itwonlast

In 1999, he bought Munch’s Madonna for $11 million. In 2004, he bought Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living for $8 million. In 2006, he bought a Pollock for $52 million. In 2006, he bought de Kooning’s Woman III for $137 million. In 2007, he bought Warhol’s Turquoise Marilyn for $80 million. In 2010, he bought a Johns Flag for $110 million. There have been works by Bacon and Richter and Picasso and Koons. Probably only he knows how much he has spent. Someone on the internet estimates it at $700 million. […]

The Art Collector, Steven Cohen, is in the news a lot lately. Prosecutors have accused seven former employees of his firm, SAC Capital, of insider trading. Three have pled guilty. Six others have been accused of insider trading while at other firms. The Times reports that more subpoenas are out. For a lot of people, this is all quite fun. Wall Street’s schadenfreude is as limitless as its greed.

The Art Collector is also in the news because the art world misses him. With $8.8 billion, he is the 106th richest person in the world, according to Forbes. He has to share this distinction with the chairman of Samsung, a guy who has made a surprisingly large amount of money in satellite dishes, and Rupert Murdoch. And while I don’t know about the tastes in consumption of Murdoch or the satellite guy, it is unlikely that 8 percent of their fortune is in art. And so when the Art Collector made the decision not to attend Art Basel Miami in December, the Times reported distress. […].

I take it at face value that the Art Collector is, as the Times reports, “the ideal collector—warm, dedicated, eager to take home the best pieces.” I don’t think the Art Collector buys a painting of a flag for $110 million because it matches his couch.

I have an average aesthetic response to what I see. I am relatively catholic in my taste but am most drawn to art that tends to be stiller and straighter and seemingly able to occupy a contemplativeness it also creates in the viewer: works by Hopper, Rothko, Newman, Judd. I do, though, know a little more about artistic struggle than I do about art. I have written novels, with mixed success, since I left the bank. Novelists rarely get to feel pity for other artists, with the constant exception of poets. But visual artists have my enduring sympathy. Precedent seems to constrict their choices infinitely more than it does those of novelists. Novels are more plastic than plastic: one can blow up and reconstruct the world’s expectations of form, but one can also be original and important in less formally flashy ways. A visual artist hits his audience with a visceral punch. The potential responses to a work’s “newness” seems much more binary. One would continue reading prose that is Bellowish and happily let the author have her influences. One would wonder after seeing a Pollockish drip painting whether the painter was an ironist or a hack.

Mandatory newness—and oceans of commentary on it—is an old problem. It’s now coming into its second century. After the March to Abstraction came the March of Ideas, when art became, in Harold Rosenberg’s words, “a species of centaur—half art materials, half words.” Yet the art world is still thriving, the papers report. The money is still flowing. The parties still glitter. New artists are declared important and great. And sometimes, they are.

But how hard it must be now for an artist when it seems that not only has every material form and format imaginable been tried to express Truth and Beauty but every idea has now also found material form. I watch in awe as artists rise to face that challenge, and even more so when they succeed. But sometimes I feel like I’m witnessing the strain. All artists respond to their inner life and the outer world and other art in some mix. These basic ingredients have not changed. But too often, after leaving a contemporary art exhibition, having hungrily wanted a powerful aesthetic experience, I wonder why I was left cold. It could be that I am not versed enough in the ideas of the centaurs to see the intellectual beauty. It could be, I remind myself, that most art in most times is just so-so; there never was an age of the ubiquitous masterpiece. But it also feels, sometimes, as if an edge has become the only ante to be exhibited at all. As if the edge has become the whole point.

I have no idea if the Art Collector is guilty of insider trading. The Art Collector’s spokesman points out that the firm does thousands of trades a day. The firm has employed thousands of people. I am certain that the Art Collector has a compliance department as shiny and expensive as his best Koons. There are plenty of scenarios for what has gone on at his fund. The Art Collector ordered his underlings to use insider information (unlikely). The Art Collector created a culture in which insider trading was implicitly accepted (possible). The Art Collector created a culture in which the constant need for an edge drove people to do bad things (my vote).

The Art Collector—all investors—wakes up each morning to face an enemy, and for most also a fate: the efficient market. Incorporating thousands and sometimes million of signals, ideas, and intelligences from every buy and sell decision, the efficient market in a security has already anticipated whatever changes you think may be in store for it. For individual investors and most professionals, the efficient market thesis is all you need to know: don’t try to beat the market.[…]

Two fears besides that efficiency haunt the Art Collector and his traders. The first is of law enforcement and regulators, whose efforts at catching inside traders are ever present and who continually seek to unload the dice. The other, larger worry comes from rival traders seeking—or finding—the same edge. One of the open secrets in the hedge fund community is that many hedge fund managers, all with purportedly contrarian and differentiated strategies, own remarkably similar positions. An edge is mortal. When others know what you know, it becomes a ghost, living in the price.

I wonder what the Art Collector thinks, late at night, as he ignores the phone calls from his lawyers, stops calculating the probability of prison, and surveys what $700 million has bought him. Maybe he is a boob and sees in Pollock’s swirls nothing more than a mirror of his own wealth. Maybe he has become infatuated with the scale of his consumption: the goal has shifted from acquiring individual works to assembling a mountain of art. If you are not managing more money, you are managing less.

But perhaps, as an ideal collector, he communes with Jasper Johns’s Flag, admiring the conceptual edge, that once shocking mixture of surface and paint and subject and no subject at all. Maybe he stands in front of his Woman III, worth all $137 million he paid for it, and thinks about edge in general. Artists—traders—the Art Collector himself—are faced with the efficient market, the weight of precedent, all that has been and is being done. Every day it gets worse. But the best of them, like de Kooning, are mercury, racing to be first to an edge before it disappears.

The Art Collector, I’m sure, knows the rest of the story. For a few more years after painting Woman III, de Kooning created works that we still think of as important. Within a decade, though, he would sometimes sleep through the day. “At other times,” according to his biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, “he would start drinking at dawn and go for the whole day, downing huge amounts of Scotch and vodka and Gallo wine.” De Kooning was one of the lucky ones. He lived until he was 93. Rothko and Gorky killed themselves. More died unrecognized and broke. In his eighties, de Kooning made ribbony paintings that were spare, bright, and pleasant. But art history doesn’t quite know what to do with them. They seem to lack something essential—the anger and energy—that we want from de Kooning. They also refuse to acknowledge that the edge had moved on by then, to pop and minimalism and conceptual and anything else.

This is now the template for the career of a successful artist: a few incandescent years, a few decades, and then repetition, self-parody, irrelevance, death. But that’s what we admire about them. Their fight against their condition is our fight against our condition. They are trying to fix a vanishing edge in a material form. And that struggle against the mortality of the edge, which is the mortality of every minute, which is mortality, is affirming and heroic and generous.

And the collector of this art? He has $9 billion, which is something. It is certainly more than $8 billion. And he has proved an interesting point. There is no reason to believe that a person can make $9 billion from the short-term trading of stocks except for the inconvenient fact that he has. But the Art Collector’s victories over the edge—maybe the victories of edge—are, for him, just numbers on a balance sheet. They are liquid. And so to convert them into a solid, he buys art. And not just art, but modern and contemporary artists at their peak. Perhaps he wishes that he could eat the paintings to capture their power, like cannibals used to do to their enemies. But a Warhol would be pretty expensive sushi. So he regards what he has bought. Does he hope then that others will understand the transformation he sees in front of him, of his wealth into this art, of his edge into this immortality? Or does he see only what he has never done, and could never do?

“I’ve been to the top of the mountain,” he once told Vanity Fair, “and there’s not much there.”

I think he was talking about being the best trader. But only he knows what emptiness he saw.

> GARY SERNOVITZ, Edge and the Art Collector
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