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Saltz: The Prince of the One Percent Would Like You to Know That Buying Art Is Less Fun These Days

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 2004: Visitors Drink coffee and champagne during a champagne Sunday Brunch viewing for Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie's auction house, South Kensington.  Behind is Andy Warhol's canvass 'Dollar Sign' which later sold for £386,050.  (Photo by Mike Goldwater/Exclusive by Getty Images)

In the December 5 issue of the New York Observer, the art collector and columnist Adam Lindemann announced, “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it, basta. It’s become … embarrassing … why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those phonies and scenesters … How many celebrities will I meet? How many mega-collectors will I greet? … None, because I’m not going.” It was certainly a departure for him, in terms of his usual business. He’s a collector of recent blue-chip artists like Jonathan Meese and Anselm Reyle, and buys a lot on the international fair circuit. Indeed, last month at a large gallery dinner, after he told me how much he despised art fairs, I asked whether he hadn’t just been to London for the Frieze Art Fair and whether he’d bought anything. He said yes to both questions. I then said, “You hypocritical bastard.” Then we munched on almond biscotti.

I know where Lindemann is coming from, and I agree that things have gotten gross. But so is he. This cocksure contempt for art fairs and all who participate in them isn’t coming from disgust with the system; it’s pure, puerile pomposity, the kind that takes pleasure in exclusion, and it’s exactly the behavior that continues to make these events ever more repulsive. A few months ago in the Observer, Lindemann asserted that he couldn’t read the great Mark Stevens–Annalyn Swan biography of Willem de Kooning because he’s “a student of the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.” The philosophy student instead spends his time on (this was even at Art Basel Miami, a few years ago) throwing posh promotional events for Ikepod watches, a company he owns.

There’s little doubt that the art world still seems like it’s barreling off a massive binging spendthrift cliff. The art-buying behavior of the super-rich and the merely wealthy, coupled with obscene prices paid for a more or less preapproved group of around 75 celebrity artists, seems less and less relevant – and more odious. Yet art fairs, insane as they are, are still ways for artists and art dealers to maybe make money; gallerists to create connections with one another; newer dealers to heighten their profiles; the general public to see art outside a museum; and the art tribe to have a giant sleepover, stay up late together, and (as I often say) touch antennae. Instead, Lindemann wants them to be hermetically sealed and purely transactional, because keeping the rabble out makes everything run smoother.

Here’s his proposal for fixing these events. First, “art fairs should be for collectors only; if you’re not coming to buy art, get the hell out.” Translation: Stay away, the 99.9999 percent of you without money. Ditto the 0.0001 percent who can afford to buy but aren’t going to right now. Who’s allowed in: a selection of dealers who work at the very top end of the price range, plus a few hundred people with cash burning holes in their pockets, all of whom can stand around impressing each other. Next, there should be “gallery dinners only, preferably with a few artists and curators sprinkled in.” Hey, artists, critics, collectors, museum people, designers, and anyone else: If you want to throw a party, sorry. (Unless you want to hawk Ikepod watches.) “Those ‘hard to get’ early-entrance VIP cards can go only to real collectors who are invited by the galleries … Let’s not allow any more pre-selling … before the fair.” This means that art dealers who often risk a quarter-million dollars or more to be here should spend the entire time sucking up to him, and quit trying to cover their costs in any way before coming. If they go broke, tough luck. That, in fact, is his explicit desire: “Let’s make sure each gallery brings a few good things to make it worth my while to walk the entire conference center and wear out a perfectly good pair of Tod’s loafers.” Is there anything more obnoxious than the son of a billionaire who still feels the need to remind us precisely how expensive his moccasins are? (In Chelsea and Lower East Side galleries this past weekend, the only discussion involving Art Basel Miami Beach was of the general dickishness of Adam Lindemann.)

His column is larded with that us-and-them attitude. He keeps mentioning the parties he’s been invited to but won’t be attending (“What’s the fun of being invited to so many things?” he sighs). He then pines for the days when “comparing values and tastes was made easy [for collectors] since you could value-shop different galleries and end up comparing a million-dollar Neo Rauch in one booth with a million-dollar Mark Tansey in another.” Finally, here, he’s tipped his hand, absolutely equating art with capital rather than with deep looking. 

It looks like the art world has entered an ugly finger-pointing period. Call it the Shoot the Wounded Phase: Players at the top are starting to accuse each other of being craven, cronyistic bad actors. Everyone knows something bad is brewing, that some end or explosion is imminent amid the obscene prices, profligate spending, celebrity-artist worship, obnoxious behavior of the rich, and art as entertainment. People are showing up to say, “It wasn’t me. It was him! It was her! It was them!” A few days after Lindemann’s column came out, the mega-mogul super-collector Charles Saatchi stepped into the arena, publishing an article in the Guardian. “Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar … the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.” Saatchi goes all out in his attack of the “stupendously rich,” saying they don’t actually “enjoy looking at art” and instead “enjoy having easily recognized, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.” A much better writer, collector, and thinker than Lindemann, and far more honest, Saatchi gets a lot right about ‘the success of the uber art dealers [being] based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich.” But he never turns his grand-inquisitor beam on himself, or explains how, somewhere along the line, he went off-track and lost his eye. He himself originated, and has long been the top player in, this terrible business. Good writing aside, it may be that this multimillionaire is a little upset that he’s being displaced by multibillionaires.

A great thing about the time we’re living in is that, as things fray, the loons and nitwits come out into the open, where we can have a clean shot at them. Lindemann, at least, makes it easy: The same week the Observer published that column, the New York Times reported that he’d made an appearance in Miami Beach. Soon after that, I received a mass e-mail in which he grandiosely announced, “I did indeed ‘Occupy Miami’ by showing up Wednesday morning for the opening.” His e-mail explained that the boycott he’d proposed was “my obvious joke.” Just as I was reading it, I heard a radio veterinarian use a word that perfectly describes this end-game phase: autocoprophagy. It describes the behavior of an animal that eats its own shit.

Update: Adam Lindemann responds in the Observer

Related: Is a Celebrity Invasion Turning Art Basel Miami Beach Into Sundance?

Saltz: The Year in Art

Saltz: Museums as Playgrounds

Photo: Mike Goldwater/2004 Mike Goldwater