoops down on her from time to time and must out.  Her victims are service-people, employees, and sales-types who happen to pick the wrong day to approach her.  Even when people from her set are watching her, she is unable to control herself.  They do their best to ignore or rationalize it.  She doesn't seem to like losing control, but doesn't apologize for it.

She is also married, but likes to think that she's financially independent.  Often as not, she was launched by a husband who wanted to get her out of the house - or just happens to be a nice guy.  There are those.

There is no crucial difference, in personal motivation, between the svelte lady and her scale-topping counterpart.  They both have an almost insatiable urge, not only to establish reputations that are not dependent upon a husband, but to take a number of presumably helpless people, package them, and make them acceptable to people in her milieu.  She may also have nation-spanning designs - which can make her, among other things, extremely ruthless.  Though she's never overtly excited, the prospect of "branding" an artist makes her heart beat a little faster.  But the possibility of making that artist forever-desirable gets her where she really lives, which is a little farther up from her aorta. 

Such women compete with one another and are not above a little poaching.  The properties they create can, once they are moderately successful, jump ship, with the result that the Mother Ship is left high and dry.  She, the MS, will squawk about it, but knows that her cries are bootless.  What is, is.  And it isn't as if she didn't have a pretty damned good ride. 

Such women are respected and feared - a very desirable position to be in.  It means that they can become the region's tastemakers without having to prove that their taste is superior to anyone's.  They can make curators vacate their opinions.  They can press art historians into writing catalogue-essays.  And they can twist the arms of CEO's enough to induce them to collect the work they represent.  Which means theirs and nobody else's.  Exclusive contracts are anathema to the saturaction effect you want in a medium-sized community.  But almost every collection bears the mark or imprint of a single person.  Is anybody else asked to submit material?  Not bloody likely.  A strict, if not officially sanctioned, monopoly is considered eminently desirable.  It forges "valuable relationships" and is "good for business."

Arts-writers treat these ladies with kid-gloves.  A salivation effect begins with an initial review and extends ad infinitum.  Where such ladies are found, there is no art criticism.  There is merely puffery.  They rule, not only with advertising, but with a sort of aura which starts in the head and increases in size and penetration the closer one gets to the gallery itself.  Because they are there, they cannot be wrong.  They bring High Culture to a community that had been languishing in the sticks and was running, in terms of High Culture, out of air.  Gratitude for their contribution is inexhaustible.  They provide the uneducated consumer with immediate eclat.  They make the otherwise-mundane personality glitter with the after-effects of a major purchase.  They confer immediate gravitas on some poor schlub who never saw a puppy picture he didn't like.  After a cultural makeover, he is roiling in prestige.  Who but he - in concert with an intelligent go-between - would have had the moxie to put the city's most controversial sculpture in his own front yard?  And string lights around it so that everybody who passes by can see its suggestive contours and biomorphic body-parts?

With the artists in their stables, these woman are quietly demanding and not susceptible to compromise.  To work with them is, at best, demeaning.  When it's really bad, the artist falls a little ill before "going in there."  He or she knows that whatever dignity is possible will be stripped away on sight - and on-site as well, since dealers rarely tweak artists in their own den.  They don't have to; they can dispense their particular brand of feel-bad in the comfort of their home-away-from-home.

Have I said enough?  Probably not.  But it is possibly tedious to read about one-dimensional characters who are so totally predictable that stepping out of character isn't likely.  Yet art dealers are people too.  One of the three women I mentioned has children to whose care and feeding she has been indefatigably devoted.  Yet I learned from a fellow artist that she, the artist, was charged by this devoted mother a commission she was not obliged to fork over.  Yet because those expensive colleges had to be paid for, this doughty mother put her scruples aside and charged the commission anyway.  "That's stealing," I said, to which my artist friend shrugged.  She didn't have to say: "What else is new?"  We were both wearily familiar.

What else is new?

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing at all.

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