Is It the Art or Is It the Hype?

“Is it the art or is it the hype?” I’ve been asked this question so many times it makes me ill. It always comes from those who don’t look at art and are trying to explain why they don’t buy it. In a skeptical tone they slip me this line on a regular basis. “Yes,” I tell them with a smile, “it’s all a fraud. These contemporary art stars are all phonies and fakes, it’s the fancy galleries promoting this stuff and you’re the smart one who figured it all out.” But what I’m thinking is, “Cretin, you don’t understand a damn thing about art.” But now even most art believers have to admit that parts of today’s art scene have indeed gone too far. Yet when I spelled it out for the world in my satire of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair last December, I was attacked by many insecure pundits, advisers and dealers who felt threatened by the words. But forgetting the whiners, it’s what everyone was and is still talking about. Just last Sunday 60 Minutes ran a Morley Safer-hosted exposé bashing the fair, highlighting the hype in order to suggest that contemporary art is no more than a marketing circus. We can’t really blame old Morley Safer—he’s just another blowhard—but I was shocked to see one respected dealer, Tim Blum of Blum and Poe in Los Angeles, play right into Mr. Safer’s canard. “We’re from Hollywood, this is theater, only theater,” he said when asked about art prices. “It’s the wild west … competition is vicious … when the question of value comes up we drop the subject.” Mr. Blum misspoke—and that’s regrettable because, let’s face it, when the hype booms louder than the art, the art world invites the philistines right to its gates.


What bothers art world outsiders is the reality that everything exists within a context, and if they don’t understand the context, they jump to dismiss what they don’t understand. But what’s the matter with some hype? Most of today’s movie stars didn’t make it on their talent alone; they got the right role at the right time, then parlayed the hype. Would Julia Roberts have become a superstar without her breakthrough role in Pretty Woman? What about Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Liz Taylor in National Velvet? So why shouldn’t a visual artist benefit similarly by a breakthrough show, one “produced” by a smart dealer or curator in the right place at the right time? A film can be advertised and promoted; why not an artist and an exhibition? Fine art is often held to an unrealistic standard, a mistaken belief that there is such a thing as “pure” art that exists outside the context in which it’s created and exhibited. Great art is expected to somehow get by without great salesmanship, and great staging.


The artist Dan Colen is the perfect example of someone who has plenty of hype. He’s been created by his dealers at the massive Gagosian gallery, right? Might he just be the product of the “fashion of the moment” effect, the W magazine/Interview magazine scene, a leader of the pack of pretty boys who make big prices at auction? This may seem to be the case to some, but the truth is that he was always a good artist. I’ve followed his work for over eight years, long before he joined Gagosian. Even back when he was showing with the smaller gallery Peres Projects, it was clear to me that he was the standout talent of his peer group. His decision to show with Gagosian, the largest gallery in the world, may, in fact, have been a mistake: though he’s had many shows and sold a lot of work in the short term, his market may experience a severe hangover if there is too much work and the market feels saturated. He’s a real talent, though, and so he’ll probably weather the storm of overmarketing and overproduction. The hype that comes from mass marketing an artist is a double-edged sword: it’s a money-making short-term strategy, but it can kill the artist’s career if the work isn’t truly exceptional.


The other night I had the pleasure of discussing this topic with one of the top painters in the world, an American artist in his early 70s who has moved far beyond any hype that helped him along the way. I asked him why he has been so loyal to the gallery he’s been with for 20 years. He doesn’t need a gallery—he makes only 12 paintings a year and could sell them all easily even if he hung them in an IKEA for the weekend. By way of answering, he told me, frankly, that most artists are fearful of change. “Do you mean to tell me that at your age you still need to be handled and managed as if you were a child?” I asked. He smiled and said, “I just want to go to my studio and paint, I don’t want to be bothered with the rest of it.” Now, some artists are proactive; they have taken the marketing of their art into their own hands. Damien Hirst shows what he wants, where he wants and, whether you like it or not, he makes his own hype, with Bono and Jagger and sundry movie stars in tow. But most artists don’t play hardball. They stick with their dealers in the old-fashioned way, because they are conservative, or lazy or simply satisfied. I’m sure this will evolve as time goes on. Recently we have seen more artists changing galleries than ever before, though most of them end up joining the rosters of the few mega galleries. That is where they feel safe and secure.


Is switching to a mega gallery a sure-fire recipe for market success? Absolutely not. It can be a good career move—the vast majority of successful midcareer artists have stuck with their original galleries, but then again most of them have stagnated, in part because their new work, shown in the same old gallery, gets tiring after a while. But it can also result in overmarketing because the temptation to overproduce, using the generous production budget available, is too strong, so global demand gets oversupplied. The work ends up looking overhyped and oversold­—the hangover effect we see in the careers of so many artists who have bounced around several galleries.


Ultimately, the question of whether an artist’s success is the result of great work or great hype reminds me of the time many years ago when I attended a lecture by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In the Q&A, trying to sound clever, I asked, “You often speak of the Platonic versus the Aristotelian views of the universe—are these two not contradictory?” Borges answered, “No, no, no, you do not understand—they are not contradictory, they are complementary!” The audience was hushed, a communal gasp was heard as if great words of wisdom had been spoken, but the real message was simple: the two views were necessary to complete the whole.


This is true for art and its context—they are complementary, not contradictory. Those who dismiss contemporary art as an overmarketed Ponzi scheme have missed this truth. Warhol and Dali were masters of hype, and that didn’t make their art less meaningful; nor was it the sole reason for their art’s success. Nothing is separable from its context, not even this article, but when the hype overshadows the art, it’s no surprise the skeptics have a field day.


  1. come on Adam! it is not only the outsiders or those who do not have a clue about art who say it is overdone. i admired tim blum’s honesty but also cynicism to say in our faces that we should not be blind about it. how can you blame him?

    i am not as insider as you are by far but we often travel to the same destinations with the “art circus” and i do not meet a single person who does not consider insane the amount of undiscerning money pouring into all aspects of the contemporary luxury art market from the hyper giga multi galleries, the well-funded internet new initiatives, the once-a-month-becoming-twice-a-month expensive art shopping fair, the artist’s branding leading to over-production without forgetting the monthly  successful contemporary art auction and the museum shows mainly funded by the primary galleries with the very obvious “courtesy of…” sticker meaning you can immediately call the gallery to…beg to buy it.

    as a very seasoned west coast collector told me recently: “it would not be a problem that there is so much talk about the money aspect as long as there would still be talk about the art but nobody talks about the art anymore.”
    and the sign of excess is clearly appearing when the next most-heard argument for buying contemporary! art is that it is the new safe hard asset class with the usual banking greek letter justification of diversification, outperformance and so on!
    as a banker let me tell you that when the taxi driver and hairdresser are talking about an “investment” it is time to be very careful.

    all this would still be “fun to watch” if the world was not going through the worst financial and economic crisis since the 30’s and that the art world is pretending it is not even noticing as it is living on the back of the glamourous 1%.

    what do you find normal into all this?

    it does not mean that there are no great art around and great artists at work. to the contrary!
    the best shows i have seen in new york were the new museum triennial and the whitney biennial. at last some fresh air!
    but not to the taste of the luxury art market if only because it is not expensive enough to cover the super heavy fixed costs of this new luxury goods industry as was said about some artists in the triennial with no current gallery representation.

    so dear adam yes it is possible to make big bucks by riding this wave of new money but i would rather watch when we come too close to the shores…
    and this has got so little to do with true art which should challenge us, question us, disturb us as it is, like mera rubell once said, “a language which is opening your heart to the Other”

    see you next month at frieze new york. 🙂

  2. Wow Alain that is well written! touche! No , Tim Blum is not in a position to mouth off, he sells the stuff and then tries to apologize for it on 60 minutes!!! Quelle honte!
    As far as Mera Rubell, she’s not one to “open hearts”, perhaps she opens a few wallets…
    It’s nice to be idealistic about art and love and life, however this hyped reality is the one we live in, this is our reality, so let’s make the best of it, and defend art against all conformists, false prophets and those who speak with forked tongues…
    I’m for the art too, but aren’t I writing for a NY newspaper? I have to admit I’m part of the hype perhaps, whether I like it or not…I may be many things but a liar will not be one of them or not.

    1. hello adam
      thank you for your reply
      let us make something clear i have never written or even thought for a second you are a liar if this is what you mean.
      i am enjoying debate of ideas in art through words and/or works of art. and i am enjoying your colourful and opiniated point of views particularly as you are the perfect insider and the only one sharing your thoughts with us as evidenced by LG’s attitude in the 60 minutes where he would not even stand up for one of the most popular reporting in the US (if i am not mistaken)
      but i am staying idealistic otherwise let us go speculating at the stock exchange as it is more liquid and even less insiders driven. 🙂
      hoping to welcome you and amalia in my city one day

  3.  Trying to stay
    away and defend my collection from all the hype, I’ve always collected work that
    usually stay in the artist intimacy, kept away from public eye– preliminary / preparatory
    work – the truly and most honest reflection of an artist inspiration.

    …. And I
    love it

    JCR (a Portuguese

  4. What nonsense. Making ad hominem attacks on people one doesn’t agree with hardly counts for serious analysis.
    What was revealed by Safer in the 60 Minutes piece is not remotely addressed above, any more than it was addressed by  Roberta Smith. Calling people names (“old Morley Safer–another blowhard”) is cowardly and arrogant. People who squawk that art isn’t a fraud or hype but do nothing more than call names and evade the seriousness of the corrupting power of money on the art world do nothing more than serve to prove Safer’s view of the art world.

    Donald Kuspit, who is an excellent art critic, and one deserving of the name has written much penetrating analysis of these current art stars. One of his observations is that it’s an art that caters to immaturity and narcissism. The remarks here and Miami Basel itself exemplify this. When Charles Saatchi himself is calling Miami Basel decadent someone might bother to try doing some critical thinking about the situation of contemporary art. 

    For a thoughtful analysis of the 60 Minutes piece one can read here:

    1. This is really good stuff thank you.
      And…it’s noted that you and Safir agree, and you’re very proud of it.
      If the world is immature and narcissistic, then why wouldn’t the art be the same, in fact it should be.
      Of course you and Morley are mature and selfless, so you two know what great art should really be.
      …What do I know, I’m just trainspotting… :~]                            

      1. “If the world is immature and narcissistic, then why wouldn’t art be the same, in fact it should be.”

        Thanks for those words of wisdom, Now at least I’m aware of your criteria for judging what is great art and what isn’t and why Koons/Sherman/Kelly et al are great in your somewhat fuzzy eyes. 

        No doubt in my mind whatsoever that in future the people of the globe will look back on a Macarthy giant Turd sculpture or  Richard Prince joke painting and place them in proper comparison to the High Renaissance. The Turd Sculpture will take its rightful place  next to Michelangelo’s David (Michelangelo was a Renaissance sculptor… google him.) The Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum can have a couple Prince paintings to lighten up the heavy atmosphere. Videos and sculptures of random assemblies of junk materials, men with giant Picasso heads…. and let’s not forget the immortal Santiago Sierra. Doubtless the impoverished living in the various penal colonies that used to be their countries will rely on the work of Sierra to help them analyze the structures of power as they view re-simulations of couples in anal coitus… since the original formers will be long dead and buried.Those with enquiring minds might want to check the link below. It’s a fairly succinct and sober analysis of the bubble. Of course, it’s written by a well-respected novelist… i.e. somebody who knows how to both write and think clearly and thus no doubt a blowhard philistine:

        For those who prefer videos might notice the similarity of’s aesthetic reasoning and  Mughrabi’s. I have no doubt that men of Mughrabi’s and’s  keen intelligence are no doubt unerring in their judgement of art that will last through the upcoming vicissitudes of the market: 

        1. This is great stuff and perhaps you are right, though odds are against you. It’s always easy to say the old is good , the new is bad, though perhaps this is indeed the case. Which leads me to ask you: what then is good today in art?
          Only one point thoroughly discredits you…Mughrabi is actually spelled MUGRABI, there is no H , so that’s a typo against you. Thank you for your views and opinions.

          1. If you want to rely on typos to discredit someone’s opinion, I refer you to your first reply to me. It’s not Safir, as you spelled it. It’s Safer. 

            We’ll see where the bubble goes. Reality is the final arbiter. As to your question of what is good in art today my belief is that what is good in art today is what is good in art of the past. Deep feeling, emotion and involvement with life — from the crackling intensity of van Gogh to the elegant refinement of Degas you experience a complex exploration of the artist’s internal reality delivered with enormous skill that’s a product of intense labor.

            What you’re hyping here is kitsch. No skill because no intense labor. The craftspeople Koons/Hirst hires has skill but the work is devoid of any emotion or involvement.  

            The kitsch of the current superstars lacks any genuine feeling. That’s it’s whole point. It’s what makes it so attractive to the corporate collector class. It’s reflecting the corporate collector class, not society. The world isn’t immature and narcissistic. It’s filled with people in deep states of suffering and misery. Artists who are in touch with that will make great work. Artists who aren’t won’t.  Cynical market calculation and nihilistic rehashed Dadaism have a limited shelf life. Check out the market value of Raoul Haussmann, an original and major Berlin Dadaist. if you don’t believe me. 

            All the best anyway. 

          2. ok Tio, perhaps you are right , but then again didn’t Michelangelo work for the Medicis?
            Isn’t art for sale in order to support itself, and then aren’t the “people” of the moment the ones deciding what they’ll spend their money on?

          3. Adam, no argument there.

            But let’s compare the Medicis/Popes to today’s corporate/banking class by comparing the art supported by the Medicis/Popes with that supported by Globo-corp.

            So let’s imagine ourselves transported back to the Rome of the Renaissance. Now imagine16th-century versions of  Hirst, Basquiat, and  Haring wandering around amidst the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. Does anyone  imagine that these three art stars would resemble much more than the local village idiots? Let’s do a mental visual exercise: Instead of Sixtus and Julius entrusting the Sistine decoration to Michelangelo, Botticelli, Perugino, etc…. they task the work to the 16th century versions of Hirst/Basquiat/Haring. 

            What would your estimation of the results we might expect from the three stooges compared to what exists today in Rome? And what would your estimation be of the visual intelligence shown by the ruling class of today with that of the Medicis and the Popes? 

            Of course, during the High Renaissance artists didn’t have these great “ideas” that our current art stars have an endless supply of. Just imagine Sol Lewitt grabbing hold of Julius’s rob, excitedly thrusting on him a set of instructions for assistants to carry out involving drawing lines from this point to that point….etc. etc…

            … Julius:… “yes, yes…. very nice idea Sol…but I think I’ll let Michelangelo handle this one.”

            Incidentally, America used to have a financial/corporate class with a concept of high culture… How else do you think we have museums filled with so much treasure, not just Old Masters but European Modernists?

    1.  Hey Kenny, you don’t qualify as one of the “insecure pundits, advisers and dealers who felt threatened by the words”because you don’t qualify period. By attacking me you hope to get a readership,good luck to you, as grasshopper has often said “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
      – Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

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