Schadenfreude is so central to how the art world functions that it’s no surprise to hear the sound of two hands rubbing together when it comes to talk of how the economic meltdown will affect contemporary art. After all, one of the conditions of working in the art world—like working in Hollywood or the music industry—is that you have to declare yourself outside of it (or above it) on a regular basis (i.e. Sean Penn). When the conversation hovers, vulture-like, over the subject of the recession, a commonly voiced belief, shared by some journalists, is that the ebb of cash could only have positive benefits for ‘real’ artists. Somehow, the newly ascetic art world, once rid of aluminum lobsters and solid gold supermodels, would undergo a kind of bizarro-Renaissance, blossoming into creative maturity on a shoestring budget. Somehow, the diminished opportunities for artists to show and sell works (which will inevitably be a byproduct of the recession) would be just the wake-up call contemporary art needs, a sort of “we’ll do the show right here” spirit that’ll give art a reason to exist.
It’s hard to bemoan what will almost certainly be the passing of an era whose defining image is a skull with glittery pimples. No one’s going to cry at the thought of a cat-stroking oligarch having to hock his billion-dollar Bacon. That said, it’s equally hard to echo the cackling I-told-you-so-ness of some commentators. Poverty has never been the creative catalyst popular art history would have us believe, and, in the absence of a WPA-style shot in the arm, it’s likely that art’s centrality in popular consciousness will wane dramatically over the next few years. Certainly, the demise of artwork-as-bauble is no bad thing, but the undercurrent of this somewhat puritanical approach to contemporary art is a pretty depressing one, reminiscent of the grotesquely gleeful press coverage of the Momart fire in 2004, in which several significant works of art were destroyed (it’s also oddly similar to art purges of history, especially Savonarola’s ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in Renaissance Florence, in which paintings, sculptures, and objects associated with the perceived decadence of the ruling classes were publicly burnt, often with the artists’ consent).
However tempting, applauding misfortune is never useful, especially in the fickle world of contemporary art. And if the art world can benefit from the economic downturn, then it will be through self-reflexivity. The confluence of art object and luxury product has (especially over the last year) been so successful a piece of misdirection that discussion and analysis of meaning has been largely overlooked. In order to shed its associations with flatulent wealth, art will have to defend its intellectual territory, bling or no bling.