A Rogues Gallery Of Art Dealers And Bureaucrats By Edward Lucie-Smith

Knoedler gallery interior

There’s a fascinating new book just out. The candid title is ‘Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers[1]. The author, Philip Hook, is extremely well qualified to deal with his chosen subject since he has spent many years as an auctioneer, working first for Christie’s, then as a senior director at Sotheby’s, where he is currently a board member.

It comes fairly close on the heels of another very relevant book, also quite recently published. This, entitled Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age[2], is authored by Jonathon Keats, art critic for San Francisco Magazine, who also introduces himself as a conceptual artist.

Between them they give a pretty good view of the art world, more especially of what we call or what our immediate forerunners have, in their own day, called ‘the contemporary art world’. Out of understandable discretion Hook doesn’t take his narrative right up to the present moment. The recent Knoedler Gallery scandal, with its forged Rothkos and forged Pollocks, doesn’t get a mention from either author. And the now fashionable term ‘appropriation’ doesn’t appear in the index to either book.

The great dealers of the time led, followed and most of all manipulated taste

While Hook devotes his first seventy pages or so to the early history of art dealing, from its beginnings among the Ancient Romans, by far the greater part of his text is devoted to what has happened since the late 19th century, specifically since the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the rise of Impressionism. His first big name ‘rogue’ is Duveen  (transferring sometimes slightly dubious paintings by grandee Old Masters from impoverished European aristocrats to newly rich Americans), and Durand-Ruel (champion of the Impressionist Movement).

The first of these probably deserves the designation ‘rogue’, while the other one doesn’t. One sees very clearly from Hook’s narrative how, in each succeeding Modernist epoch, the great dealers of the time led, followed and (most of all) manipulated taste. One also sees how driving forces were the desire for status, the crude financial incentive, and – more subtly – the wish for novelty as proof of cultural elitism. The forces still exist today, often in their crudest and most brutal form.

The paradoxical cult of appropriation is one of the things that offers proof of this.  The paradox is that recognition that a particular image is appropriated – most of all, exact recognition of the source, from what pre-existing work it has been stolen – offers the surest possible proof of elitist taste. A similar situation existed in the later period of Imperial China, where it was more important to know that the ink painting you were admiring was exactly in the manner of a famous Yuan Dynasty master than it was to recognise the actual subject depicted.

To this has now been added another factor – that of ever more influential bureaucracy. The bureaucratic direction of the visual arts is not new. It prevailed in most European cultures throughout most of the 19th century. In France, it only started to be effectively challenged after the major shakeup of values brought about by the catastrophic defeat of the French state in the Franco-Prussian War. This led to the creation of the alternative culture we now loosely describe as ‘Bohemia’. One of the great icons of this shift in values is Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-1), in which one sees an exemplary mingling of different social worlds – a Jewish millionaire from Odessa (Ephrussi), a right-wing Vicomte, known as a duellist, a professional boatman, writers, artists, critics, a seamstress (Renoir’s future wife), and a group pf shop girls.

The contemporary art world still aspires to this democratic, socially inclusive condition today, but is sustained in a part by subventions to from the state, channelled to it by institutions such as the various Tate galleries. This has created an increasing tension between a rip-roaringly speculative commercial art world, and a dirigiste museum system, anxious to be populist, but strictly on its own moralising, innately puritanical terms.

Tate nowadays has to ride two horses at once. Upcoming next year, after an initial showing at the Musée National-Picasso in Paris is a show featuring a single significant year in the artist’s production. Included in it will be a famous painting, Le Rêve, a portrait of the artist’s then mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Part of its fame is due to its recent financial history. In 2006 it was sold by the billionaire American hotel-and-casino owner Steve Wynn to the equally wealthy hedge-fund manager Steve A. Cohen for a then artist’s record of $155 million. No doubt some visitors at least will come to the show simply to look at the money.

Recent editions of the Turner Prize, for example, have tended to show an increasing distaste for the commercial aspects of the art world, and a tendency to embrace things that are safely ephemeral. Among those who seek to guide popular taste, these attitudes are becoming general.
Asked what her recent favourites in art were just before her appointment as new Director of all the Tates was confirmed, Maria Balshaw offered an enlightening list. It included a performance piece by Jeremy Deller called We’re Here Because We’re Here commemorating the losses of World War I in a way one would perhaps be scarcely aware of unless it was very deliberately called to one’s attention; and an installation by Christian Boltantski called Animitas, at Jupiter Artland, a sculpture park just outside Edinburgh. “On a balmy summer evening,” she said, I walked towards a large pond to hear first, before seeing. His installation of 200 small Japanese bells attached to long stems planted in the ground on an island in the middle of the water.”

I’m sorry I missed these, but there’s no second chance built into art of this kind, just as there’s nothing so demeaning as money.

Words: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017 Image Courtesy Wikipedia “Stereoscopic photograph of the Knoedler gallery interior, c.1860–80”

[1] Philip Hook, Rogues’ Gallery, Profile Books, 2017, £20

[2] Jonathon Keats, Forged, Oxford University Press, £19.95