With expanding museums, skyrocketing auction sales and the rise of international mega-galleries, art today is indubitably a huge business. Last year auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s together had record-breaking sales of roughly $14 billion worth of art. Recent years saw Jeff Koons’ monumental chrome and stainless steel balloon dog sell for $58.4 million and Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull with human teeth for $100 million. A $70 million state-of-the-art warehouse complex called Uovo, which is set to open an additional building this spring in Long Island City in New York, stores art bought not for display but as an investments. The business of blue-chip art is thriving.
But so is the business of what I call ersatz art: objects that masquerade as art but are simply decorative merchandise.
The most recent depiction of ersatz art is in the film “Big Eyes,” about Walter Keane’s and Margaret Keane’s big-eyed waifs, which traded profitably on maudlin sentimentality. The most recent example of contemporary ersatz art is a highly publicized $6.5 million nature photograph by Peter Lik; it is apparently the most expensive photo ever sold.
Lik’s work is representative of an embarrassing art-world underbelly that has long been ignored by reputable curators, critics, museums and galleries. Its resurgence is primarily about money. But it is also likely connected to the increasing mixture of high and low culture in the work of legitimate artists such as Koons, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Jeffrey Vallance. Their works have blurred the line between the genuine and the ersatz and in the process helped make Andy Warhol’s vision of art as business come true.