The Chinese word weiji (危機 translated as “crisis”) is often said to be composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”; the implication being precarious situations afford us opportunity. I remember how surprised I was when I learned this is an often-repeated misconception based upon etymological fallacy. While the deconstruction has gained momentum as a modern piece of wisdom, in truth in the word weiji (危機), the “ji “ ideogram actually means “crucial point”, not “opportunity .
Despite the fact that the ideogram doesn’t support the theory, whenever there is a significant problem, such as the global economic crisis, there is opportunity for people who choose to take advantage of the situation. This was pointed out quite clearly by Carol Vogel of the New York Times who noted that “There were bargains to be had" due to the economic climate. In her in her Nov 5, 2008 news report, Bleak Night at Christie’s, in Both Sales and Prices, she refers to these opportunists as “bottom-feeders”:
"Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million."
However, she’s not alone in viewing smart art investors as “bottom-feeders", as Editor at Large of Art+Auction, Judd Tully, published these words in response to the same auction:
“ It was an evening of price corrections, and some bottom-feeders took advantage. Long Island dealer David Benrimon acquired three significant works, including two bargain-basement deals: Georges Braque’s Nature morte à la corbeille de fruits for $842,500 (est. $1.2–1.8 million) and Joan Miró’s Femme et oiseau devant le soleil for $2,154,500 (est. $2.5–3.5 million). “Tonight you had great opportunities,” said the dealer. “It’s between 20 and 25 percent below market value,” he added of the works he purchased. “
I suspect I would have written the accounts in a more charitable vein, electing to use a less pejorative term than “bottom-feeder” to describe the individuals who purchased the art for relatively low market prices. However, I do believe we’ll be seeing more of this---and I applaud it, for it is important that the art market be supported at a more authentic level than it enjoyed in recent history.
My sentiments appear to be shared by Jerry Saltz who recently considered how the economic downturn will impact the entire art economy, not just artists and the auction houses. Here’s what he had to say in NY Magazine:
"If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.
As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk....The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want."
Ok. So that’s the good news! We can experiment during this down time. We can explore different techniques, improve our work, make contacts, develop our portfolios, and increase our inventory. And when the market starts to move from being bearish to bullish, we’ll be ready for it---fully armed with great art and visions to share with the changed world that will welcome new ideas.