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A journalist goes undercover to reveal the absurdity of the art scene

“Get the Picture,” by Biana Bosker  (Courtesy)
By Martin Gelin Washington Post

“If you are not rich, you’re not getting rich,” the writer Fran Lebowitz once quipped about life in contemporary America. Judging from “Get the Picture,” Bianca Bosker’s mesmerizing new book about New York’s contemporary art scene, Lebowitz might as well have been talking about cultural capital. If you’re not born with it, you probably won’t amass much of it, because the gatekeepers in this book make it clear that they’re not sharing any wealth. “The art world is the way it is because not everyone has access to it. And not everyone understands it. And that’s sort of what creates interest and intrigue,” a gallerist on the Lower East Side tells the author.

Bosker, an Atlantic contributor who previously wrote a delightful book about wine snobs (“Cork Dork”), here goes semi-undercover with the 1% of cultural capital, in swanky Chelsea galleries and drug-fueled VIP rooms at Miami’s Art Basel. Her goal is to figure out why contemporary art attracts so much money, status and (occasionally) talent. She spent several years taking entry-level jobs in galleries and artist studios so she could vividly capture the new class hierarchies in American culture and the subtle cues that mark cultural distinction.

In one memorable scene, a former assistant at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery describes how her employer had “such stringent guidelines on answering the phone that her boss made her record herself rehearsing the one-word greeting (‘Gagosian.’), then practice till she aced the intonation: curt with a downward inflection, because ‘you do not want to sound happy.’ ”

Bosker learns that money is never enough in the New York art world; it must be the right kind of money, preferably old, or at least vaguely attached to cultural prestige. “Gallerists hid the prices, then refused to sell you a piece, even if you could pay for it,” she writes. She patiently talks to an endless succession of nepo babies who are reluctant to discuss their inherited privilege, so it’s refreshing when the gallerist Rob Dimin admits he would never last in the New York art world without his trust fund: “To get to this point without the family support – hell (expletive) no.”

In a telling scene, the artist Julie Curtiss panics when her paintings sell at record prices at auctions, not just because she doesn’t get a cut from secondary sales but because hype that comes too quickly can destroy careers. When the art becomes associated with nouveau riche investors, top galleries turn up their noses, and careers can collapse quicker than a meme stock.

The galleries inform her that the way to avoid this is to sell art only to “Good Persons,” which tends to mean wealthy white people with friends at powerful institutions. One gallerist tells her, “You don’t necessarily want just, like, Joe Schmo to buy it and put it in his one-bedroom Bed-Stuy apartment and it never sees the light of day again.”

The book also asks deeper questions about the ways art institutions now fetishize political radicalism, while often abusing or excluding those who live it. Contemporary art galleries are happy to exhibit Black, queer or even (occasionally) working-class artists; they just prefer not to sell the art to them or share boardrooms with them. At the time Bosker’s book was written, there were 176 members of the Art Dealers Association of America, one of them African American.

Meanwhile, salaries in the art world are so absurdly low that only rich kids with family money can afford the entry-level jobs, turning galleries into self-selecting clubs that perpetuate their own privilege. Bosker exposes the often-abusive labor practices of art institutions and shows how gallerists, artists and curators take pride in treating their employees like vermin. They “hire by feel and fire on whims,” and one Manhattan gallerist brags about putting assistants “through hell the first day.”

Language also helps to keep outsiders away. Bosker quotes a widely discussed paper on the birth of “International Art English,” a blatantly exclusionary dialect, “not necessarily for communicating,” that instead serves to build tribal identity among art elites. It grew, the argument goes, out of dubious translations of French theory in American magazines in the 1980s and still shapes art-industry-speak, where the francophone suffix -ité is often applied awkwardly to made-up English words. Bosker quotes a news release describing artworks that allegedly “summon forces of indexicality and iconicity from the aspirations, alibis and abuses of sovereignty.”

“Art devotees spoke like they were trapped in dictionaries and being forced to chew their way out,” Bosker writes. When she told a curator that a performance art piece was “boring,” the curator disagreed: It wasn’t boring, it was “durational.”

Thankfully, Bosker’s book is neither boring nor durational. She has written a dark comedy of manners, and what she exposes here might be a new kind of country club mentality, where the cultural elite can no longer exclude people based on race, gender or sexual identity, so they come up with clever new ways to build moats around their little castles. “Outsiders,” a gallerist explains, “have zero social currency and just can’t help anyone.”

“Get the Picture” is one of the funniest books I’ve read about New York’s contemporary art scene, even if I disagreed with some of its conclusions about how best to approach and appreciate art. In the latter half of the book, Bosker’s justified sense of alienation from the abusive and condescending power players of the New York scene evolves into a broader attack on all forms of art expertise. After meeting the curators of the Whitney Biennial, she seems surprised that they make their selections based on subjective taste, which she dismisses as “arbitrary.” She questions all prestigious art institutions because their curators are “biased, flawed and operating within certain limitations.” Wouldn’t that apply to all gatekeepers of culture – the juries of the Nobel Prize, the Turner Prize, the Pritzker, not to mention the editors of literary magazines and the like? In her concluding chapters, she tells the reader to “demote context,” which basically means ignoring the intentions of the artist, and asks: “Who says you have to listen to those experts anyhow?”

This faux populism is dismissive not just of curators but of all scholarship. The problem with the contemporary art world is not that everyone in a position of power is a liar and a fraud, but that even the most brilliant people have built or wield such efficient tools for exclusion. Instead of dismissing the knowledge harnessed in these institutions, we should try to make their expertise more accessible.

Bosker implicitly makes this case herself, since many experts in the book – artists, gallerists – become the heroes of the story, providing wisdom on and insight into art. Even the initial villain, the hip gallerist Jack Barrett, is redeemed, thanks to his clearly deep and contagious passion for challenging, complex works.

It’s the collectors who come across as deranged and vapid. One of them, in a typical macho power play, storms into a Tribeca gallery with his entire family in tow, just to humiliate the gallerist for “liking” an inappropriate Instagram post. Another – in Miami, of course – admits that he collects art only to impress girls.

So perhaps a better takeaway from the book is: Trust the experts, not the money. Persuading curious, aspiring art novices to ignore the vast expertise that contextualizes art would be a shame, because they would, for example, miss out on Bosker’s otherwise brilliant book.

Martin Gelin is a journalist based in Paris and New York, and the author of the forthcoming book “Rules of Attraction: Why Soft Power Matters in Hard Times.”