December 11th, 2007


Money Tip: asset-hedge the cultural value of your gallery's immaterial production!

My annual subscription to Artforum expires soon, and I'm getting letters from the New York art magazine's subscription department begging me to renew it. I probably will; the bumper Best of 2007 issue is an excellent read, with its exhaustive scene reports from each major art city and its Top 10 run-downs of the year's art highlights by star critics, curators and commentators. Sometimes, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that money is as crucial to Artforum's editorial department as it is to their subscriptions department.

For instance, I really have very little idea what hedge funds are and what the verb "to hedge" means. It's the kind of thing I'd expect to learn about reading The Economist, sure. But, actually, if you read The Economist and the art press, it turns out to be the other way around. From The Economist you learn cultural stuff. From the art press you learn about money. It figures; when money people get together they talk about art, when art people get together they talk about money.

Let's look at this example of hedging. Reading through the current Artforum I find the term in three different articles.

1. Page 355. A review of The Opening, a new Merlin Carpenter installation at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Carpenter's schtick is to make the opening the piece, and to spend it daubing rude slogans about his gallerists on the walls while a crowd of art insiders networks and revels in loving/hating themselves for being art world insiders. So, in his show at Cosima von Bonin, Carpenter scrawled "Relax, it's only a crap Cosima von Bonin show" on the wall. For his show at Reena Spaulings (whose incrowdiness I mocked in my Outreach and ingroups piece last year) this became "Relax, it's only a crap Reena Spaulings show". Artforum, while not essentially disagreeing with my scene-that-celebrates-itself take on this, thinks something more interesting is going on -- something to do with economics, in fact, and specifically hedge funds. "Though gathering together a bunch of insiders to celebrate such an event reads as classist irony, to leave it at this misses the point," says reviewer Carolina Busta. "Carpenter's structures are circular, implicating all who play the game. With "The Opening" he hedges the cultural value of his gallery -- an asset underscored by his 2005 show at RSFA -- to enlist its preexisting social body as a ready-made labor force for immaterial production."

Jeez, whatever happened to the good old days when art criticism just required you to have read Lacan? Now it requires you to have read Lacan and Milton Friedman! Let me -- with my very basic understanding of economics -- try and parse that horrible sentence. As I understand it, to hedge is to gamble against the thing you're mainly gambling for, in order to spread your risk a bit. It's a kind of financial expression of treachery, ambivalence, irony, caution and pragmatism all rolled up in one gesture. So you might invest in property, but also invest in something that would benefit from the collapse of the property market, just in case everything went horribly wrong. If we were being a bit more Lacan than Wall Street Journal about it, we might just say that insulting your audience and yourself might be an appeal to the art crowd's insecurity as well as their self-love. But I frankly don't know enough about money to know how hedging relates to assets, and how this artist's show could use another show of his as an asset, let alone do all that "to enlist [his gallery's] preexisting social body as a ready-made labor force for immaterial production". Stumped me there, Carolina. Sorry, I flunked Economic Metaphysics 101.

2. Page 294. A more straighforward use of the hedge concept. T.J. Demos reports on London's current art-money bubble: "All of this owes in large part to the capital's booming financial market and its relaxed regulatory system, so attractive to the financial sector and to its private investors, including the nouveaux riches of Russia and Asia. This laissez-faire environment is also salubrious for newly formed art-focused hedge funds, now growing in the UK at a rate far higher than in the States."

So hedging isn't just happening as something metaphorical that artists do. It's also happening in the art market itself. People are investing in art because, in a world where property looks increasingly shaky, art holds its value better and can be a hedge against losing your wad in a property bust.

3. Page 284. Debra Singer's report on the New York scene paints the same basic picture: "The New York story may seem to be one of money, but even so, it's a tale encompassing many turns. Certainly, the celestial auction prices of an overheated art market dominated headlines in 2007, to say nothing of griping kaffeeklatsches of collectors, curators and gallerists. Yet underdiscussed, perhaps, is how the long-bullish economy has affected sectors of the New York art scene that ostensibly linger on its fringes, enabling small galleries and alternative, temporary art -- underwritten by the city's many investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, real estate developers, and entrepreneurs, whose pockets have for years been overflowing -- has meant that even those galleries cultivating a more renegade, anticommercial stance have sold enough to keep the doors open and, on top of that, turn a tidy profit."

Debra's point seems to be that while the art world talks about money as a negative, even the marginal galleries that are supposed to be anti-money bulwarks are underwritten by the financial fizz of the big world. To return to my theme last week of offshore accounting, this article seems to agree with the basic idea that social outreach may be coming from the heart of the beast itself rather than notionally "pure" spaces somewhere off the map.

I have mixed -- or should I say hedged? -- feelings about all this. On the one hand, I'm rather fond of the idea that some good things -- even things we call "alternative" -- might have a secret origin right in the heart of the capitalist machine. Artforum's On The Ground reports seem largely to be about money, but my own Berlin column for Viennese art magazine Spike basically hyped Wedding, Berlin's latest emerging art district, in a way that would gladden the hearts of estate agents with empty properties in the area (my Wired Neukolln article probably did the same for the district I'm living in now -- the rents haven't been hiked yet). As I said in the Offshore Accounting piece, it's silly to play the game of damning things that pop up in a commercial system because they pop up in a commercial system. It's more interesting, I think, to talk about what's good despite having that basic origin. And by that I mean aesthetically and ethically good. If there's no offshore, we make use of what we have onshore. We fix stuff at the centre rather than wasting our time tinkering at the margins.

John Kelsey is an art insider's art insider -- he's one of the Bernadette Corporation, runs the Reena Spaulings gallery and is one of Artforum's contributing editors. One of his picks for 2007 says it all, really. As his number 6 event of the year he nominates the projection of a video of a band featuring his girlfriend Emily Sundblad, Stefan Tcherepnin (once of The Gongs) and Cory Arcangel, a "semifictional New York dance pop group". They're called The Economist. Maybe I should ask them about hedging my art assets.