Monday, February 9, 2009

Debate at Rockefeller University

Last Tuesday, on February 3rd, I went to a debate at Rockefeller University sponsored by Intelligence Squared. The motion or proposition of the debate was: "The art market is less ethical than the stock market." I quote below from the press release at the organization's website the day after the debate in order to establish some of the parameters of the evening:

NEW YORK, February 4, 2009— Intelligence Squared U.S., the Oxford style debate series sponsored by The Rosenkranz Foundation, announced the results of its second debate of the spring 2009 season, "The art market is less ethical than the stock market."

The final vote at the conclusion of the debate, before a packed auditorium, many from the New York and London art scene, at The Rockefeller University, New York City was 55% for the motion and 33% against. Twelve percent remained undecided.

The results saw a dramatic swing in the undecided vote, as prior to the debate, the audience voted 32% for the motion and 30% against. 38% were undecided.

Speaking for the motion were Richard L. Feigen, founder of Richard L. Feigen & Co. art dealers, Michael Hue-Williams, owner and CEO of Albion Gallery and Adam Lindemann, an influential collector of contemporary art and author of Collecting Contemporary.

Chuck Close, artist and and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton, Amy Cappellazzo, deputy chairman at Christie's and Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine spoke against the motion. John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News Nightline, moderated.

This was a marvelous evening and a format of which I would like to see more. It was such a pleasure to see a real debate around an issue as opposed to faux debates we see in election season. I was also thrilled to hear impassioned yet respectful dialogue emerge from the structure of the evening.

One of the successes of the night was the topic itself. I have raised the question myself a number of times since the debate with friends and art groups. It never fails to elicit an hour of heated and partisan conversation. Try it yourself! You'll be amazed at the response.

My vote was for the motion both before and after the debate. I agreed with the "for the motion" side that, while many more crimes and violations are committed in the financial world, they are actually crimes in that world. In other words, the ethical boundaries are already defined by law. People may break those laws regularly, but they know that they are acting illegally, and, if caught, will be punished. In the art world, the lines are not nearly as clear. What would be a crime in the financial markets is routinely done in the art market. Chandelier bidding at auction, covert syndicate buying, insider trading, and price fixing are all stock and trade of the art market. These actions are clearly proscribed in the financial world and you breach them at your peril.

I found that the "against the motion" side made many errors of strategy and fact. They seemed unwilling or unable to separate the "art world" and the "art market". Their argument was that the art world is basically ethical and self policing. I feel that there is clearly an art market which is definable and separate from the art world. The conflation of the two by the "againsts" was a weak argument. That art has been monetized seems obvious. That monetization doesn't alter the emotional value or timeless nature of great art, but there IS a monetized market. The community of artists, curators, and collectors who orbit around the art market may be a fundamentally ethical place which profits little from its work, but it is still separable from the art market.

Another challenge I had with the against side was their seeming assumption that scale of profit was the same as scale of ethical standards. It's clear that the financial markets are much, much larger than the art market, and when rules are violated the figures involved are bigger by orders of magnitude. But I would argue that a theft of $50 is not less ethical than a theft of $5. It is the same theft on an ethical scale, so the size of the market is irrelevant.

In a similar vein, I found some of the arguments on the against side seemed to be saying that profit itself was somehow an indicator of ethics. Since Wall Street makes more money than the art market or financial fraud is so much more lucrative than art fraud, then therefore Wall St. is less ethical. Phooey. To cheat in the financial markets, one must break many existing laws or codes. The ethical standards are clear. The standard is there. In the art markets, those same actions are regular practice, and while the perpetrators may know they are doing wrong, the ethical standard is not clear. I think it is simple human nature to say that wherever the ethical standard is unclear, the ethical behavior will be lower.

There also seems to be some misrepresentation of the position of the "for" side. Jerry Saltz, arguing against the motion, has written on his Facebook page that the "for" side argued for regulation in the art market. I quote:

The "other side" of our debate (my side was Chuck Close and Amy Cappellazzo) was Richard Feigen, Michael Hue-Williams, and Adam Lindemann. They were saying the art world SHOULD BE REGULATED and complaining because "anyone could get in it." I was horrified. I said I never want it to be regulated and that all of us are here simply because we want to be there; none of us had to pass an entrance examine; I told them I have NO DEGREES; that we're all learning on the job everyday and making this up as we go along.

This was explicitly not true. I invite anyone who is interested to read the transcript of the debate or listen to it from the link to NPR on Intelligence Squared's website. The "for" side repeatedly said that they were against regulation. Hue-Williams is even quoted on the first page of the press release saying:

"I think that the art market is open for manipulation because it's unregulated, I think it is unregulated because, historically, it's found its own way of operating, because it's just simply actually not possible to regulate this market, and it would be a ghastly thing, if it ever could be regulated." - Michael Hue-Williams

I'm a big fan of Mr. Saltz' writing and criticism, but in this instance he is just not reporting reliably. Hue-Williams and Lindemann both made repeated and clear statements against regulation.

Win or lose, right or wrong, the pleasure and lesson of the evening was the debate itself; the process. I would love to see more debates in the art world and fewer lectures and panel "discussions" (are these ever really discussions?). There are three more debates in the Rock U series. None of them are related to the art world, but I know I'll try to go to them all. Take a look. It's a worthwhile endeavor on whichever side of the argument you happen to fall.

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