Whatever else may be said about the state of contemporary art as the new year begins, it looks very much as if the role played by the auction houses in overinflating the value of some already wildly overrated artistic reputations is going to be significantly diminished. As Judd Tully reported in a recent issue of The Journal of Art, “The bad news began at Sotheby’s evening sale of November 6 . . . with 43 of the 77 lots failing to find buyers. The shocking buy-in rate of 56%, and a sales total that was exactly half of the lowest pre-sale estimate, constituted an outright disaster.” At Christie’s there was a similar collapse in the contemporary-art market.

Included among the casualties at these auctions were works by such celebrated figures as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, Joel Shapiro, Robert Rauschenberg, Eric Fischl, Howard Hodgkin, Jennifer Bartlett, Elizabeth Murray, and Richard Tuttle. Not even the heretofore sacrosanct reputation of Andy Warhol escaped what one dealer called the “carnage” and a contemporary-art expert at Sotheby’s described as “quicksand.” What had looked like a sure thing only a couple of years ago turned out, as so many sure things in the art world of the 1980s have, to be a chimera.

This was bad news indeed for the traders in these hyped-up reputations. For the rest of us, however, the really bad news had begun much earlier on, when it had become standard practice for the auction houses—and not for them alone, of course—to promote the work of these artists as if they had already passed in the class of established old masters. This represented something more than an inflated market for a certain kind of art-world chic. It represented a fundamental distortion of artistic value. The wonder is not that the boom in these artificial reputations began to collapse at the first sign of a downturn in the economy but that it lasted for as long as it did at the absurd levels of money and adulation that had been reached.

It is far too soon, to be sure, to declare a definitive end to this runaway boom. What we are more likely to be seeing is the beginning of the end. An auction season that saw a work by Robert Rauschenberg bring $3.08 million, despite the other Rauschenbergs that bombed, and a work by Cy Twombly bring $4.84 million, a painting by Willem de Kooning $8.8 million, and even a Philip Guston abstraction $1.1 million, cannot be said to have fully returned to sanity. But what can be said with confidence is that something more than a few price levels has collapsed. What we have also seen beginning to unravel are some of the illusions that were spawned by the art scene of the Eighties. Whether this market “correction,” as it has been called, brings in its wake a real correction of taste remains to be seen. It would be nice, anyway, to think that it might.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 5, on page 2
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