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PRANKS 2 Excerpt: Ron English


V: One definition of an artist is ‘somebody who does something creative without the profit motive.’

RE: Yeah, for the holy hell of it! Some people just can’t wrap their mind around that.

V: Right, it just doesn’t make sense–it’s insane! That’s how ‘they’ define sanity: ‘Am I making any money off it?’ If you’re not, you’re crazy!

RE: Right, and some people will really treat you like you are crazy. But all you have to do is say, ‘Well, for every billboard I do, I sell ten extra paintings, and I’m able to tack ten thousand dollars apiece on them, so really it’s free advertising, and I’m probably adding a couple hundred thousand dollars to my profit margin every year for doing this.’ Then people go, ‘Oh yeah–now I get it!’ It’s totally not true, but it shuts them up.

V: [laughs] On some level, it might be true. I mean, I don’t know, because I really don’t know that much about how the art world truly works.

RE: And even the people running it don’t, so . . . it’s just a bunch of people fighting for power, and there’s no rule book. Someone who works on Wall Street remarked to me, ‘Migod, the art world is just insider trading!’ It’s kind of like a captured market by a few people who control everything. They decide what the prices are for everything. They price-fix and they can pump up things if they want them pumped up, and no one is regulating them.

Once they put the prices on the wall, and that lasted about six months. Then they took the prices off the wall, and you’re not even sure what the prices are. You’ll notice that when you go to some hoity-toity gallery, nobody tries to sell you anything. As a matter of fact, if you even see somebody in there, it’s quite a surprise. So something’s going on. It’s kind of like, ‘Once a picture is in, we sort of let you look at it from the sidelines, but even if you wanted one of these paintings, we wouldn’t sell you one.’

V: I read a book telling how during the era of Mary Boone and the rise of art galleries in the eighties, arrivistes who were nouveau-riche moved to New York. These people often were a bit crass, but had the idea that certain paintings would increase their stature in the society they were trying to enter. But the savvy dealers would refuse to sell to them!

RE: Well, the wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is an invisible wall, and you need to know the secret code. A lot of the secret code is having the right art!

V: Yes, there are a lot of secret codes. The art world is like insider trading, that’s for sure–

RE: But the thing is, I suppose you could get in on it if you really wanted to. Awhile back I had a job as an art trucker, so I knew what inside deals were being made. I knew what was going where, what was going back to the artist’s studios, and what was going to what collectors. They had these giant rooms in Chelsea before it was the art district, and they were moving in two hundred Basquiats. You’d think, ‘Shit! These fuckers are making him into art history!’

If I could have gotten my parents to cough up twenty thousand dollars, it would be worth four million now. But I couldn’t persuade them. They’d say, ‘Well, you know, all the money we have, our whole life savings, is twenty thousand,’ while I’m going, ‘Yeah, but in a few years this fucking painting will be worth millions!’ But to my parents, the painting looks like some little kid made it. Meanwhile, I realized that Basquiat was near death, he was going to die, and these art dealers know what the fuck they’re doing! But I had no money, and my parents were certainly not going to blow their life savings to buy something that looks like a little kid painted it.

V: Right. In San Francisco around 1973 there was a show of Hans Bellmer drawings–not lithographs– but actual drawings, that you could purchase for five thousand dollars. They’re probably worth a hundred thousand now.

RE: But this goes back to that whole thing of how money so easily concentrates into a few hands and stays there. These art dealers prefer dead artists because then they have control of a whole body of work, they have control of the image created around the art, and they have the actual physical artwork–they pretty much have control over everything. And the artist doesn’t have that much to do with it. If you’re a young artist selling your art to friends for cheap, then already you’ve become very ‘problematic.’

V: So they don’t like that?

RE: No, they want complete control. That’s why some people have had a hard time. In fact, Basquiat was having a hard time at the end, because he was trading paintings for shots of junk or whatever . . . it was almost like they had to kill him!

I mean, they didn’t exactly kill him, but they said, ‘Come out to L.A. We’re going to stretch out all of these canvases. You paint them, and we’ll give you mounds of cocaine and mounds of heroin– all you want to do . . . and if you’re on a self-destructive course, we’ll certainly help you along with that. We just want to make sure we have a bunch of paintings first!’

It’s also problematic for people who paint paintings really fast, because you can saturate the market. This happened with Warhol–he made hundreds and hundreds of paintings. Thankfully for his legacy, he had a very intensive estate that took over, and they won’t tell how many Marilyns there are, and they won’t tell how many of anything there are–it’s like they have the goldmine and they’re not going to tell how much . . . it’s more like a diamond mine, where there’s a lot more than what people think, but they have to keep them down, and only reveal a few a year, and not saturate the market with them.

V: The same with Salvador Dali. I read in a New Yorker article years ago that he signed a hundred thousand blank sheets of lithograph paper!

RE: Yeah, and that’s the reason he’s not considered the huge artist that he would have been.

V: Oh, he isn’t?

RE: No.

V: A lot of people are fooled, I guess. They still think he’s kind of a big deal.

RE: Yeah, but the ‘Powers That Be’ consider Picasso, Duchamp, Jackson Pollock to be top tier . . . and Dali’s just like a commercial, pedestrian artist. And I don’t think it helps that so many people like him, because it takes away the elitism of him. Part of ‘the wall’ is that people don’t understand it. And if any jerk likes it, then it’s kind of embarrassing, because also, any jerk likes Thomas Kincaid…

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