The art business is a five-ring circus, but its clowns and acrobats are worthless without a ring to perform in. Although Covid-19 is the diet soda of plagues compared to previous pandemics, it has been a catastrophe for four of the five rings in the art world big top.
The first ring of the art business circus is the primary sales market. The grand art fair spectacles where many of the most dramatic sales and attention-grabbing headlines took place are closed and show no sign of re-opening. Commercial galleries are shuttered and allow art-browsing by appointment only, and attempt to sell on-line in half-hearted digital exhibitions. The big top is dark, the performers have left, and the party-animals of the audience, the first-class sensation-hunters, the elite who satisfied their desire for sensual indulgence in the pleasure gardens of art have nowhere to go, to see, and be seen.
The second ring is occupied by the museums, vying for the notice of the public with block-buster shows and spectacular marvels. The American Alliance of Museums reported that one in three American museums is likely to close down as a result of the crashed economy. Those which allow socially distanced visits are earning a tiny fraction of their income.
Public art occupies the third ring. Here, grant-funded sculptures and murals find the lenses of regional television cameras, and engage the public in the issues of communal approval. The carnival of iconoclasm at recent BLM and Antifa demonstrations removed hundreds of sculptures from the public arena, which will not be replaced for decades. Public art is now so divisive that the word “artist” has become synonymous with “political sloganeer” in the popular press.
Ring four is the stage for the secondary market, where the major auction houses perform, and huge sums of money change hands. Here art is often a token of exchange, and dollars often seem more important than the works that they buy. Recently, the auction analysis website MutualArt reported that the major houses sold only as much art in the first six months of 2020 as they had hammered in May of 2019 alone.
Thus, the decadent and spectacular art circus of the oughties and teens has been afflicted. The primary market is closed, the public sector is closed and contentious, the museums are collapsing, and the secondary market is reeling. The circus is almost silent now.
Only one arena remains in which new American art might continue in any meaningful and significant way while corona reigns over us. This is the fifth ring. Unlike the other rings, it is usually private, a quiet place where the discrete and sophisticated dance of patronage is performed. In the fifth ring the lights are dim, and the performances are finely crafted for the satisfaction of individuals. This is where hope for art rests, for it is only within the fifth ring of patronage that artists have a chance to meet philanthropy and benevolence. This is a golden moment for wealthy Americans to become buyers of a new kind of American art. But what kind of art will they commission? And what kind of people will commission it?
The black death eliminated a third of the population of Europe. After the tidal plague receded it had transformed the world. Medieval feudal hierarchies collapsed. Either killed by the disease or bankrupted, much of the nobility was replaced by a novel and dynamic bourgeois class of merchants who hungered for wealth. This new social mobility allowed the families of former soldiers to become dukes, and former peasants to become bankers. Education became a necessity – mathematics for the bankers, languages for the international traders, engineering for the builders, science for the warriors and the merchants. These families were keen to show that they were worthy of their new status, and demonstrated it by commissioning masterpieces in the explosion of the renaissance. And they shared much of the new art they commissioned with the people of their cities.
Our plague is a lightweight compared to the heavy black death, but the Center for Disease Control estimates that it will kill up to 1.7 million Americans, most of them elderly. This spike in mortality will speed up the immense transfer of wealth from the baby boomers to the younger generation that was predicted before Covid-19 had appeared, and an extraordinary $30 trillion will change hands in coming years as boomers die. This historic change will create a class of millennial Americans who have suddenly inherited great wealth, a new class which will feel many of the same insecurities as those families of the renaissance. Many among them will be keen to show that they are cultured members of society. Among this new, well-educated generation of American aristocracy there are many who know and understand the big and good ideas that provide the foundation for the liberal democracy that makes their lives possible. This enlightened class has our culture in its hands.
Covid has forced us to experience the disturbances of great social change. Such changes tend to cause a reaction against the preceding order. Could there be a reawakening among the new millennial aristocracy, a drive to seek out sincerity, depth, meaning, skill and goodness? Surely, among the rising millennial generation, there are decent, honest people who believe in the value of the virtues. The circus is closed. It is time for you to commission the art of the new renaissance. It is time for you to become our artistic leaders, to show by your example how we should live in these dark days.