The subprime mortgage fiasco that set off the financial crisis once again demonstrated that even Wall Street Übermenschen doing what Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein called “God’s work” can’t spin straw into gold. However, the feat is possible in that other alternative universe of suspended reality: the modern art market.
Like Wall Street financiers, modern art speculators push bogus wares, but unlike the Dow Jones that eventually craters when unsound assets tank, the art market robustly gallops along. According to Artprice.com, sales of fine art at auction houses last year topped $10 billion, less than 2011’s record-breaking tally of $11.8 billion, but more than 2010, the second-highest grossing year.
The key to the art market’s success is that, in contrast to most assets, the value of the commodities undergirding it is based entirely on perception. Art is worth what people are willing to pay for it. Convince the credulous that a dissected shark in formaldehyde or stylized Campbell’s soup cans is precious, i.e., good investments, and they become so. Perception is reality.
Given that the modern art market has little to do with actual art and everything to do with commerce, it’s no surprise that the industry coughs up the likes of Richard Serra, known for his meandering iron walls, and Jeffrey Koons, who creates large replicas of toy animals made from balloons. Both may lack any artistic talent, but they’re supremely gifted salesmen adept at marketing schlock.
Into this malignant milieu has stepped Ai Weiwei (pronounced EYE Way-way), the modern art industry’s latest sensation. His ascension is something of an anomaly, as Weiwei doesn’t fit the artist-as-snake-oil-salesman mold; he’s a political dissident in his home country of China. It’s an unlikely role for the son of well-connected parents who were once friendly with China’s new supreme leader, Xi Jinping. Indeed, until recently Weiwei was in good standing with China’s communist elite, and helped to design Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic games.
The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province that collapsed many shoddily built schoolhouses, killing at least 5,000 children, altered Weiwei’s course. He courageously sided with the parents of the slain children demanding a full accounting in the disaster’s wake. His obstinate advocacy irritated the authorities, which tried to quiet Weiwei, first by destroying his Shanghai studio and later brutally assaulting and imprisoning him for 81 days and, most recently, confiscating his passport. All this has had no effect. Weiwei remains a gadfly.
Weiwei’s bravery is indisputable; his artistic talent is another story. Weiwei’s work is now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit, titled "Ai Weiwei: According to What?", is on a five-city North American tour. His work is gimmicky and vacuous in the vein of Stella or Koons.
The multi-media show features: bikes welded together to form a sort of globe and wooden stools similarly joined together; 12 bronze animal heads representing the signs of the zodiac; a floor installation of grey and orange porcelain crabs, which are said to harken to a meal Weiwei was hosting before authorities destroyed his studio, and another comprised of 38 tons of rebar purportedly salvaged from schools after the Sichuan earthquake. Also featured are mostly banal photos of street scenes in New York, Surveillance Camera, a marble reproduction of its namesake, and pointless videos of highway traffic.
The coup de grâce is Cube Light, a 13-foot-high installation comprising rows of backlit crystals. A plaque explains in typical modern art doubletalk that the piece "interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition.” Jed Perl rather charitably writes in the New Republic: “The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.”
Weiwei’s exhibit will be lost on the casual observer unaccustomed to modern art. Expecting some morsel of profundity given Weiwei’s persecution, he may come away disappointed and confused, as the show requires nothing of and gives nothing back to its visitor. It makes no lasting impression nor leaves any visceral imprint.
But the casual observer likely doesn’t understand the genius of modern art. Wall Street can’t spin straw into gold, but it’s regularly done in galleries and museums across the country and around the world. It only requires marketing. It’s called subprime art.