1. Art collectors treat art as an investment.
For the most part, the only people who can afford to buy art in this economy are people who are not affected by this economy, the top 1 or 2 percent. Of course, rich people have always patronized the arts— Michelangelo would never have been able to produce his masterpieces without the Medici family— but today's billionaires aren’t just patronizing artists, they’re investing in and branding them. The top 10 billionaire art collectors have 18% of their net worth invested in art, though the average billionaire invests about .5% of their net worth in art. Investing in art can sometimes prove more lucrative than the stock market; a recent study shows that works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have been appreciating at a higher rate than the S&P 500.
There is money to be made not just in selling art, but also in evaluating its worth. In the same way a financial advisor would help you make investment choices, there are art advisors who counsel your art purchases. “Appearing as if from nowhere, like a biblical swarm of locusts: The art advisors…. in the last few years, advisors have popped up literally everywhere and now outnumber collectors 2 to 1,” says financial writer Adam Lindermann. Many contemporary art collectors have no interest in the art itself, making priceless works of art nothing more than fetishized commodities.
Flipping, selling artworks immediately after purchasing them at exponential prices, is also a common practice among art collectors. Many financial advisors predict that continuing to inflate the value of works of art that are constantly turned over will soon cause the art bubble to burst. “The auction houses are experiencing a situation where every auction total is higher than the last and these vertiginous upward prices cannot be maintained forever. Someday the music is going to stop and somebody is going to be found without a chair to sit on,” says art expert and former Sotheby’s employee Todd Levin.
2. Art is a spectacle.
There are certain exhibitions, like James Turrell’s immersive light installation at the Guggenheim, when experiencing the art everyone is extoling is nearly impossible because there are so many viewers clamoring to see what the hype is about. I waited in line for nearly two hours to see Turrell’s Aten Reign, a “meditative spectacle” where I “may or may not see God” (according to New York Times critic Roberta Smith). Perhaps I would have seen God had not every New Yorker who had that day off been breathing down my neck, but mostly, the entire exhibit seemed like a subtle joke. There I was, standing in a line, shuffling up the steps like a prisoner, waiting to see this transformative work that no matter how spectacular would ultimately frustrate me. Perhaps I’m cynical, but the crowded wait only ruined the exhibit for me. I wondered if this wasn’t some kind of existential funhouse, a metaphor for the futility of human existence, ending in a disappointing light show.