Absurdity, Contemporary Art and Auction Culture

Tarnjeev Guram

Examination of the language, regulations, and circumstances surrounding contemporary art and auction house customs reveal a culture driven by absurdity. From the language surrounding an evening sale at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, to the contemporary status of auctioneer as celebrity, absurdity penetrates the sale of contemporary art on the global market. Auction houses work in tandem with internationally acclaimed dealers, curators, and collectors to stimulate the highest sales possible. Absurdities include, but are not limited to, the arising situation for unquestioned cultural growth in the United Arab Emirates, the psychology and inner workings of Contemporary Art Fairs, and the long utilized practice of waitlisting for artwork. It becomes clear that these absurdities are cleverly calculated forms of hegemony introduced by a small number of people to maintain influence, wealth and power within the contemporary arts community.

Before such a bold statement on the nature of the contemporary art market can be made, it is necessary to define the notion of absurdity as it applies to art. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, absurdity demonstrates a quality or state of being ridiculous, illogical, or wildly unreasonable.1 This notion of inappropriateness is easily understood and even useful when considering the production of creative works. Artists are frequently associated with going against the norm, unveiling unconsidered and often wildly unreasonable perspectives, and harnessing unfamiliarity. In many cases, creative works can be enhanced by the notion of absurdity as it allows for unconventional thought. However, this same notion of absurdity becomes problematic when defining the global market for contemporary art. This is mainly because the global art market mirrors a Eurocentric status hierarchy, held predominantly by the Western elite, to demonstrate a dispersal of wealth and power. Thomas Hoving, former Director for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, clearly demonstrates this as quoted by Thompson in The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: “Art is sexy! Art is money-sexy! Art is money-sexy-social-climbing-fantastic!”2

The ability of the art market to exert a sense of status and importance is in fact so strong that it has caused societies normally opposed to the notion of adopting Western ideals, to reconsider their stance on the position:

Currently a 27-mile-square expanse of flat, white sand off the coast of Abu Dhabiin the United Arab Emirates, Saadiyat Island is poised to dramatically change the landscape of art, architecture, and museums. With four world-class museums on the drawing board and another three in planning, the island’s $27 billion-pluscultural district is the linchpin of what may well be the most ambitious cultural agenda ever to take shape in such a limited time and space […]. But Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates in the UAE, is not alone in what amounts to a cultural arms race in a region rich with petro-cash, and eager to spend it onsymbols of good taste and refinement. Dubai, whose ambitions and pace of development outstrip even those of Abu Dhabi, has announced plans to build several major museums […].3

The situation in the United Arab Emirates is especially intriguing due to the region’s incorporation of heavily branded Western imagery. As Waxman points out, the building campaign is to include institutions referred to as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and New York University Abu Dhabi.4 In exchange for branding, the original institutions will maintain some influence over the programming of the new institutions. The consideration of these inclusions in a region often stated as opposed to Western, Christian ideals would have been extremely rare under the best of circumstances. Yet, it is soon to be realized in hopes of including the region amongst a select few others noted for sophistication and refinement, achieved through Western artistic ideals.

All the more absurd is that this massive building campaign is underway without the artwork to occupy it. The new institutions will depend heavily on loans from European and American institutions. This can prove problematic in many ways. Waxman quotes Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, as he raises an interesting question: “If the Guggenheim wants to start with Mapplethorpe, it will have trouble, it’s going to be interesting. So much of Western art before the Enlightenment is religious, and Christian. Will women be allowed to see paintings of Saint Sebastian with hardly anything on?”5

However, the patriarchal aspect of hegemony appears to make the art market an ideal fit for a society where patterns of behaviour regarding women are so highly outlined. Waxman illustrates this through an example where a visiting male lecturer to the region is notified that making eye contact with the women at his lecture is forbidden. This is all the more absurd considering his lecture topic of prolific female collectors from history.6

The situation in the United Arab Emirates suggests that the ability of the international art market to disperse Western hegemonic ideals is extremely strong and pervasive. So pervasive in fact, that conformity of otherwise reluctant societies is the result.

Contemporary Art Fairs are another arena in which the hegemonic ideals of the art market become blatantly clear. Here, a hierarchically enforced system ensures that the most valuable prospective clients gain access to art works well in advance of other potential buyers. The language of the global art market has no problem differentiating the value and worth of individuals based on terms that would under normal circumstances be seen as unethical and politically incorrect:

The opening period is so critical that most fairs exploit it with tiered-ticketpricing. The Armory Show in New York is the most extreme: tickets to enter theshow at 5 p.m. cost $1,000, entry at 5:30 p.m. costs $500, and 7 p.m. entry $250. You get less than you might think for $1,000, because dealers can invite their own clients in at noon; the best works are sold or on reserve long before the holders of $1,000 tickets arrive. On opening day at London’s Frieze Art Fair, VIPs [very important people] are allowed in at 2 p.m. and VOPs [very ordinary people] at 5 p.m., but the VVIPs [very, very important people] specially invited by sponsorDeutsche Bank gain entry at 11 a.m. to check out the best work.7

Contemporary Art Fairs also fuel a system based on misinformed and uneducated consumption. Dealers are unregulated in their marketing tactics and as a result, collectors frequently end up making hasty purchasing decisions. This is often due to the psychological impact of the buying environment created by the chaos of Art Fairs:

Fairs represent a culture change in art buying. They replace the quiet discussions held in the gallery with an experience akin to the shopping mall, blending art, fashion, and parties in one place. Collectors become shoppers who acquire impulsively, usually purchasing only one work by an artist. They may never visit the gallery of the dealer from whom they buy at a fair. With each fair, collectors become more accustomed to purchasing art in a shopping mall setting.8

Art Fairs are so successful with their deceptive marketing techniques that indicators of good investment, dispersed throughout the fair setting, can sway even the most hesitant collectors:

Fairs offer collectors a high level of comfort. Just as the presence of underbiddersreassures an auction bidder that he is not bidding foolishly, the sheer number ofpeople and “sold” stickers at a fair alleviates the collector’s uncertainty. The psychology at a fair is referred to as herding: when a buyer does not have sufficient information to make a reasoned decision, reassurance comes from mimicking the behavior of the herd.9

The Contemporary Art Fair’s practice of embracing unethical marketing strategies, as well as enforcing a hierarchy for the availability of artwork, reflects a tendency to support the values and ideals of a hegemonic, elitist society.

Demonstration of a hierarchical system continues well beyond the entry procedures of the Contemporary Art Fairs. The world of contemporary art is noteworthy for its position on creating waitlists for artworks. The purpose of these waitlists is merely to serve the best interest of the dealer involved. This usually comes at the expense of the artist, and often, even the collector:

The recent history of waiting lists goes back to the New York dealer Mary Boone,who in the late 1980’s succeeded in increasing demand for neo-Expressionist painters Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, and Eric Fischl by pricing realistically, then refusing to sell. Boone not only cited a waiting list, but requiredcollectors who wanted a place on the list to pay for the art before it was created. The practice drew criticism for encouraging artists to release lower quality work, and for inducing buyers unhappy with their seen-for-the-first-time purchase to flip the work at auction. Waiting lists also mean the artist is “caged-in”; collectorswant something in the same style they have seen, and the artist’s move to the nextstage of evolution of his work is delayed.10

The creation of a waitlist is also a practice utilized by the French fashion house Hermes in an extremely successful attempt to raise the amount collectors are willing to pay for the Birkin bag. The Birkin is so highly sought after that a $30,000 pursue may take more than two years to obtain. This level of absurdity is in no way limited to fashion and, in fact, is highly visible in the world of contemporary art as well.

The contemporary art world’s ability to elevate values to absurd levels has been so effective that it has led some individuals to contemplate the necessity of unthinkable actions. For example, Michael Cohen, a notable dealer and collector arranged financing from Sotheby’s:

Sotheby’s was offered ten paintings as collateral against the loans, but took possession of only three. It is still searching for the others. At the same time,Cohen was reported to have sold a single Monet, Resting in the Garden at Argenteuil, to three different buyers – while the painting was actually on display at the Museum of Modern Art. In 2003 Cohen was apprehended in Rio de Janeiro, and held on charges of wire fraud and transporting stolen goods across state lines. He escaped custody by feigning illness and escaping from the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He has never been tried or convicted.11

Cohen’s actions however did not go unmentioned by the auction house and contemporary art community. In fact, as illustrated by Thompson, the aftermath had quite the opposite effect: “The greater loss may be the damage he inflicted on the culture of trust that had existed between dealers and auction houses. Each is now less willing to transfer possession of an artwork or write a check without a signed contract to back up the transaction.”12

Unthinkable actions in the quest for power and money are not always so blatant. The pervasively manipulative and power asserting views of top auctions houses are sometimes more subtly enforced through a selection of acceptable language. This language is utilized to assert the hegemonic ideals of a powerful Western elite. Thompson illustrates this by exposing the views auction houses hold on the presence of ethnicities: “In New York, traditional auction humor holds that lots are carried in by the only black person in the room. In London they are carried in by the only impoverished person.”13 Such notions are extremely unacceptable in a post-colonial world. This lust for power and money should come as no surprise, however. Thompson indicates that the very meaning of the word auction comes from the Latin auctio, meaning to ascend, augere or to increase.14

These absurdities of the contemporary world of art and auction house culture demonstrate clear and cleverly calculated forms of hegemony, introduced by a small number of people to maintain influence, wealth and power within the contemporary arts community. They represent a world where status, and the ability to ascend to its highest tier, defines a continued, persistent and pervasively Western purpose to life.


1 Oxford Canadian Dictionary, s.v. “Absurdity.”

2 Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008): 53.

3 Sharon Waxman, “An Oasis in the Desert,” ARTnews February (2009): 69.

4 Ibid., 69-70.

5 Ibid., 72.

6 Ibid., 77.

7 Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.174.

8 Ibid., 171.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 195.

11 Ibid., 113.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 119.

14 Ibid., 97.


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Mason, Christopher. The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s and Christie’s Auction House Scandal. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004.

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Thompson, Don. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics ofContemporary Art. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Waxman, Sharon. “An Oasis in the Desert.” ARTnews February (2009): 68-79.