01/25/2012 07:06 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

The One-Percenter Art World

When I was in college, an art professor cautioned me that the art world was "capricious" and termed the gallery/art adviser/critic/curator/university tenure system a "daisy chain." Lately, the British art collector Charles Saatchi has lambasted the art world, and Adam Lindemann seems to be in an equally bad mood about it.

I thought of my old professor and about the art world, its sound and fury, inanities and excesses, and what it signifies, and it's hard to tell.

There's a lot of money moving around the art world -- about $60 billion a year worldwide -- more than the sales of recorded music worldwide. About a third of the world's art business takes place in the U.S., much of that in New York City. The primary sales venue for big-ticket contemporary art is the art gallery. Art advisers and corporate consultants arrange gallery sales from eligible buyers; and the public is pretty much excluded: "The high end of the market is not at the mercy of public taste." Detachment of the art market from any broader financial confirmation means it doesn't need to be readily comprehensible to the public or responsive to broader market pressures. The art world that seems so crazily out-there is insular, cautious, incestuous and isolated.

The analogy occurred to me: the Art World is to Art as Wall Street is to Democracy; the former no longer a vital contributor to the latter. Bijan Kherzi, a Swiss-based financier and collector of contemporary art, thought of it first. He states that the art world "has been hijacked by the very same forces that poisoned the world of finance: herding, greed and short-termism leading to asset inflation, market collusion, lack of substance and too many self-possessed individuals."

How we usually define artistic success in any field is most often about money, but also usually some broader measure of access and reach -- consider other arts -- film (box office gross), music (sales or recorded music), literature (best sellers), even live performance arts like dance, classical music, theater (audience). These fields engage far larger networks of production, distribution, marketing, consumption and criticism. Even a relatively elite world such as classical music extends to venues across the nation, and often to even small communities, with more or less generally acknowledged standards and expectations. While seeking a popular audience can inhibit risk, complexity and originality, I don't think it's culturally unhealthy for an art to speak more widely.

I do wonder the extent to which the structure of the art market is a result of the fact that the experience of visual art is generally immediate and in-person -- an experience that doesn't translate well from a distance. Most often, a work of visual art is a unique and solitary example -- it exists in one place at a time. If you watch a film or read a book you are directly engaging the artist's expression in its intended medium. You can read 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' any time, any place, even on your phone, and you're reading the same exact words Stieg Larsson wrote. The uniqueness of the visual art object means you have to go to see it, and not many people are able to or bother to get there, especially if "there" is New York or LA. Visual art doesn't reproduce well and generally isn't intended for it. Recent innovations in the digital reproduction of visual art have confounded issues of originality, as the insidious advent of the giclée "print" has (quite intentionally) confused buyers, parasitically taking on the pricing and conventions (pencil signed, limited edition) of the original print. This works nicely for Thomas Kinkade and his mass market chain stores, not for Damien Hirst.

The vitality of an art doesn't and shouldn't necessarily be defined by its popularity, and popularity certainly doesn't necessarily correspond to quality however we define it -- but is it too much to hope for visual art to aspire a little higher than the high-dollar/short-sell narcissism of the gallery scene? Is it time to decentralize the art world, to tie it to a larger social and historical context, and to remember and restore the enduring basic language of visual art as it has moved us for 40,000 years? Is visual art at least fundamentally a visual experience -- can it help us see, wonder at and ask questions of the world from new perspectives?