Richard Feigen's 'Art Crypt': the mad market for aesthetics

On Books

July 09, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

From time to time there comes a book that's compellingly readable in spite of itself. Such is "Tales from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art," by Richard Feigen (Alfred A. Knopf, 296 pages, $30).

Despite my quibbles, I found it obsessingly interesting. Reading it is to eavesdrop on vivid, vicious, tireless gossip, which offers little nourishment to the heart, but feeds a voracious appetite for scandal -- and decodes much about the art market.

Feigen, who went to Yale and to Harvard, began in "the art business" in Chicago in the mid 1950s with very little capital. He moved to New York in 1963 and never turned back. He has tracked, traded and collected art all over the world.

He kept good records, and beyond that has an extraordinary memory. The book is ornamented with intricate specifics of artworks, deals and personalities across four decades. Almost any importantly recognizable artist from the 1940s onward turns up.

In describing his career, Feigen laments that "At the end of the day an art dealer is usually left with two assets: a collection of objects he could not or would not sell, and a collection of stories he could not tell." While Feigen still has much of his favorite art, he has clearly decided to tell it all -- the good, the bad and the awful -- in this volume.

Some of the stories of ill-founded attributions and sloppiness on the part of scholars -- especially in universities, as opposed to museums -- are enough to make almost anybody angry. There are wonderful tales of the manipulations of collectors and curators by dealers, and of dealers' scorn for other dealers. It's a dog-eat-snake competitive world.

Lurking beneath Feigen's scorpion side, there is impressive depth, and some remarkable artistic insights. He demonstrates in an accessible and fascinating manner substantial scholarship, especially about Old Master paintings. Even the reader who has no interest in becoming an art connoisseur may find Feigen's detective stories about that process fascinating.

More than any other theme, the book is about "Dramatic changes [that] started unfolding in the 1960s, triggered by Vietnam War inflation, the proliferation of money, the monetization of art, and the battle between the auction houses for hegemony in the marketplace."

He believes those trends horribly commercialized, politicized and trivialized art. In diametric contrast with "the market," he celebrates "the eye" -- the innate and usually spontaneous or inborn quality of taste, of recognition.

Of course, Feigen has not done badly in the business. Riding the inflation of art values, he reports getting, for example, a $3.5 million commission for selling a single Rembrandt for $28.5 million.

Here is a man who has traded in tens of millions of dollars of art. He has sought out and lived in the higher economic strata of American and European capitalist society. He takes very seriously the importance of membership in clubs and acceptance in social circles.

Yet, in almost comic contrast, Feigen espouses a set of loony-lefty political positions. He belabors his refusal, for 10 years, to stand for the U.S. national anthem. He defends Anthony Blunt, an art historian who was a major British spy for the Soviet Union. He celebrates Jane Fonda's "peace pilgrimages" to Hanoi during the Vietnam war.

He argues at repetitive length that the U.S. government should greatly subsidize art and artists -- as do many others around the world. Yet he also celebrates the fact that with only tiny funds flowing through the National Endowment for the Arts, "the American cultural product is perhaps our most credible export commodity." He emphasizes that our artistic culture draws to this country vast attention and vast funds from virtually every other industrial nation on the earth.

He ignores that logical contradiction, the disconnection. He never confronts the obvious implication that the very absence of government intrusion and political dues-demands is a principal cause of the independence, vigor and richness of artistic spirit in the United States.

Otherwise, many of Feigen's values are strong. He fought valiently -- though futilely -- to have Chicago's outgrown Federal Court of Appeals building on Lake Shore Drive preserved as that city's nascent Museum of Contemporary Art, and lost.

He now lyrically disdains the replacement: "Bad architecture, the offspring of powerful, arrogant, tasteless people, has not only created a tacky atmosphere, like most bad choices it has proved more expensive than good choices. ... The new Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago ... resembles a cheap imitation of an Albert Speer confection for the Third Reich, except that it wasn't cheap."

Feigen does not take prisoners.

His perception of the role of museums and the art in them is at the core of the best of the book. And I find his central conclusion inescapable:

"In the old days, art museums were about real art -- taking care of it, completing collections of it, exhibiting it. But these days American museums -- with only a few exceptions -- seem more concerned with crowds and money than art. ... It is important to consider whether this sea change over the past quarter century -- and with it museums' preoccupation with endowments and construction programs -- is for better or for worse."

Like Feigen, I believe that museums exist to preserve art and to help people understand and appreciate it -- not to play into the hands of marketers, nor to be obsessed by body counts that have little or nothing to do with their true, noble mission.

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